My 10th Anniversary at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

Gary Atkins is celebrating 10 years volunteering at the Trust, and he has written all about his time with us - Congrats Gary!

Far from being the slow downhill path that some people fear retirement to be, I viewed it as a chance to do more of those things I really enjoy doing – and over the past decade that’s grown into a fairly lengthy list, but right up there at the top is getting out and about to explore our county and the exciting wildlife its hills, fields and valleys has to offer.

Soon after leaving Rolls-Royce in 2008 I investigated local volunteering opportunities and, as well as adult education work (though latterly I’ve become more involved in youth justice activities), I looked at what I could do to support the wildlife on my doorstep.

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust was a clear opportunity and, after deciding green fingers and practical work was not my forte, I offered to monitor wildlife and undertook my first survey in October 2009 when I began to get to know the footpaths and nooks and crannies of Rose End Meadows.  

Over the succeeding ten years I have monitored two reserves on a monthly basis.  Initially, the other reserve I visited was Hopton Quarry but, as my main strength was identifying birds and mammals, I soon swapped with some volunteers far more proficient than I with the flora and butterflies that proliferate at the isolated quarry.

Instead I was asked to take a look at Gang Mine, at the top of Cromford Hill, as it had not been monitored regularly for some time.  I was glad to do so as it’s a different type of terrain and topography even though only the gaping maw of Dene Quarry separates it from Rose End, positioned half-way down Cromford Hill.  That was over eight years ago.

Gang Mine by Peter Lee

Gang Mine by Peter Lee

Ironically, since those early days, my interest and knowledge of lepidoptera has improved and I now also undertake butterfly-specific surveys at several other locations over the spring and summer, but my consistent year-long monitoring for DWT remains focused on the two reserves I’ve got to know so well.

Although I’ve now completed almost 250 surveys, I never begin a visit without a frisson of excitement at the prospect of encountering something unusual.  Just what will I see today?  And, of course, eight times out of ten I record pretty much what I’d expect to see ... but just sometimes there’s a real surprise in store – like the Ring Ouzel that dropped into Gang Mine one autumn day five years ago. 

If I had not been doing a survey, with binoculars at the ready, I might have presumed it was yet another Blackbird.  I had to blink twice at Rose End, too, when I saw a daytime badger snuffling in the undergrowth.  It’s still the only specimen of this endearing species that I’ve seen during the past decade; unsurprisingly, I glimpse Grey Squirrels and Rabbits far more regularly, while I have spotted the very occasional Bank Vole before it saw me.

I keep an eye on the weather and try to choose the best days, and go reasonably early – although an extra half-hour in bed sometimes beckons!  In the spring and summer, arriving too early means I miss the butterflies that take time to warm up and get on the wing; too late and the birds have finished their early primary feeding and go quiet, so 8.30-10.30 is the sort of time I aim for.

In autumn and winter, butterflies are much scarcer, so birds and mammals are again my chief focus, and since the sun is much later to emerge, I can stick to a similar timeframe.  I tend not to visit in the afternoons as most things have quietened down after the initial feeding frenzy.

Each survey takes the best part of two hours, depending on how much is around, and the essential equipment I carry comprises binoculars and a notebook, plus my trusty camera (with its 50x zoom) that occasionally helps me to identify distant birds and butterflies or be sure my initial identification is accurate.

Peregrine, Dave Nay

Peregrine, Dave Nay, via Flickr 

Unusual or scarce birdlife that has cropped up include Merlin, Wheatear, Tree Pipit, Yellow Wagtail and Spotted Flycatcher, and gazing skywards at the aerial mastery of Ravens and Peregrine is always memorable.

Bird species recorded at Gang Mine total 66, 61 at Rose End, with a consolidated total at both of 72.  The most species seen during a single visit was 28, at Rose End, which typically has more birds per visit than Gang Mine.  The most prolific bird at either reserve is Woodpigeon (1,735 to date at Rose End, 933 at Gang Mine), followed by Jackdaw, Blue Tit, Goldfinch and Great Tit.

More Grey Squirrels occur at Rose End (over 100 recorded there) than Gang Mine, where Rabbits are more plentiful than squirrels.  Common Frogs occur in good numbers at both reserves.

Both reserves also attract a wide range of butterflies: Rose End with its abundant and luxuriant flora and Gang Mine with its more exposed ‘moorland’ feel and some rare plants that enjoy the lead-rich soil from the area’s old mining heritage. 

I have logged 24 species across both sites – or 25 if I go back to the Dark-Green Fritillary recorded in 2010 at Hopton Quarry.

If it wasn’t already, the natural world has certainly become a major part of my life in retirement.  It gets in your blood.  As well as DWT, I also serve on the committees of East Midlands Butterfly Conservation and Carsington Bird Club, and pay my dues to Derbyshire Ornithological Society, the RSPB and one or two other wildlife organisations.  Thanks goodness for my pension!