We have dormice at Monkton!

Dormice are cute. Not very scientific, I know, but who can deny it?

Dormouse hangs onto a stem

Especially when they are hibernating.

But they are so hard to find. For one thing they are nocturnal, so when we are about, they are safely tucked away. From November to April can be spent hibernating so for half the year we couldn’t see them anyway (the above photo not taken by us and not a good idea as it has the potential to disturb the hibernation). Also they only rarely come to the ground, running over vines and branches, so they don’t leave tracks on the ground, just the occasional hazel shell gnawed in their characteristic way.

Climbing dormouse

We have had four dormice boxes placed on trees up in the woods behind the girls’ boarding houses for a few years now, but the only occupants have been nesting blue tits which we managed to disturb last year on our monitoring visit.

But now, as we have been clearing the Mill Field down by the Midford Brook, Asa Taylor, our head groundsman and keen conservationist, spotted a dormouse nest with a distinct dormouse shaped hole, in a tangle of Old Man’s Beard and stopped the cutting back immediately.

The Conservation Group, who have been clearing the field, may never see the dormouse that built this nest – but at least we know it’s there.

dormouse nest (2)

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How do we communicate about nature? Let’s use words.

There has been outrage from the authors Michael Morpurgo and Robert MacFarlane and the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion among others, about once-common words associated with nature being omitted from a well-respected children’s dictionary aimed at children aged seven :

They have been replaced by words such as cut and paste, blog, chat room, analogue, block graph and celebrity. Oxford University Press said that they “had analysed language children are using when developing the dictionary, while reflecting the words that children are encouraged to use in the classroom”. Read the whole article to understand the concerns, which mirror those expressed in my vision statement.

A friend who lectures in Biology at Oxford University regularly asked his first year students at the beginning of the Ecology module to name 5 UK resident British birds, 5 British trees and 5 British butterflies. This was not to identify the species from a picture, but just to come up with the names. Hardly anyone was able to do this – not even 5 British birds (robin, blackbird, sparrow, gull, eagle…..). So things don’t improve, even amongst the high fliers, even amongst those who are studying Biology at degree level, even at one of our most prestigious universities.

Do join the over 100,000 people who have signed the petition about the dictionary if you would like to, but my mission is always in the here and now, at this school, with these students. The 32 members of the Conservation Group last term had to be able to recognise several species, to be able to do their work. Ash trees – to be able to cut them down due to the ravages of ash die-back disease. Acorns (removed from the dictionary!), holly berries, beech mast, pine cones and hazelnuts in order to be able to collect the seeds to plant them as we seek to grow replacements for the failing ash. They did this the best way – out in the grounds, picking holly berries off the tree outside the

hazelnutsboarding house that they walk past every day, seeing hazelnuts in their  shells on the ground, rather than as finished product in a chocolate bar, looking for conifers to find the fallen pine cones. They should now be able to name 5 British trees without too much prompting.


I’m not satisfied with 32 out of 450 students though. So next term we will go digital to do some stealth linking of nature words with images following a bit of cut and paste of my own. There will be a rotating powerpoint of  5 common trees, 5 common birds, 5 common spring flowers up in the hallway screen maths and science building. As the blue_titstudents stream in to a physics lesson, they may see a blue tit, first with a label, and then later as they stream out to history they may catch the part of the loop where the blue tit appears without its label. Perhaps some of the 450 students will absorb and be able to name some of these 15 species – subliminal adverts for the valley and for ‘nature words’. I’ll report back.





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Join the National Trust

The title is a blatant attempt to fool search engines and redirect those searching for the National Trust. But hopefully it illustrates what can be done by a small group joining together with a bigger organisation to do what we can to maintain some very special places. We are a conservation group composed of 30 teenagers at Monkton Combe School nestled in a valley just south of  Bath. We have our own beautiful surroundings that we work in weekly, but we have also volunteered regularly with the National Trust on the Bath Skyline for the last 5 years.

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Why go out when we could quite easily spend our weekly sessions working on our own grounds?

  1. The National Trust needs our help. It owns a large part of the Bath Skyline that overlooks this iconic Georgian town. They have adult volunteers who come out every week, but 15 students for 2 hours can make a big dent in bramble clearance or the removing of tree guards from hedges.2015-02-11 13.47.01
  2. We want our students to develop a heart for service – when they know that they are developing a picnic spot for families to use around a fallen tree, or erecting signposts that thousands will rely on as they walk the Skyline path, there is a great sense of purpose.20161116_151901
  3. Developing a sense of place. Many of our students are boarders and may come from far flung countries. They go into Bath to go shopping and catch the train, but if they didn’t come volunteering it’s unlikely that they would see Bath from a hilltop, or understand that the limestone grassland that we are preserving is becoming ever more threatened and needs special management.school cam Jan 14 048
  4. They get a chance to see professional conservation managers at work. Some have been encouraged to seek careers in related fields as a result. Rob Hopwood-Stephens and his assistant rangers are great role models for a life spent in the open air. Plus they can use chain saws!

school cam Jan 14 050

Join the National Trust!

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Conservation means chopping things down

The conservati0n group had been out on a day to the Somerset Levels and I was reporting back to the staff: “We had a lovely day chopping down trees”. Laughter all round. But I had said it quite innocently. After all, hadn’t one of my favourite conservationists, Aldo Leopold, written “I have read many definitions of what a conservationist is and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen but with an axe”? (see my Good Books page)

Looking back at the conservation group’s activities through the year, many fit into the chopping down category. Often we are clearing bramble and scrub on our trips to the National Trust Bath Skyline, so that the endangered limestone grassland plants can come through. We removed a lot of grass top cover on the Coates Field on the school property so that similar plants that were in the seed bank of the soil could come through, after grazing sheep were removed. 2016-04-27-16-04-27We hacked at  old teazle and cow parsley stems which were developing into thickets on the flood plain field near the river. We want the teazle and comfrey that grows there, as they provide food for goldfinches and bumblebees respectively, but if left to their own devices they will turn into impenetrable scrub. At least we can  use the teasel stems to make homes for insects in our insect hotel.2016-04-20-16-35-20

Down in the Somerset Levels we removed some rather nice looking silver birch trees which without inside knowledge it would have seemed bizarre to be removing. But taking them down will eventually allow grazing by goats which will in turn lower the water table and allow some of the rare wetland plants back in2014-10-08-11-19-37

The trouble is, plants will persist on growing. Frustrating, huh? The phenomenon of succession, which we teach our A level biologists about in the summer term, means that one community of plants can be rapidly replaced by another, as by growing they change the conditions, so that other plants are more favoured.  But not all communities of plants are equal. We want the limestone grassland plants more than the bramble, the comfrey more than than the bramble, most things more than the bramble in fact. Conservation is different from protection, it involves constant management of habitats. You have to devise your management plan according to what you want to conserve, which in our area is actually not so much woodland, as it might be in other parts of the country, but more often the limestone grassland,  which is an uncommon and rapidly declining habitat for the UK. That’s why species such as the bee orchid and pyramidal orchids are such a treat to see in Somerset.

So next time I come back from a trip and say that we’ve had a lovely time cutting down trees, let’s have a round of applause please, rather than laughter all round. Conservation means chopping things down.


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420 trees, 420 pupils, one afternoon

IMG_6288The Principal led the way. Senior Prefects followed. But the joy of this project was that through one afternoon, in dribs and drabs, bigger groups, students came in track suits, took a spade and planted a tree each. It wasn’t much of a tree – just a whip, a thin stem, about 18inches long, with a plug of soil and a few buds

It wasn’t too much of an effort. Put the spade in, wiggle it about a bit to get  a big enough hole, put the whip in, reinsert the support cane and add a tree guard. But it happened 420 times. IMG_6306

The Woodland Trust give out packs of trees to community groups, to promote tree planting. There was a new border to the school grounds between the principal’s house and a girls’ boarding house where some fields had been sold off and a new fence erected. There had been considerable discussion about the use of this land, which had been formerly used for sheep grazing and the Sustainability at Monkton committee and the Conservation Group had thought of planting a border of native trees against the fence. So the trees were ordered and then the order confirmation  came back. 420 trees, that sounded like a mammoth task – now how to get them planted? 420  – that rang a bell…  there would be enough for each student in the senior school to plant a tree.



The plan emerged – we could plant them on the same afternoon as the house cross country race. The two events could not be more different in some ways – one a great team effort, but extremely competitive, as members of each house played tag, one finishing the short, but very hilly course, so the next one could start. Members of each house stationed at strategic points around the course to encourage the others on. 9 minutes or so of agony, pounding over the hillside for short-lived glory, but that would live on in the memory, maybe for years to come. The other, slower paced, collaborative, digging in earth of that same hillside, gently pushing the whip into the ground and  tamping it down. The memories will have physical reality for years to come as that copse of trees grows and blends in.IMG_6300

We were concerned that competing, so to speak, with the cross country race might leave planting trees a poor second. Actually, the enthusiasm was whole-hearted. There was a sense of ownership  that led to care in the planting – “That’s my tree!” “What kind is it?” “Are they going to be OK – aren’t they a bit close together?” When each pupil comes back to the school in years to come,  a few inches taller themselves and citizens of the world rather students at Monkton Combe School, I’d like to think that they may look for their tree, and find it, still growing sturdily but with an individual, recognisable character.

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Ahead of the season?

Wild daffodils in West Country, UKEverything is two months ahead! This is what I have been declaring confidently since before Christmas in the south west of England. There were trees budding then and apparently hawthorn and celandine were flowering by New Year’s Day in certain locations. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland  (BSBI) did a survey and found 612 species in flower, compared with 386 the previous year. But how far ahead of the normal flowering times are we actually? 2 months, 3 months? 6 weeks? And how do we know? What is normal?

hawthorn flowers

hawthorn flowers

My husband and I had quite a discussion yesterday as we trudged round our normal loop walk. Had I seen any violets? Was it strange to see primroses before daffodils? There was definitely hawthorn out, so what was the normal first date for seeing hawthorn out in abundance – it was May wasn’t it? Although we have a feeling for these things, the only event that I could be absolutely secure about in my own mind was that daffodils are normally well into flower on the green of our local village by the first week of March. That is the time when I usually take a group of bronze Duke of Edinburgh students on a practice walk and see the daffodils standing as a defiant blaze of yellow. We were discomfited to find that our knowledge was so patchy.

The scientists have to confess that their knowledge is patchy too. The early English naturalists of the good old days such as Gilbert White recorded such things painstakingly, but much of this information at the time was part of the oral tradition of country folk and not committed to paper, never mind a searchable database. They wereSony Jun 12 068 unwitting phenologists. Phenology is the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate. It is recording when you heard the first cuckoo or saw the blackthorn blossom. Nowadays we all feel too busy rushing from one place to another to even notice the first snowdrop, and certainly too busy to record from year to year the date of its first flowering. Fortunately organisations such as Kew Gardens think of such things and are now recording the date of first flowering of 100 species within their grounds. This has only been going since the year 2000, however, and of course different parts of the country will have varying flowering dates.

Modern science has tended to go for showy projects at the cutting edge of technology. Landings on Mars, genetic sequencing, the ‘anti matter factory’ I visited at CERN before Christmas.  However with the advent of climate change, there is suddenly a real need to have a large amount of data over a considerable time period, which we have not been investing in. The BSBi’s head of science said “Conventional wisdom on what should flower when is clearly out of date, and for many alien plants we simply don’t have good data on peak flowering times”. The advent of climate change has made this ‘old -fashioned’ data right back in fashion – or it should be. Citizen Science projects are helping, but it would be great if we were all recording what we see as a small part of our daily routine.







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Takke Herrie – hedge flailing

I cycle up and down Summer Lane several days a week. 1.9 miles and 11 minutes down to school from my house, 1.9 miles and 21 minutes up the 400 ft to get back home on an average day. I have taken to trying to be “mindful” as I go, rather then processing the day’s events. There has built up in me, therefore, a fondness for certain corners where there is a glimpse of a view down into the Monkton Combe valley, a tree where the thrush sings, the way the ivy drapes over the wall, the hole in the hedge where the badger crosses the road.

Imagine my distress then, one day when the hedge flailer had been past. I am not one for believing that plants have feelings, but on this day I could sense their pain as if it was my own. First the sturdy trees with much of their bark removed on the road side. Then the ivy – shredded like so much tinsel. The remnants of wood channelled to the middle of the road by the draught of the machinery. It was as though the dignity of these faithful plants had been violated.

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And then I read a blog – I think by a Dutch person:-

“We have a Dutch word called takke herrie.

A (visual) translation of this word would be…Think of a chainsaw in your neighbour’s garden while you are having your morning coffee…a terrible sound in the background. Well that’s takke herrie.

And then I thought; Okay. Takke, (takken) is the Dutch word for ‘tree’ branches, and Herrie is the Dutch word for ‘an awful sound/ loud unwanted music‘.”

(When I googled this to find it again I kept coming across “takkeherrie” as the name of a heavy metal rock band).

Yes, Takke herrie had been committed.

As Belinda Claushuis said when she created this picture – let the trees speak for themselves.



Oh for traditional methods of hedge laying! The conservation group will experience these on one of their visits this year to the nearby Bath Skyline National Trust site. But could the trees on Summer Lane be treated as individuals too, rather than organic matter within range of a time saving but heartless cutter ?

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