Wednesday, 14 June 2017

From little acorns mighty oaks do grow!


I have been casting my mind back to the time when the very first embers of an idea for a project at
Acorn © public domain
Swanton Novers began.

It goes back to 2011 when I first met with Ash Murray to discuss a whole range of things to do with bats and Norfolk. But it was the discussions around Swanton Novers that proved so very inspiring.

Here was this marvellous woodland National Nature Reserve with so much history, so much wildlife and so much untapped data to bring many facets of the woodland together.  It felt like discovering a hidden gem that had so much to offer but only if we did a lot of work to make what is known accessible and relevant.

So where to start. I suppose it is not uncommon when delving into a largely untapped resource to find there are many and varied areas that could be included. Ash and I had brainstorming sessions, sometimes resulting in flipchart pages of linked ideas and associations that looked like the workings of a mad professor or two. Those must be lurking in the darker recesses of my paperwork.
Swanton Novers NNR © Ash Murray
But I did find a printed off sheet we had scribbled on as an early effort to make this all more tangible and adaptable by producing an electronic version of our ideas and there is so much that is of interest and importance all with Swanton Novers at the epicentre. Indeed in the early days the most difficult problem was knowing what to include and what to leave out.

But actually there was always a really strong core that came to the fore over and over again. That was the very long history of Swanton Novers as a managed woodland making it of long-standing importance in the local landscape and culturally too with links to local communities.  But is has not only shaped the landscape and lives of people but also been an important for wildlife too. There were so many questions about this. Which species had thrived and what elements of the management had allowed that to happen?  Did the part of the woodland they used depend on the rotation of management and were there species associations that could be used as indicators of whole niches?  These are questions of importance to so many woodlands across the UK but at Swanton Novers we knew there was the chance to answer these. This is because the history of the management of the woodland is so well documented and in great detail.  Plus, although this is a woodland not open to the public, there has been a long history of Naturalists specialising in a whole range of wildlife who have surveyed and monitored the woodland over many years. All of this information brought together would have a tremendously interesting and important story to tell but….and it is a bit but…. the data was stored in a way that meant it was not accessible for this sort of use. Indeed much of it was still in paper form. So we knew the project had to tackle digitising all this information so it could be overlaid to allow us to look into the window of a managed woodland from the viewpoint of the wildlife that lives there.

Woodland walk at Swanton Novers NNR © Jan Collins
We also noticed that information gathered on wildlife was very reliant on the interests of visiting naturalists and that their data might only have been collected from a small sample site within the woodland. So to give the fullest view it was also recognised that we needed to have a more systematic approach.

Another big driver was the fact that this gem of a woodland at the cultural heart of the communities in the area could not be an NNR that had open access to the public. We wanted the project to reconnect people with this special woodland and in particular those who live in the area. There is so much to learn about and to inspire all ages and abilities and certainly so much to be gained by having volunteers learning new skills to help us unravel more about this special place.

Barbastelle bat ©Hugh Clark
The final element was a focus on bats. A species group that had been harder to document in the past due to their elusive nocturnal habits but about which so much more is now possible to discover and for non-specialist to be involved in. We know that Swanton Novers is important for bats but didn’t have a clear picture of the extent of this. Bats are not only an indicator of the health of a habitat but different species have differing needs and so knowing more about the bats present would tell its own story about what this woodland provides. We love involving people with learning more about and helping us to survey bats. 

As I reflect now on where we are it is so pleasing to see that all of those areas of our hoped for work at Swanton Novers have become a reality. In fact the enthusiasm from all who have become involved has exceeded expectations. Not only that, we are really starting to uncover some interesting information about what is about this woodland that allows bats and other wildlife  to survive and thrive. Knowledge that will be useful to woodland over all of the UK. 

Further information about the project and monthly updates about the project called Swanton News can be found here

If you would like more information about the project or would like to be involved and can spare a few hours helping with bat surveys, call analysis, walks, talks and community events, please contact the Volunteer Coordinator Sonia Reveley at SReveley@bats.org.uk or ring 07788 226528.

Carol Williams

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