As a thick layer of snow covered the Wildlife Garden this week we took a pause from practical tasks to avoid disturbing life hidden below the snow and, instead, took the time to reflect on a year in the life of the Wildlife Garden from the perspective of one of our volunteers, Nicky.
The view across the main pond from the reed bed taken on Monday by Visit Planner Mark Humphries
"What does volunteering to work in the Museum’s Wildlife Garden involve and why do it? I have been a volunteer here for about eight years and I am part of a dedicated team that looks after the garden so I hope I can give you a good answer to that question...
The year starts with the coppicing and pollarding of trees during the cold of January, and creating a woven sheep-proof fence with the coppiced poles and stakes as preparation for the arrival of the sheep later in the summer (more about coppicing next week). Pruning, planting, weeding all occupy our time before the garden opens to the public on 1 April each year, with the aim of creating habitats that show the potential for wildlife conservation in an inner city.
Nicky pollarding willow near the chalk pond
I always look forward to spring, with the opportunity it gives to watch the new growth start to emerge. The blooms of the first primroses always make me feel happy, as does seeing the movement of the moorhens through the undergrowth on their way to the ponds.
Primroses - the first flower of the year in the Wildlife Garden
The many public events - including Spring Wildlife in April, the Bat Festival in June, Open Garden Squares Weekend, Big Nature Day, and all the way through to our Hedgerow Harvest autumn event - keep us all very busy. For these events many of the Museum’s scientists join volunteers and Wildlife Garden staff to set up stalls and displays, and to entertain and enthrall the visitors.
We also welcome the participation of and help from several outside groups such as the Bat Conservation Trust, RSPB and Hedgehog Street. The many activities, which include leaf rubbing, seed identification and plant sales - and let's not forget the teas with delicious home-made cakes! - are enjoyed by our visitors and it is very rewarding to be able to show them the fruits of all our efforts during the first half of the year.
A scene from the annual Bat Festival - held in partnership with the Bat Conservation Trust.
One of my favourite activities is to help with the Seed Identification workshop held in the Wildlife Garden’s shed, which is hidden toward the back amongst the trees. Children and adults peer in at the door and, seeing the six microscopes set up, wonder if they should come in. With a little coaxing the visitors enter, peer into the eyepieces and, “I can’t see anything!” is the usual response.
I disarm them of their bags or ruck sacks. Children's lollypops are propped up in a glass jar and toy dinosaurs toy are put down on the table for a sleep. Then, once the new guests are sitting correctly, we can begin.
A keen young scientist-in-the-making identifying seeds and fruits with Nicky
With microscopes focused, one hand on the seed tray and tweezers in the other, the response is now, “Wow, are these all seeds?” I explain that plants can be identified just by looking at the seeds and fruits, and soon they are busy picking out each specimen and matching it to the plant using the identification sheet supplied. For many visitors it is the first time they have looked down a microscope and done something scientific.
It requires a lot of patience but I feel really pleased when visitors want to take home their seeds and fruits and identification sheet, but especially when some now want to have a microscope of their own. A whole new world awaits them!
Outside these events I have the opportunity to attend a variety of workshops for volunteers (more about these another time), carry out summer jobs such as weeding, and help with species recording. Plant recording though the seasons is something I really enjoy: I usually team up with another volunteer and, with plant recording sheet, hand lens and a field guide in hand, we soon get our eyes in and recognise some of the more familiar native plants.
For the more difficult plants we work though the keys in the field guide to aid identification. Plants such as the duckweeds at first glance can look the same, but closer examination reveals minute detail and we must decide if it is least duckweed, common duckweed or even ivy-leaved duckweed."
Nicky’s volunteering year will continue next month.