In June this year I found out that my application for the Young Darwin Scholarship, run by the Field Studies Council (FSC), had been successful! Meaning that in August I was due to head off to their Preston Montford Field Centre near Shrewsbury for the introductory residential. As it was such a brilliant few days I thought I'd write a blog post about my experience.
Firstly, I should say a little bit about the scholarship. The Young Darwin Scholarship is a scheme set up by the FSC to support young people who have a keen interest in nature, and has been running for the past 5 years. Every year, 15 scholarships are awarded to 16 and 17 year olds across the country, giving each scholar the opportunity to attend an introductory course at Preston Montford, just 10 minutes away from the birthplace of the great Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury. Following the residential, scholars receive further support from the FSC, in the form of bursaries towards their workshops and courses, bursaries towards future Young Darwin reunions and career advice.
The 5 day residential started on Saturday 20th August, at the wonderful Preston Montford Field Centre. As Shrewsbury was the birthplace of Darwin, the course was focussed around 'What would Darwin do today?' - getting us to explore the area in which he grew up, and deepen our interest in the natural world. Everyone arrived at lunchtime, and after an icebreaker activity, we split into teams to do an OPAL earthworm survey, and learn more about citizen science surveys. After dinner, we headed to The Mount in Shrewsbury, where Darwin was born and spent his childhood. We took a walk along the River Severn, seeing a Kingfisher, and walking past Darwin's 'thinking path', where many of his ideas were born, before exploring 'Darwin's Meadow'.
On Sunday morning we had a guided tour down Snailbeach mines, where they used to mine for Barite (barium sulphate) and Galena (lead sulphide), amongst other minerals. As we walked through the tunnels trying not to bump our heads on the low ceilings, we found quite a few Herald and Tissue moths sheltering on the walls, two new species for me. We then explored the spoil heap, looking for pieces of Barite and Galena to take home, and looking for wildlife - we found a striking Field Grasshopper in the pink form amongst other insects, and a young toad.
In the afternoon we went for a hike through Stiperstones Nature Reserve, a stunning area of heathland on a hill with interesting geology. It was a beautiful walk, surrounded by Ravens, Buzzards, Swallows, the odd Kestrel, and we saw a family of Stonechats as we approached the end of the walk. We came across several small Common Frogs and a Fox Moth caterpillar, a caterpillar tick for me! We also stopped to sit in the heather quite a few times, to feast on the bilberries!
After dinner we set up various humane traps to monitor the wildlife at Preston Montford - Longworth (small mammal) traps, camera traps, a footprint tunnel and a moth trap, before hunkering down in a woodland by the local badger sett. We waited amongst the trees for about an hour as the light faded, but only the people at the front saw a badger (not including me unfortunately!).
Monday morning involved inspecting the traps we had set up the night before, starting with the Longworth traps. We'd set 16 traps, and as the usual success rate is about 10%, we were expecting one, maybe two, traps to have a small mammal inside. Well we were much more successful than we'd anticipated, with 5 traps harbouring a little furry creature, and in one trap there were 2 juvenile Bank Voles - it's very rare to find two animals in one trap as the trap door would usually prevent another from entering! In total we had 5 Bank Voles, including 1 pregnant female, and 1 Wood Mouse. After that excitement we collected in the camera traps and had a look at the footprint tunnel, which had unfortunately been unsuccessful, before heading over to the moth trap. I'd woken up early that morning to turn the light off and cover the trap with a sheet, to prevent the moths from escaping before we had a chance to pot them. So I already knew that we had a lot of unwelcome visitors in the trap... about 50 wasps! Now I like wasps, and it angers me that this beautiful creature is demonised so much, but finding a mini swarm in your moth trap is a slight nuisance! When we took the sheet off the trap we found that most of the wasps had congregated on the rain-cover for the bulb, so it was removed and they were not a problem anymore. There were still quite a few inside the trap on the egg boxes however, so we had to pot the moths with great care. We didn't have time to identify the moths, as we needed to head off in the minibus for our next activity, so we potted them up and left them in the fridge for later.
Following that, we hopped in the minibus and headed over to the River Severn to spend the rest of the day canoeing. In groups of 5, with a canoeing expert at the back to help steer us through the high waters, we set off along the river, observing the wildlife, and generally having a lot of fun! We saw a few Common Sandpipers along the way, as well as a Kingfisher, Little Egret, a family of Goosander and several close Buzzards. After travelling for 4 miles downstream, we stopped for lunch on the bank, before attempting to do some fresh water sampling from the canoes. It was then our task to design a citizen science survey for Himalayan Balsam, an invasive non-native species, that we found was widespread along the banks of the Severn. As we canoed a further 5 miles downstream, we tested our surveys, tweaking them in a few areas, ready to present to the group when we returned to Preston Montford. In the afternoon we were surrounded by Banded Demoiselles as we pulled into a small inlet, as well as the odd other dragonfly, like Brown Hawkers. It was a brilliant way to spend the day!
On returning to Preston Montford, we listened to a talk about careers in ecological consultancy, which provided a great insight into a possible career path. After dinner, we went to Venus Pool, a nature reserve just outside Shrewsbury, for a spot of evening birding. It was a good spot for waders, with lots of Lapwing, 3 Snipe, 3 Green Sandpiper and a Greenshank seen from the hides, as well as a Goosander, Little Grebe and Little Egret. We then went on a walk around the fields to where there was the chance of seeing a Barn Owl... As we approached we heard 2 birds hissing, so we stopped and waited, and then one flew out and began quartering over the fields, followed by two more when we looked beyond the hedge - just brilliant!
The plan for our last full day on the course was to do a BioBlitz of Preston Montford - trying to record every species in an area. Before this, we listened to a talk about biological recording followed by a talk about the publications produced by the FSC, and then identified the moths from the previous morning. The highlights from the trap were several Brimstone, Swallow Prominent, Rosy Rustic, Spectacle, Dusky Thorn and a Poplar Hawkmoth. To make the BioBlitz a bit easier, and to get more out of the day in terms of learning identification skills, we signed up to do a couple of different sessions with different experts. For example there were experts in botany, dragonflies and damselflies, soil invertebrates and bees, ants and wasps. In the morning session I, and a few others, joined the bees, ants and wasps (Apocrita) expert. Armed with sweep nets we set out around the centre's grounds, learning so much about the biology and identification of these creatures. We also found a first for the site, an Anthophora furcata, or Fork-tailed Flower Bee! Ruby-tailed Wasps (Chrysis sp.) were also great to see.
After lunch I did the dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) session, where we learnt that dragonflies are a lot harder to catch in sweep nets than bees! We saw 5 species of dragonflies and 2 damsels - it was great to learn the differences between Migrant and Southern Hawkers, and Common and Ruddy Darters, both on the wing and in the hand when we managed to catch them. We also saw Brown Hawkers, Common Blue Damselfly and Blue-tailed Damselfly. I've never seen any of the Odonata order in the hand, so that was fascinating!
After the BioBlitz, we got to be young kids again in a session with an environmental education officer at the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, where we did some of the activities that they do with children across the county. It was great fun (even though we're supposedly too old for these activities!), learning about the importance of environmental education and allowing children to explore the outdoors.
Also staying at Preston Montford at the same time as us were the Darwin Scholars, a scheme for under 30s from across the world who work in conservation. Over dinner on our last evening we were paired up with one of the 'old' Darwin Scholars who works in a field we're interested in, to talk to them about their jobs. It provided a great insight into the types of conservation projects that are out there to get involved with. After dinner we went on a short walk around the Preston Montford estate with a group from Vision England, which was a great way to spend our last night.
Wednesday morning was spent tying up loose ends from the week - putting records from the BioBlitz into iRecord, debriefing about the past few days and talking to Cathy and Angela, the organisers of the course, about our plans for the future and how the scholarship can support us. After a lunch in the sun on the lawn we departed our separate ways to all across the country.
It was a really brilliant, interesting and fun few days, with a great group of people - I can't wait for our reunion next year at another FSC centre! I would like to say a huge thank you to the Field Studies Council and everyone at Preston Montford for such a wonderful experience. And if you're a young person interested in nature reading this then I would definitely urge you to apply for it next year! If you would like to find out more about the Young Darwin Scholarship, click here.
I'm Sorrel, a young birder, wildlife photographer and artist based in the East Midlands - this is my blog all about my birding and wildlife adventures.