Much practical conservation work comes down to chopping down trees and then burning them in a big fire. That’s because it’s man-made habitats, often open ones like heath and grassland, which require maintenance, and the first thing you can say about a heath that ends up covered in trees is that it isn’t a heath anymore. If we think they’re worth hanging on to, for their stark beauty and unique biodiversity, we have no choice but to get a little brutal with trees growing in the ‘wrong’ places. There are many small groups of people up and down the country who willingly give their free time to help with this worthy if destructive seeming enterprise, for little more than fresh air, free exercise, and perhaps a cup of tea and a biscuit.
But witness the scene at Arne RSPB reserve in Dorset last weekend. Swarms of people ranged across the heath, showing little mercy to the unfortunate Scots pines that had dared to set seed there. Even if many visitors were chipping in an hour at most, I daresay the reserve doubled its work hours for the year in a single day. This was no small group of regular local residents. How had the RSPB achieved this startlingly successful volunteer recruitment? Simple: by offering free stuff! In this case, the opportunity to take one or more of said trees away for Christmas.
I first heard about this rather brilliant idea of an event last December, but wasn’t able to go (and had no use of the tree, since I don’t think British Airways would have been too happy to check it in). This year, we suggested the idea to our good friends and ‘Chris’ Tour’s’ regulars, Fish and Helen. Though they described the concept of putting four people and two Christmas trees into one slightly rusty Nissan Micra as, and I quote directly, a ‘hair-brained-scheme’, they seemed strangely enthusiastic, so on Saturday the 1st off we went.
Though the reserve was suffering an understandable shortage of tools and work gloves when we arrived, we managed to clear a decent sized area of pines in about an hour and a half, carefully adding to a ‘potential keeper’ pile as we went. By lunchtime we were ready to march ambitiously back to the car with no fewer than ten trees festively propped over our shoulders. I say ten, but admittedly only three were full size (and four were small enough to go into Fish’s backpack). But they all went into the car. And on the way home, so did we, just about.
Of course, if we had driven all the way to Dorset for the sake of the free trees we might not have broken even – though have you seen the price of the impersonal, too-perfect, non-native, plantation-grown specimens currently cluttering up the forecourt of every garden centre and supermarket in the country? We, on the other hand, had plenty of other excuses to be at Arne. I think I must have mentioned on this blog before that it’s a place of rare loveliness, with superb views north-east across Poole harbour to Brownsea Island, and south to Corfe Castle and the Purbeck hills. The area boasts both dry and damp heath, pine and oak woodlands, marsh, reed beds, farm fields and even a small sandy beach. This varied patchwork of habitats makes in turn for a superb variety of wildlife.
After doing our bit pulling pines, we enjoyed a splendid walk, taking in the herds of feral Sika*, the pictured and appropriately named ‘Robin’s pin-cushion’ gall, a hunting female hen harrier – a hen hen-harrier in other words – and as the day began to fade, hundreds of avocets following the low tide up Middlebere channel with a couple of comical looking spoonbills in occasional attendance. The Poole harbour area is about the best place in Britain to see either of those species in the winter, and the natural beauty of the Arne peninsula makes quite a backdrop. I felt saturated by the peace and wonder of it all. Whilst I usually feel December 1st is far too early to get into the festive mood – I’d prefer to be getting my tree a couple of weeks later lest it be rather sad and brown by the 12th day of Christmas – my spirits were nevertheless seasonally lifted.
It was also, as we shivered our way back to the car despite our be-hatted, gloved and scarfed attire, a good reminder that seasonal merrymaking is something of an indulgence, enjoyed only by the human species. For the birds there is no Christmas or Winter Solstice, no Yuletide, no Hanukkah or Diwali. There is only the endless dark, the deep cold, and a desperate daily scramble to survive. When the winter sun sets slowly, setting a pink-orange fire to the sky, it’s a feast for human eyes. For the birds, it’s merely a sign that there’s a long, long way to go until morning. The smallest of them will lose an alarming proportion of their body weight during the course of a single frosty night, before spending every short, waking moment replenishing their reserves. Yet it is glimpses of great beauty in the natural world amidst all this suffering and struggle which speak to me of the hope and peace of Christmas, much more than Coca-Cola ads, seasonal in-store muzack and inflatable snowmen. That and the heartening sight of people coming together to do something constructive on a December Saturday, instead of shopping for so-called bargains on the tat-strewn high street. Those are themes I expect to come back to again and again in this blog as we run up to the 25th. Until then, I wish you a relaxed and productive Advent. May the true spirit of the season, which is free and wild, not plastic and tame, be born in all of us.
*An introduced Japanese deer species – Sika actually translates as deer, so calling them ‘Sika deer’ is a bit redundant.