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Jun. 23rd, 2006 @ 09:46 pm (no subject)
Hi, someone asked more about the reserve I'm working on this summer, so I thought I'd make a post to elaborate.

It's an island that's been inhabited for various purposes for at least 800 years, so there's two cottages and one main house, as well as several studios that are now used for storage. The last owners acquired it because the owner before them wanted to make sure it wouldn't be turned into a holiday resort or similar so offered them a private mortgage in the sixties, and they lived on it permanently until they died (the youngest of the two sisters died two years ago), with helpers visiting frequently to help maintain it. Now there's one couple who live here permanently, one warden, and summer volunteers (of which so far I am the only one).

The island is very small, only a mile in circumference, with the south-facing side largely grasses and scrub (where 4 Hebridean rams are currently free to roam, although I think we're sending two off and getting 10 ewes sometime this summer) backing down to a rocky shore where we get black-backed and herring (I think?) gulls nesting and the occasional seal. On the north-facing side, there's a largely deciduous woodland at the top where we've got a few tree nurseries that I keep clear from the ivy which is otherwise abundant and then heavily managed living areas (lawns, buildings, lots of non-native garden plants, all continually battling against goose grass and ivy). On the corner of one lawn is a pond, in which we've currently got 10 ducklings. The coast is rocky with sandy/shale inlets and a sandy/shale beach, so we get oystercatchers and some small waders, as well as a good share of trash (facing the mainland).

Our drinking water is from a spring, and we use rain water collected in drain butts for everything else (flushing the toilet, washing clothes, etc.). There's a frame to start building a compost toilet as at the moment our disposal is not the most environmentally friendly of methods (pipe out to the sea), but there's quite a lot of paperwork and middlemen that need to be overcome before that will actually become functional. The showers are solar heated, which works very well, but we keep them to a minimum anyway (otherwise there's a tub and a hose outside, or always the sea!). As you can see, we've amazingly got not only electricity, but also broadband, which is powered by a diesel generator that's turned on in the evenings and mornings.

Funding is by visitors. We have a boat that comes in whenever the tide allows and there's customers willing. We show them around, tell them a bit about the history, and they pay us a landing fee and sometimes buy some postcards, books written by the late owners, or painted stones. The island is owned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, but the warden is the only employee I've seen so far, and I gather there's quite a lot of miscommunication between mainland and island, so the Trust works in mysterious ways as far as we're concerned. Another effect of this lack of communication seems to be difficulty in arranging volunteers like me due to finding funding for travel expenses etc. (I paid my own in the end, and pay for all my food, although my bed in the 6-bed bunkroom is free), and the current problem of trying to get a new boat so we can be less reliant on the tide to get visitors in. We've got an organic vegetable patch growing lettuce, cucumber, squash, tomatoes, soft fruit, beans, peas, artichokes, etc., which should help us be more self-sufficient.

And what do I do? Weeding the vegetable patches takes up a lot of time. One of our big weeds is Russian vine, which coils itself around anything that gets in its path and has actually engulfed quite a large area just above the vegetable patch. It's quite a hardy bugger, and pops up everywhere with deep, annoying roots. We've tried laying down carpets over areas of vine, but they just break through. An annoying feature is that it seems to be capable of resurrecting itself on seemingly dead bits. You get little buds of new vine growing on old stuff that's been chopped down, so this will have to be an ongoing endeavour. We get lots of ground-creepers popping up too. So the vegetable patches need constant care not to descend into ruin. At the moment they're pretty good, and we've already got lettuce, radishes and artichokes ready to go. We also grow pots of herbs in the kitchen (gas oven from canisters).

I also have to tend the paths that bring visitors around the island, which has meant lately raking off mown grass to try and encourage shorter species. Hopefully more of the shorter species will encourage rabbits, which at the moment are absent, but would help to control the more dominant tall grasses and enhance biodiversity. Also trimming back nettles and putting out markers for holes so they don't trip and sue us. The paths mean we don't have to worry about people stumbling into nesting areas (although one of the path does get quite close, resulting in menacing gull swoops - the entire coast of the island seems to be full of ducklings, oystercatcher and seagull chicks).

We've also got a lot of Sycamore on the island, which is non-native and commonly discouraged. There's some argument actually over this, as some people say sycamore outcompetes other native species, but some studies suggest there's actually a greater abundance of native species regeneration under sycamore than native species and there might be some kind of alternation between sycamore generations and I think it was elm generations. I don't have the sources for this at hand right now, but I'll put them up when I get back. But anyway, here the general outlook is sycamore is bad, so some of it has been taken out and tree nurseries of native species have been put in instead. I have to clear these every few days to make sure they don't get swamped by ivy, goose grass or Russian vine, etc., and keep their root area clear from other plans, e.g. nettles (which are very abundant).

There have been several rat infestations in the past, including one instance where the inhabitants of the island had a rat feast, and everyone was encouraged to sample the rats smothered in onions. Mmm. Luckily, at the moment we don't have any, but we keep track of them by bait stations distributed around the island, which are checked regularly. They contain bait blocks, and we record whether any have been taken and replace them when necessary. If we do get rats, I suppose we'll also be laying rat poison. We also get the occasional deer swimming over and wreaking havoc on our saplings with their antlers, but our management strategy for that is chase them off if we see any.

I also mow the lawns. The warden's currently experimenting with different lawn lengths, so we've got odd patches of taller lawn where we've got more wildflowers, e.g. birds-foot-trefoil, clover. Mowing's also supposed to give you greater plant biodiversity which then translates into insect etc. biodiversity, as with rabbits. There's quite an extensive network of hedges around the island, mostly introduced garden species, but we keep them in a wide-base shape so wildflowers are encouraged to grow round the bases.

And I help with visitors. This means bringing the portable jetty up and down the beach, although we have a quad bike and a mini-tractor to help with that (and also diesel loading), and showing them round, and trying to get them to part with their money. On the whole they just wander about by themselves, and we have posts marking the paths etc.

One idea that I've had to encourage visitors is to create a display of things you tend to find down at the beach and what they are, how they get there (shells, trash, seaweed, etc.). I'd love to build a rock-pool aquarium but we don't really have the means to do that (firstly, no tank, and secondly, it would require the generator being on all the time).

It's actually not terribly wild, in that it supports people like me and is obviously managed according to the needs of people (for instance the vegetable patch). But it is certainly home to a variety of wildlife (we have ornithologists who come over every so often to conduct surveys, and I think there are lepidopterists as well although I haven't seen them yet), and I think that it's actually better that it should be inhabited by people *AND* exhibit high biodiversity. I don't think maintenance of nature reserves should be confined to the upper class - it is possible to live sustainably in such a way that we can still derive pleasure from the environment.
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