Apparently Essex and Suffolk now hold around a third of the (dwindling) UK population of Turtle Doves. So action to help them around here makes good sense, which is why the RSPB has set up a project to do so. A week ago an opportunity to do this arose on a military base in the middle of Essex (if I tell you where, I shall have to kill myself). This was provided by the removal of some old fuel storage tanks, which had behind an area of unusable waste ground. This was supposed to be covered with a layer of shingly gravel and then top soil. The idea was to use it to plant a special seed mix of food plants for Turtle Doves. But somewhere along the way these two layers were applied the wrong way round. Hence a call went out via the local RSPB and Essex Birdwatchers Society for volunteers to rake off the shingle.
Thus it was that on an expectedly lovely March morning c.15 of us presented ourselves to the guard at the base security gate. After appropriate briefings (‘don’t photograph the attack dogs’, etc.) we set off in car convoy to go to the work site. I haven’t driven across a runway many times, and always on non-working airfields, but every time I do part of me thinks ‘Streuth, it’s wide. It’s a long way to safety. What if right now is the moment when a stricken airliner / bomber carrying a nuclear payload / something else very large and heavy has no option but to try to land on this runway – like they do in the films. Suddenly I feel very vulnerable.’ So far I’ve always got away with it – but I always look both ways.
The site itself was perhaps not the most scenic I’ve ever worked at and, to be honest, has not necessarily been improved by our efforts.
It was decided that we would try to clear strips of cleared earth across the site, rather than random patches. I think at this stage most of us thought that the amount of shingle looked a bit daunting.
So nothing for it but to get stuck in. My initial finding was that the shingle rather ‘laughed’ at my garden rake: ‘So what do you think you’re going to achieve with that, then?, as the rake simply bounced off the top. But as is usually the way we all started to develop some kind of technique. I quickly concluded that bringing a spade had been a good call, as the best approach was to rake up little piles and then throw these to the side with the spade.
After an hour or so good progress was being made, and strips were starting to emerge.
I placed myself in the ‘vanguard’ of the group, striving to reach the end of the shingle patch, where I struggled to keep up with two of the female members of the group. Luckily, taking some photos provided an excuse for a rest. The careful observer will note two women working hard – and two men having a natter.
Unexpectedly a photographer from the East Anglian Daily News turned up. This is great for the project, but I couldn’t help wondering about a job that requires you to get up early-ish on a Sunday morning, and drive to the middle of nowhere to take photos of people raking shingle into piles. Strange times we live in.
There was also, of course, the much appreciated tea break. This was a tad bittersweet for me. This was because I had brought my new flask full of tea. Unbeknown to me flask technology has moved on: in my day flasks had tops, which you unscrewed to pour your tea out. It now appears that flasks have ‘clever’ (which actually means complicated) tops that you can pour out of, with bits you push and click to pour / not pour. (Not that I noticed any information about this on the flask.) So, as you would predict from any comedy plot, when filing the flask I had inadvertently done so with its top in the open position, resulting in me arriving at the site with a rucksack full of tea, melted chocolate cake and biscuits and a blood sugar monitor (I’m diabetic) that had tea inside its display screen. And, the worst of it, no tea to drink. Apparently all this is my fault for being a dimwit, the domestic authorities have decided.
Despite this setback, by the time lunch arrived we had achieved probably about twice what I had expected. And I’d had the chance to mention our Naturetale app to a couple of people, which provides fascinating facts about the wild flowers and berries you can find on a walk in the country. Their reaction, as I normally find, was to be interested, so I was able to hand some of our flyers out: www.naturetaleapp.com
Pretty impressive progress, eh?
At this stage I had to dip out, as one of my daughters had arranged a birthday pub lunch for the very same day. As you would expect, I hadn’t recognised this as a date clash. I was disappointed to be unable to help finish the job. But my arms were secretly exultant because, by now, they were so weak they were losing their ability to thump my rake into the shingle, as opposed to just bouncing across the top. In fact all of my body from the waste up was busily reminding me that I am no longer as young and fit as I used to be. I noticed that the ladies in our party were still going strong, needless to say.
The plan for the afternoon was to sow the seed mix while we had so many volunteers present. I hope this transpired, so that the job has been completed. Then it will be fingers crossed and hope that some Turtle Doves turn up.