A day at Dolphin School

I have been fortunate enough to see dolphins, not only when travelling overseas, but in New Quay in Wales, and right here in North Devon – in Combe Martin and, on one fantastic day a few years ago, putting on an incredible display off Woolacombe Beach. However, my knowledge stopped right there – I could tell you they were dolphins but nothing more than that.

A day at Dolphin School Photo: Rick Morris/Twitter

A day at Dolphin School
Photo: Rick Morris/Twitter

Last weekend I went to Dolphin School. Ok, so it wasn’t really called Dolphin School – officially, it was ‘a Marine Mammal and Seabird Surveyor Training Course but that’s too much of a mouthful, even for a basking shark.

Run by Marine Life (the marine conservation charity), the course aimed to train us in how to identify whales, dolphins, seals, and sea birds. And it was fascinating!

It is an eye-opener just to learn how commonly dolphins, and even whales, are spotted in our own waters. From the ferry to Lundy, for example, you may see harbour porpoises, short-beaked common dolphins (sadly one was washed up on Woolacombe beach last year), bottle-nosed dolphins, Risso’s dolphins (always horribly scarred as they are constantly fighting with each other), minke whales, grey seals and sunfish (looks like a dustbin lid with fins), to name but a few.

The latest sightings can be seen here: http://www.marine-life.org.uk/ilfracombe-or-bideford-lundy

Here’s a few of the identification gems I picked up: harbour porpoises have a small dorsal fin shaped like a Dairylea Triangle whereas dolphin dorsal fins curve over like a surfing wave. Short-beaked common dolphins have a yellow streak down their sides whereas bottle-nosed dolphins are all grey; grey seals have dog-like faces while common seals have cat-like faces.

Learning to use a Heinemann Stick to gauge how far away a sighting is Photo: Annette Dutton/Twitter

Learning to use a Heinemann Stick to gauge how far away a sighting is
Photo: Annette Dutton/Twitter

It’s an exciting time for cetaceans, as our seas are getting warmer which means that we are seeing different species, while others remain under threat from hunting. A blue whale, the world’s largest mammal (about the length of two double-decker buses and weighing in at around 200 tonnes) was spotted this autumn off the coast of Cornwall!

I found out quite how hard it is to tell one species of seabird from another and that many sea birds have a nasty habit of having different plumage in the summer from in the winter so you have twice as much homework to do if you are going to tell your black-headed gull from your little tern.

I also learned that, despite being surrounded at time by hundreds of the things last time I went to Eastbourne, there’s no such thing as a seagull. There are many gulls, but none of them are called ‘seagull’. I also now understand that it is very difficult to tell one from another. Here’s a few of my notes:

Greater Black-Backed Gull = black wings, pink legs = looks like a Lesser Black-Backed Gull but smaller (unless it’s far away and then it looks exactly the same)

Lesser Black-Backed gull = black or dark grey wings, yellow legs = looks either like a Greater Black-backed Gull or a Yellow-legged Gull or a Herring Gull if you can’t see its legs

Yellow-legged Gull = grey wings, yellow legs = looks like a Lesser Black-Backed Gull or a Herring Gull (unless you can see its legs) or a Greater Black-Backed Gull if the lighting is poor

Herring Gull = could easily be mistaken for a Greater Black-backed Gull or a Lesser Black-backed Gull or a Yellow-Legged Gull unless you can get close enough to judge the greyness of its wings and the colour of its legs

Common gull = looks like the other gulls but smaller = see Herring Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Lesser Black-Backed Gull and Greater Black-Backed Gull depending on how far away from you it is. It also looks a lot like a Kittiwake

Of course, it’s when they young and the colours of their wings hasn’t developed that it’s really difficult to tell them apart.

Dolphin School taught me the difference between shags and cormorants: I can now declare this to be a shag.

Dolphin School taught me the difference between shags and cormorants: I can now declare this to be a shag.

All in all, it was a great day and we all learned an enormous amount. The aim of the course is to train us up so that we can report any sightings with confidence and, ultimately can take our turn volunteering on ferry routes as fully fledged Marine Life surveyors. It is through this invaluable voluntary work that Marine Life can gather information about the species that are around us and evidence changes that are occurring. This information is used to encourage policy makers to make the right policies to protect our seas.

Personally I can’t wait for the next time I visit Lundy. I will be standing on the bridge of the Oldenburg with a pair of binoculars. I may have to lasso a few gulls so I can get a look at their legs.

To learn more about the work of Marine Life: http://www.marine-life.org.uk/

To learn more about visiting Lundy: http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/lundyisland/

Gudrun Limbrick

Stepping up to the South West Coast Path Challenge

Day One

7am Thursday 29th October, the National Trust minibus was chewing up the miles along the A39 to Minehead. A cargo of intrepid rangers and volunteers looked out of the rain-spattered windows across the lightening Exmoor landscape. We were about to take on an arduous, epic journey; self reliant and exposed to the elements, it was the South West Coastal Challenge 2015 and we had accepted the challenge of walking from Minehead to Combe Martin with gusto.

One of the admirable adventurers broke the comfortable silence to ask “Could we stop at a toilet before we start?” And so a public loo in Minehead was the setting for the beginning of our quest. Toileted and raring to go the team posed for a photograph at the statue marking the start of the trail, and then with a determined stride, we were off!

“Erm, you’re meant to be going the other way” yelled our Lead Ranger and mini bus driver, Julian. The team turned around and, with another determined stride, we really were off.

The morning was wet and grey and after about ten minutes of walking the age old question of “Are you going to put your waterproof trousers on?” started spreading through the group. We stopped, rummaged through our bags, waterproof trousers and coats were donned, and we were off once more.

The climb out of Minehead was arduous and warm work. After we all stopped  again, this time to take off our waterproofs, we finally were well and truly off.

We walked through a blaze of autumnal colour, kicking through a kaleidoscope of sweet chestnut, sycamore and oak leaves and hoping to not come across a lurking dog poo. We descended into the calm and ancient atmosphere of Culbone, and popped into the tiny church and wandered around the old gravestones. One of the rangers stood and listened to the river rushing, he remarked that although the world had changed around this place, the sounds you could hear would be much the same as a thousand years ago.

We continued, marching through the damp woods and tackling steep climbs and knee-jarring descents. At around 4pm we emerged out of those twisted oak woods and were ready to make camp. Tents were pitched, and after a slap up meal it was off to bed on full stomachs. During the night the wind picked up and the rain lashed down, the tents seemed as if they would surrender to the howling gusts at any moment. Needless to say not much sleep was had, and we watched bleary eyed over cups of hot chocolate as the Landrover carrying the rest of our team wound down the road to meet us for the start of the second day.

Day two

We were met with smiles, and the pleasant calm of a campsite going through its morning routine. Packed rucksacks adorned the ground, teeth were being brushed and there were calls for takers on the last of the hot water. The morning was breezy but despite tired bodies, everybody was in good spirits and I was relieved. Having organised proceedings, I had been disappointed not to join the team for Day One of the challenge after being taken down by a bout of food poisoning. My guilt had amplified as the rain and wind gathered momentum during the night. But despite sore ankles and aching legs (our Exmoor lot is a hardy bunch) we set off on Day Two (Rodney Gap to Combe Martin) with a spring in our step.

Climbing up Countisbury Hill got the blood pumping, and we were rewarded with one of my favourite Exmoor views. Stood atop Great Red, the beautiful mosaic of the land takes your breath away; heathland covered in bronzed bracken slides into the autumnal patchwork of a steep wooded valley, whilst the great cliffs tower over the sea, reaching out into Welsh infinity. At this viewing, the shore’s water was bordered by clay red as debris from a recent landslip washed away. The tide was bearing down and the sea crashed over the sea wall at Lynmouth, our next destination.

It was an easy romp down to Lynmouth, and once there we took time to watch the surfers capitalising on the tide, allowing for a few breaths before introducing our calf muscles to the Lynmouth–Lynton zigzag.  However, this was nothing compared to the mighty Sherrycombe that lay before us. The weather was holding and the famous goats of the Valley of the Rocks playfully darted around us. We were gaining momentum, spurred along by Dan and Marcus’ childhood memories of playing around Lee Abbey, and then the elation of being close to home (Heddon) territory and the final strait. Stopping momentarily on a bench recently built and installed by Ranger Dan F and Jodie (a regular volunteer), the group got to catch a breath over the Heddon’s mouth. We could see below us that both our trampers (off road mobility scooters) were being used to full advantage. Sat on that bench (instated for a recently lost loved one), it made me proud to be part of a team of people who made it their business to care for people, coast and countryside.

The next few miles passed in the shadow of the Sherrycombe ascent. Bodies were tiring now and the light was slowly receding. And then, stood at the bottom of the mighty Hangman, it was time for the final climb. We went up in sections taking it slowly; willing each other forward silently with our mutual spirit and momentum. Then, after an elongated final crest there it was… the top… the pile of stones… joyously we took photos and rested our weary legs.

Now down to Combe Martin we rolled, Julian (our boss and super support driver) waiting patiently for us in the car park. There was relief and exuberance that we had done it: 35 miles of unforgiving Exmoor coastline, Minehead to Combe Martin in two days. 192 miles added to the South West Coastal Path’s challenge total and a fantastic effort; thank you Dan F, Kate, Marcus, Carol, Zoe and Julian for all your hard work.

by Kate Jones and Josey Field

Walling Workshop 2015

The 26th and 27th October saw the Morte properties annual walling workshop. 17 people attended battling the elements of windy conditions on the first day and very wet conditions on the second. This didn’t hinder progress of creating a Devon Stone Faced Wall, and in no time nine courses were erected along a 30 metre section with everyone picking up the skills and knowledge required.

Thank you to those who attended, if you missed this year then look out for dates of next year’s workshop.

Luke Johns


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The life of a Dunsland Community Ranger

When I heard that a Volunteer Community Ranger was needed for the 92-acre Dunsland Estate, I jumped at the chance to get involved. My wife Jill and I have been members and supporters of the National Trust for some time now and have long thought that we would like to volunteer in some way. But as most Trust properties are more than twenty miles away, volunteering on a regular basis means a lot of travelling. We often walk in Dunsland so this appointment simply means that we are able to give something back in return for the pleasure we get from being in these beautiful surroundings. Jill helps me out as my deputy and our spaniel Holly is our deputy dog!
The story of Dunsland goes back in time as far as the Domesday Book and the house that the Trust bought had Tudor origins. It had been handed down, sometimes through the female line, for at least forty generations. Sadly as the twentieth century approached, it fell into decline and it was purchased by the National Trust for the nation in 1954. As we know,after the extensive renovations were completed in 1967, a disastrous fire completely ruined the building and it was felt that there was no option but to demolish it as the fire had eaten into the mortar in the brick and stone work. It was decided not to rebuild the house as it would only have been a copy of the original and therefore of no historical value.

Detail of the north front, with firemen attempting to extinguish the fire, 18 November 1967, at Dunsland House, Devon. A house of Tudor origin extensively remodelled in two campaigns in the seventeenth century, burnt down in 1967. Year photo taken: 1967.

Detail of the north front, with firemen attempting to extinguish the fire, 18 November 1967, at Dunsland House, Devon. A house of Tudor origin extensively remodelled in two campaigns in the seventeenth century, burnt down in 1967. Year photo taken: 1967.

The full time Ranger responsible for Dunsland, Gregg Wilson, is based at Brownsham near Clovelly and it was there that I and two other new recruits had our induction, adding our names to the list of over 60.000 volunteers who are vital to the day to day work the Trust does nationwide. Two full-time Rangers, together with one who is part time, operate from the Brownsham site. They are responsible for parts of the South West coastal path owned by the Trust at places near Welcombe and Brownsham, round at Portledge, Abbotsham and at Kipling Tors near Westward Ho! Alongside the job of maintaining the paths they are also responsible for many parcels of woodland and the associated nature trails that run alongside the coastal paths.
On the day of my induction, after being given a rundown of the duties I will be expected to perform, I and the other two new-boys (a term I use loosely), were
issued with fact sheets, a T-shirt and fleece, some work gloves and a pep-talk laced with enthusiasm! We had a look around the site including the on-site workshops and then set off in the Land-rover for a tour of some of the local properties (a term used by the Trust to describe any land or buildings owned by them) including the coastal paths that come under Brownsham H.Q. the Brownsham office. All in all, it was a very interesting day and I came away with a greatly enlightened view of the hard work that the full-time Rangers and the many volunteers do on behalf of the National Trust.

The east front destroyed by fire, 18 November 1967, at Dunsland House, Devon. A house of Tudor origin extensively remodelled in two campaigns in the seventeenth century, burnt down in 1967. Year photo taken: 1967.

The east front destroyed by fire, 18 November 1967, at Dunsland House, Devon. A house of Tudor origin extensively remodelled in two campaigns in the seventeenth century, burnt down in 1967. Year photo taken: 1967.

It seems that Dunsland was the only N.T. property in the south west that didn’t have its own volunteer community Ranger, hence the move to recruit one.
My role as Dunsland Ranger is simply to keep an eye on the park-land and the remaining coachhouse and stables, making sure that everything is as it should be and there hasn’t been any vandalism etc. These buildings are in good order and are being utilised by the Holsworthy beekeepers who have some hives in the small paddock to the rear. Also, I check the fencing and gates etc. and if we’ve had a windy spell, I walk the grounds to see if the trees have weathered the storm.
The Trust has re-planted an orchard in one of the paddocks, bringing in some of the old varieties of apple, pear and plum etc.; these trees are pruned and mulched each spring and have stock-proof guards around them. There was a walled kitchen garden, but all that remains are a few sections of the old walls and nature has reclaimed the beds and it has all become very overgrown. At the beginning of June, together with some other volunteers, we cleared most of the old plastic tree guards from an area where re-planting had taken place a few years ago. These guards are supposed to biodegrade, but that hadn’t happened and some of
the young trees were suffering because the guards had filled with rotting muck and debris, causing some of them to rot.
If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to have a walk in the lovely parkland, then I urge you to put on some stout footwear and come out for a wander. There is a small car park with an honesty box if you have some loose change and walking is on hard tracks. It’s level for the first 150 metres or so with a not too difficult uphill walk to where the house once stood. It’s important to point out that from
spring through to late autumn, cattle owned by the local farmer graze the fields and with this in mind, if you bring your dog, please keep it under close control at all times. The cattle quickly become accustomed to seeing people and generally mind their own business. Please feel free to wander “off road” if you want to get a closer look at the wonderful trees; just be careful that you don’t put your foot into something wet and sloppy! There are some wonderful old chestnut trees and
some fantastic oaks, also, on the right, heading up the hill, there is a huge horse chestnut tree, the branches of which extend right down to the ground.

There is a pond that needs a bit of attention and a small stone building with a spring welling up inside it that must have been used for centuries to collect drinking water. A pair of binoculars will give you a close-up view of the local bird population and roe deer can sometimes be seen on the woodland edge. The site has SSSI status for lichen and deadwood invertebrates, (which I have to admit is not my specialist subject). In the spring, celandines and snowdrops bloom on the woodland floor and later bluebells are everywhere. There is a large magnolia tree and several huge rhododendrons standing on the edge of the woodland overlooking the area where the house once stood. Also there is a large
information board showing pictures of the house before and after the fire and giving a brief history of the property through the ages.
I am hoping that I will be able to give a short update of the seasons activities in the future, in the mean time, should anyone have any questions or concerns regarding a visit to the site, please don’t hesitate to contact me, my mobile is 07787726419 or get in touch with the Ranger team 01237 441976.
This is a wonderful local amenity and I hope that more people will take the opportunity to enjoy it.

David Manifold – Dunsland Community Ranger

Learning to Strim

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Whether maintaining footpaths and car parks, or carrying out habitat management work, brushcutting/strimming is a useful skill for someone wanting to work in conservation. As a full-time volunteer with the National Trust, I was keen to get training for it if possible. Fortunately, through funding available from the Exmoor Moorland Landscape Partnership Project I was able to do so, along with fellow volunteer Oli.

We were signed up to a 2-day Lantra course with a training company on the Devon/Cornwall border. The first day was spent learning about the machinery, the different parts and how to look after them properly. Most of this was completely new to me but I found it really interesting and should help if I have any problems with the equipment. We also went through how to do a risk assessment before starting any work to ensure that all safety precautions have been considered. This would apply to any ranger work, not just using power tools.

On day 2 we went into the field and had some practice in using the strimmers. The instructor was able to spend time with each of us individually, giving us advice on posture or technique to make sure we were doing it correctly. We learnt different methods to use depending on material, including the use of blades instead of nylon cord.

Since the course, I have been getting more practice in strimming, so that (hopefully!) my technique and speed will improve. The rangers have been really helpful with giving advice and tips.

Many thanks to the support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Exmoor National Park Authority through the Heart of Exmoor Scheme.

Volunteer Ranger Zoe Caals

Photographs in the dark

An interview with the photographer.


On 10th October, a unique event is taking place – a one-night only exhibition of stunning local photographs out om Morte Point under the night sky. I caught up with the photographer, Joshua Day, over a cup of tea in the Woolacombe Rangers’ Office from where he works as a National Trust Ranger.

What are people going to see at the exhibition?

The exhibition will feature a series of framed landscape images, displayed on easels and individually lit in the darkness of the wilds of Morte Point. So remember your torches, coats and boots!

We will also be premiering the Nobody asked it to film, an exploration of my relationship with nature, again displayed in the darkness of a Morte Point evening.

 Is there a message you are wanting to convey through the photographs?

 The exhibition is inspired by the services nature provides for human wellbeing on the North Devon coast. From pollination, water management and climate control to cultural and mental wellbeing through activities such as recreation. The exhibition may well have you pondering about what nature does for you.

What is your personal favourite image in the exhibition?

 Without giving too much away… my favourite image has to be the one that looks out across the awe-inspiring west coast of Lundy, a place that empowers me as it faces out into the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean.

When did you take up photography?

 Having grown up on the North Devon coast, the landscape has always been a big part of my life, from swimming in the caves off Baggy Point to surfing breaks up and down the coast. I was bought my first camera at the age of 14 and started to photograph some of my local adventures in this very special place. I guess my passion for landscape photography developed from there.

What do you enjoy about photography?

 Photography gives me the opportunity to explore and think deeply about a place, a story or a message. Building an understanding of a subject and the intent of the photograph for me is so enjoyable as well as sharing an image with the others.


How does your work as a ranger link with your ambitions as a photographer?

 My photography feeds from my work as a Ranger, being in the loop of nature and the countryside. Just like a chainsaw, a tractor or a shovel, I see my camera as one of my tools when lending a hand to conserve the North Devon coast.

You have a film in the exhibition? Is this is a new venture for you?

 Yes, the Nobody asked it to film will premiere at the exhibition. It explores my relationship with nature and I hope it will have people reflecting on their own relationship with the local natural world. Film is a new avenue for me but am enjoying using this media.

Will you be available on the evening to talk about the exhibition?

 I will be at the exhibition to answer any questions and to recount any tales from the past year working on this project and being in the presence of some humbling moments on the North Devon coast. You may well find me in the pub winding down afterwards, so feel free to join me!

Nobody asked it to…
For one night only, Mortehoe
Saturday 10 October, from 6.30pm
Book online at http://bit.ly/1hcY0k9 or by calling 01598 763402.

Wild Camping for Wimps in the Heddon Valley

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I was very slightly hesitant, in my new role as Academy Ranger here at West Exmoor, it was my first time hosting a big event and I really wanted everybody to have a lovely weekend. With 31 people and one dog expecting two days of camping and wild food foraging, I feel my anxiety was justified. Thankfully though I was working with a team of skilled hands from whom I could learn: our very own Ranger Dan Ford, whose ability to build a campfire is unrivalled in the South West; Patrick Watts-Mabbott from the National Park, who can concoct a feast from the most seemingly inedible root; and Carol Brunner, Heddon’s story teller extraordinaire.

We had a heady two days planned, full of bread making, marshmallows, campfire stories, mammal tracking and of course our food forage walk. Everybody arrived in good time and the first job was to get all the tents up, and wow did we have some crackers… the most impressive being this super bell tent, which was contrasted amusingly by Patrick’s hammock bivvi.

After setting up we all headed off around the valley to forage our feast. The first lesson of which was NEVER eat anything that you are not 120% sure of, take only a small amount and no digging up plant roots. Luckily we had Patrick to keep us on the straight and narrow, and he assured us that he hardly every poisoned anybody J We had barely gone 50 meters before finding our first tasty candidate, and in over an hour we had only ventured 500 meters from camp, despite having sampled a plethora of fungi, berries, leaves and flowers. It just shows you what treats are squirreled away right under your nose.

As we headed for home it was starting to get dark and tummies were ready for tea. Everybody cooked their own, but we all settled down together around the roaring camp-fire to make bread twists, toast marshmallows and listen to Carol’s camping tale as the night drew in.

Despite a rather chilly sleep everybody rose in the morning fresh faced and ready to feed. Soon sausages and eggs started to sizzle on the skillets around the fire, dissipating the cold morning air. I made some soda bread for everybody to sample and the children enjoyed toasting it over the flames.

Finally before we packed up to go, the group congregated for one last stroll down to the Heddon’s Mouth. It was a beautiful morning and it was heart warming to see all the family groups beaming as they picked their way down to the stony shore; playing together, chasing waves and rock pooling. The Heddon’s Mouth sung with their energy as it combined with the natural vitality that inhabits that place.

I felt slightly sad to wave everybody goodbye, but we all seemed to end the weekend with big grins – I surely had a great time. Thank you to everybody who attended and made this weekend so wonderful. Hopefully it will be the same again next year.

Josey Field, Academy Ranger West Exmoor