From moorland restoration to monitoring local wildlife, Dean lives for the great outdoors
It’s 4.30 on a Sunday morning and just as the students next door are returning from a big night out, Crookes resident and wildlife enthusiast Dean Rae is setting out for the hills above Bradfield to check on his bird boxes.
Whether it’s his job helping Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust maintain and improve the habitats in and around the Peak District, or his voluntary work for Sheffield Bird Study Group and Sorby Beck Ringing Group he’ll be out in all weathers, trying to maintain and improve the natural world we all enjoy.
Dean spends many hours in the hills around Bradfield Dale, catching and ringing birds. It’s more of a passion than a hobby, which started when he was a schoolboy and continues to this day.
As the long summer days kick in he can often be found heading off at first light to his preferred observations points, Ughill and Oak Piece, above Dale Dykes and Strines reservoirs. He is one of around 50 volunteers actively catching and ringing birds in Sheffield and Derbyshire, and has been doing it long enough to be qualified to work solo, without supervision.
So what types of birds does he spot, how does he catch them and why?
Dean says: “We are monitoring. If you catch and ring a bird and it’s caught again, you have information that can help you look at patterns of movement and dispersal. Similarly if you take information on weight and wing length, ageing and sexing, you are getting detailed information you could not get just observing in the field.
“Then you can look at trends over time and get information on food sources and the impact of local changes on habitats.
“I go wherever the birds are, as long as I have the landowner’s permission. Oaks Piece is close to Ughill, above Dale Dyke and Strines reservoirs. It’s a ridge 250m above sea level and can get pretty bleak in winter. I was there in October ringing the last of the migrant birds as they dispersed. But once winter sets in it is too grim.
“That’s when I came down to a lower level and with permission from Yorkshire Water I began ringing at Dale Dyke Reservoir in January, spending a small fortune to keep the bird feeders topped up and trying to make sure the squirrels and pheasants didn’t nab all the food.
“It was a great success, I caught 62 birds in two hours once. Even though I was only 1km away from Oaks Piece I was 130m lower down and that made all the difference.”
There are a number of ways to catch a bird, predominantly soft mist netting strung between two poles, not unlike a big tennis net. The mesh is very fine, not visible to the naked eye. (It has to be very fine because birds have tremendous eyesight for flying at breakneck speed).
In the winter Dean will catch tits and finches of many types – blue, great, long tail coal, willow and chaffinch and if he’s lucky winter migrants like the brambling along with familiar garden birds like blackbirds, robins, dunnocks and wrens.
And now the spring migrants are arriving Dean and his fellow volunteers are catching willow warblers, chiff chaffs, black caps, white throats, lesser white throats and pied flycatchers - as well as all sorts of birds that might be familiar in your own back garden such as blackbirds, robins and wrens.
While vanishing wildlife is always a cause for concern, Dean reckons the North Sheffield area is a prime spot for birds to flourish.
“We have a lot of continuous good quality habitat because we are on the edge of a national park,” he says. “And the farming is more pasture than crops, not too intense, which is also good news for wildlife.”
One species that has declined in recent years is the willow tit. Often this is due to the loss of habitat - intensity of agriculture, less set-aside land or winter cover crops. Willow tits rely on mature woodland but there are some areas where they can flourish.
House sparrows are also on the ‘red list’. Numbers have declined nationwide over the last 50 years, but this is one area where anyone with a bit of back garden can help the conservationists’ cause.
“There’s a lot we can all do to encourage wildlife in domestic gardens,” says Dean. “If you have lots of plants for cover, with more variety the better, and plenty of feeders and sources of water, then birds will come and if you can attract house sparrows it’s a lovely sight.”
Aside from his volunteer work, Dean has two ‘proper’ jobs. One, as a freelance scientific copy editor and proof reader keeps him indoors and deskbound but his second job, as a casual land management assistant for Wildscapes, a subsidiary of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, finds him out in the wilds once more.
Land management and moorland restoration are the key roles of Wildscapes and this involves going out and surveying habitats and individual species like bats and great crested newts. Where planning permission is involved, Wildscapes acts as an ecological consultancy.
A much tougher, more physical side to the job involves spreading heather brash and sphagnum moss on bare peat on moorland in and around Kinder, Derwent Valley, Howden and Ladybower.
The peat is often a fallout from the Industrial Revolution’s acidification and acid rain and there are consequences for water purity when water comes off the moors into the streams and cloughs, through the Loxley and the Rivelin and Porter Brook, which is why Dean is part of a team that will walk miles to areas where heather brush will have been dropped by helicopter in tonne bags.
“We drag the bags to where they are needed, get out our garden forks and spread it out. On a nice day you’re in a lovely setting and it’s the best job in the world. But it’s bleak in bad weather. And because this work is done in areas where there are no trees, it’s illegal to be up there disturbing the birds in nesting season, so a lot of the work is done in autumn and winter.”
Another gruelling side to the work is the planting of sphagnum moss, an incredible plant that can hold 20 times’ its own weight in water and expands massively when it rains. This slows the progress of water off the hills and helps prevent flooding in times of heavy rainfall.
But there are no helicopter drops here. Dean and colleagues will load up their rucksacks with sphagnum moss, carry it to where it is most needed and spread it.
After all that hard graft you need a holiday and Dean recently retuned form Thailand, but the beautiful beaches were the last thing on his mind. He was part of an Anglo-Dutch birdwatching party who targeted wading birds in the salt pans, far from the tourist trail and the bright lights of Bangkok.
One species they found was the Great Knott, renowned for epic migrations between North Russia and Australia. It had already been ringed - not in Thailand but Russia.
The salt pans are vast so Dean and friends not only put up large nets, they also had tape players, MP3s and speakers playing bird calls to ‘pull’ the waders into the nets. Working to catch high tide in the late evening and early morning, they would sleep through the 36 degree heat during the day.
“We caught around 400 waders on total and 100 smaller birds. Once they’ve been ‘colour flagged’ with plastic rings, these birds are so heavily watched by birdwatchers they don’t have to be caught again to track their movements.
“There is still so much to learn, many species have still not been studied, it is speculation to an extent.”