Monday, 24 July 2017

Into the Canopy

I have been involved with Swanton Novers NNR since I started as a volunteer with Natural England in 2008.  I subsequently secured a full time job as a warden for Natural England on sites throughout North and West Norfolk including Swanton Novers woods. Having since left Natural England to work as an Arboricultural Consultant for Norfolk Wildlife Services I’ve continued to volunteer for the Swanton Novers Woodland Project helping when I can.  I have an arboricultural background so the woods have always fascinated me and as the years have gone by they have opened up an interest in Ancient trees and landscape history as well as how species interact within these very special habitats.  In 2012/13 methodologies were drawn up and ideas started to come to fruition about a large scale monitoring program for the woods.  This mainly revolved around the bat communities and how they interact within the woods.  In the past bat transects and data collection focused on the easily accessible rides running throughout the woods.  This project was focusing on the interior of the compartments that were densely vegetated, hard to get to and little (if any) data had ever been collected - and it involved climbing large majestic Oak trees!  I jumped at the opportunity to be involved!

Due to time pressures and constraints the forty trees were chosen by Ecological consultants according to certain criteria  They had to be 50m from any ride side, spread throughout Great Wood and Little Wood and within different stand types and compartment classification.  A bracket was designed to secure the SM2+ recording devices to the trees and a bracket to take the canopy microphone secured on a southern aspect of the tree to record activity above the understorey.  Once everything was in place data collection could start and the logistical complications of the project would inevitably become apparent.
Firstly, finding a green tree in a very green wood with a piece of green cord dangling from the canopy presents its obvious difficulties.  Once the point tree had been found setting up the canopy microphones involved hoisting them into the canopy bracket.  With a careful flick of the wrist the microphone sat comfortably in its bracket sheltered from the elements by a funnel.  It didn’t take too long to learn that to retrieve the microphone the other end of the cord had to be tied securely on so a continuous loop was created.  Lesson learnt it was time to break out the climbing kit.  I always find it a privilege to see sights that others rarely get to view and looking across the canopy layer and down on the coppice compartments and over the field boundaries fills me with appreciation of scale in a wider landscape setting.  

Once the recording equipment has been set to record for two nights and the canopy and understorey microphones have been plugged in its time to retrace your steps back to the vehicle.  It’s funny how perception works inside dense undergrowth with no horizon or landmark to focus on – many times I thought I had been walking (stumbling) in a certain direction only to be utterly bemused and convinced that I had discovered a previously uncharted ride that is on no maps and in the middle of an unexplored compartment, only to find after a few steps of admiring this untouched (well-managed) ride that it was in fact one of the main rides in the woods.  After nursing my ego and the inevitable bramble rash it was time to find another 4 green trees in a green wood with a green cord hanging from a branch.   
As well as getting involved with the data collection for the fixed point surveys I have happily spent a few evenings walking transects around the woods.  This involved following a predetermined route that lasted about an hour with timed stops along the way.  There are 8 species of bat that use the woods and field edges for roosting and foraging so it’s a good place to get familiar with the different calls.  Even if it’s a quiet evening (bat wise) just experiencing the woods at dusk is a joy.  Many badgers call Swanton Novers Great Wood their home, supermarket and meeting place.  Often they’ll cross your path with the familiar gentle jog, have a cursory glance in your direction and be off again.  

Jim Allitt now works for Norfolk Wildlife Services as an Arboricultural Consultant and if you would like more information about the project and how it was set up then please contact Sonia at,  so she can forward 

by Jim Allitt

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