A Conservation Break in England

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My liking for unusual breaks has taken me to all kinds of fascinating and occasionally bizarre destinations. Some of my jaunts could perhaps be described as a tad over-adventurous, but none have been boring - although several of my most rewarding peregrinations have involved trekking around the British Isles, either on foot or by boat.

I discovered in my late teens that one of the best ways to properly explore my country was to become involved with the many conservation task forces based around the UK. By volunteering to help out on archaeological digs, canal restoration projects or footpath clearance exercises, one was often provided with a bed and sometimes board for the duration. The work was often dirty and strenuous but, at the end of a grueling day, there was nothing more satisfying than that warm fuzzy feeling, familiar only to those who have suffered sheer physical exhaustion.

This leads me rather expediently to one particular winter, when I volunteered to become a warden on an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve in Dorset.

Arne is situated on a gently undulating peninsula on the western side of Poole harbor, three miles east of Wareham, and covers over 1,200 acres of heathland, valley bogs, reed-beds, salt-marshes and, at low tide, extensive mudflats, where in 1965, the Society established the area as a nature reserve, to protect and improve these habitats for the region’s abundant animal and plant life.

When I arrived, I was greeted by Bryan, the rotund (now retired) head warden, who led me through dense woodland to the volunteers’ accommodation, which turned out to be a small wooden log cabin, set in a sun dappled hollow amongst the Silver birch and Scots pine. Hot and cold running water were laid on, as were basic but perfectly adequate cooking facilities, a shower with washroom and a communal bedroom - which I had to myself because I was the only woman there at the time.

Two other volunteers were already installed. There was Mike, a six-foot schoolteacher from Kent, who had concluded that a working holiday provided an ideal between term stress-busters, and Upali, a zoologist from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. He had been sponsored by his government to study Britain’s indigenous wildlife, and was spending a few weeks at Arne before moving on to other parts of the country. He smiled radiantly and shook my hand with such warmth and gusto that I felt immediately at ease in his presence.

The weather that winter was exceptionally cold, even for mid February, and our first and most vitally important task was to saw logs for the wood burning stove. This proved to be more difficult than we had anticipated because our saw was virtually toothless. We spent three hours completing a task that would normally have taken less than half the time; and after eventually filling our basket with firewood, our hands were calloused and smarting most painfully.

On that first evening we gathered round the crackling log fire, mugs of tea cradled in our tender hands, good humor having replaced our earlier irritability, and listened as Upali talked animatedly about his life and work. He entertained us with tales of the time he spent studying buffalo feces and captivated us with descriptions of the exotic flora and fauna of his homeland.

The following morning we met Steve, Bryan’s assistant, who rumbled up to our front door in a tractor. With his bright unkempt red hair and bushy beard, he looked not unlike a marauding Viking, who had perhaps slipped through a time warp and discovered motorization. The three of us clambered aboard his trailer and hung on with all the strength we could muster, as we were jolted and juddered to the site we would be working on that day. In the ten minutes or so it took us to reach our destination, I had become so cold in the arctic-like conditions, that I began to think rigor was setting in. However, I quickly warmed up when we began clearing patches of scrub from the forest floor. We lit a fire in an old tire, which was soon blazing, hissing and spitting like a malevolent wood sprite, reaching out with long clawed fingers to destroy swathes of vegetation. As the heat intensified, I removed my heavy jacket and sweat trickled down my back.

As I was to discover on that first day, mornings were given over to hard labor, while afternoons were for the purpose of ‘wardening’ – or to be more accurate, patrolling the reserve, with the intention keeping an eye on the public, when in fact we were more often than not ambling about, watching some bird or other creature of interest.

When viewed through binoculars, an insignificant dot on the horizon could turn out to be one of Arne’s intriguing waterfowl, so common during the winter months. One of my favorites was the brightly colored Red Breasted Merganser, the male of which was particularly splendid, sporting as he did a pair of fine green crests and a magnificent red-brown plumage. The Goldeneye was another winter resident, and I often looked up to see a small flock of them flying rapidly overhead, making a high-pitched whistling sound with their wings.

Once a week we would each be provided with a black plastic bin bag and a stick with an evil-looking spike on the tip. We would walk along the pebbly beach, three abreast, collecting quantities of rubbish that had accumulated since our previous visit. Far from being the soul-destroying task one might expect, I always looked forward to our litter clearing sessions, because I was able to indulge one of my favorite pastimes – beachcombing. The extraordinary objects and creatures washed up with the masses of stinking seaweed never failed to intrigue me. The strandline was a veritable porthole into another world, filled with the grizzly remains of mysterious deep sea fish, smiling up with hideously demonic expressions; empty Dog fish egg capsules; gnarled lumps of wood; fragments of strange and once beautiful shells; and on a number of occasions, old shoes and other items that had become home to a myriad of minuscule sea creatures.

On our free days, we would fumigate our smoky clothes, clean the cabin and go shopping. I would walk the three miles or so into Wareham, often setting out very early in the morning, as this was the ideal time to spot deer, fox, badger and a variety of people-wary creatures. On one particular morning, I came across a small gathering of Roe deer. They appeared not to notice my arrival, never once glancing in my direction. Through the binoculars, I could see that the group consisted of a buck, doe and two young ones. The male strutted about in a highly macho fashion, rubbing his huge velvety antlers against overhanging branches and scraping the base of a tree trunk with his forefeet. Meanwhile, his wife and offspring stood dutifully watching their lord and master scent his territory. After observing his antics for several minutes, I foolishly attempted to venture a little closer, but the buck - whose well-developed senses immediately detected movement - let out a shrill, full-throated bark, and the little party darted into the undergrowth.

Hanging on a branch outside our cabin was a small wire bird feeder. Every couple of days one of us would fill it with nuts and wild birdseed, purchased from the small supermarket in Wareham. We would then peer eagerly through our kitchen window, fascinated by the noisy congregations of finches that arrived each morning, along with Long-tailed tits, Goldcrest, Nuthatch and even the odd Great-spotted woodpecker.

I spent almost two months at Arne. A number of volunteers came and went during my stint – only Upali remained constant – and I met some lively characters, both with and without feathers. I felt sad when it came time to leave but justifiably proud to have been part of a team that work very hard to conserve this small but unspoiled part of the world.

Paula Bardell , (North Wales, United Kingdom) is a freelancer who writes for numerous publications on subjects ranging from literature and travel to culture, history and humanitarian issues. She is a Staff Writer for Apsaras Review, a columnist for Mindful Insights and the editor of three popular online guides.