April, 2017

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's
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Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's

  • A day in the life of a learning assistant volunteer

    It’s an exciting time at Fairburn.  The air is filled with the sound of birds singing, and soon we’ll also be hearing the sound of excited school children coming to do their habitat investigations, pond dip and bug hunt. We have a range of programmes for school groups to choose from and the learning team has been working hard over the colder months making sure everything is ready for spring and summer.

    Andy and Andy installing a shade area on our pond dipping platform

    I've had a fantastic time getting to know new volunteers and catch up with others these last few months.  Fairburn is an incredibly friendly place to be and you really do get the feeling, as a volunteer, that you’re part of a big family where everyone is working towards the same goal, making Fairburn the very best it can be for everyone.

    An average day volunteering with the education team begins with a brief run through of the plan for the day over a nice cup of tea.  After this we get to work setting up our equipment, this is when I always try and offer to do the pond dipping portion of our setting up.  We like to have a collection of creatures ready to make sure all the school children get to see something interesting, and it’s very exciting to see what comes up in the first net of the day!


    Pond dipping fun!

     Schools usually arrive around 10.00am, we don our hi-vis vests to walk down to the car park and meet the coach and one of the nicest parts of the day is seeing the children descend the coach steps looking full of excitement and anticipation.  After a safety talk and toilet stop we head to the classroom to begin our session.  After that, it’s all about getting the children outside into the fresh air to have fun, whilst of course being mindful of ensuring the learning objectives of the day are met.  


    Bug hunting

    Towards the end of the fun filled day there are usually a lot of tired faces – we certainly keep the children busy with a raft of activities and games.  My personal favourite is the pollination game which makes a really good point about whether insect or wind pollination works better.  There’ll be much more about the activities and game in future blogs.


      Spotting nature

    By about 2.30pm it’s time for our school to leave us, so after a rest and a round up of the day in the classroom it’s time to head back to the coach to wave off the children.  Then we head back in to tidy everything away.  We all help each other out with the tidy up which means it actually gets done very quickly.  This is usually followed by a cup of tea and a chat about how the day went. Then for us, like the school children, it’s home time.  Driving away I always smile and think about what a wonderful thing it is to be a volunteer at Fairburn, and how lucky I am to be a part of something so enriching, rewarding and, most of all, fun.


    By Cath Murray

  • Exploring St Aidan's: Lowther Loop

    I took at walk around the Lowther Loop walk at St Aidan’s this week.  It’s one of the shorter walks, but it’s a little bit harder to access because the footpaths are quite uneven and not surfaced, but if you’ve got good footwear and are a hardy walker then it’s a lovely route to take.


    I started off from the visitor centre and took in the view down to Bowers Lake with the dragline and the visitor centre looking down.  It was beautifully sunny and there were hundreds of sand martins swooping over the lake, catching insects.  They’re doing a great job at gobbling up all the midgies and mozzies!

    The footpath down to Lowther lake is blooming now it’s spring and the cherry and blackthorn blossom that’s covering the hedges brought a smile to my face, and brings food for early butterflies and bees.


    The butterflies were really making the most of the warmth in the sheltered parts of the south of the lakeside walk.  There were loads of orange tip butterflies and I took my chance to have a close look at a female orange tip and see the difference between the male and the female – something that I haven’t done before.



     I have a particular love for wildflowers and was really pleased to start spotting the first flowers of spring.  It’s lovely to see lady’s smock, often called cuckoo pint and many other names too, enjoying the damp patches around the lake.  The bluebells are also emerging in the woodland, this bud is poised, ready to burst!

  • Spring survey work - electrofishing

    Fairburn has been alive with the arrival of spring over the last couple of weeks which means we have amped up our work surveying the local wildlife. A couple of weeks ago were welcomed two of the RSPB’s ecologists to survey the fish population on the Coal Tips using a technique called Electrofishing

    Electrofishing is commonly used by scientists to sample fish population in bodies of freshwater. As well as sampling fish population’s electrofishing can also be used to catch and tag fish species for other studies.

    So how does it work?

    A field of electricity is passed through the water using a pair of electrodes that are placed in the water. These electrodes send a current through the water that cause a muscle response in the fish. This pushes the fish towards the net so they can be caught, measured and weighed. After these measurements are taken the fish are released and free to swim away. The process causes no harm to the fish and they resume normal function just a couple of minutes after being caught.

    The reason we monitor the fish populations in our lakes at Fairburn is they are a vital food source for some of our spectacular species who inhabit the site. One of these magnificent bird species is the Bittern.

    Between 1970 and 1990 there was significant decline in bittern numbers with the root cause of the sustained decline being the loss and ruin of reed beds. Now in the UK we have a small and fluctuating population size that needs our help.

    By monitoring and improving the reedbed habitat we have across RSPB reserves like Fairburn we hope to help the Bittern and increase their population size. Electrofishing is one of the ways to monitor their habitat and food source. 

    The result?

    The team managed to catch a small number of fish, these were likely to be the offspring of fish we stocked in 2013 and represent a larger population that managed to avoid the team. This population helps support the bitterns who make their home on the reserve and shows our management is helping make a difference.