As far as first jobs go, there cannot be many better places to work than at Hawnby in the North York Moors National Park.
That has been the reality for Alasdair Fagan and Alex Cripps, two Conservation Graduate Trainees who have spent the past six months on the hunt for veteran trees on the Hawnby Estate – and enjoyed every minute of it.
Their task, courtesy of the North York Moors National Park, is to discover, meticulously measure and catalogue all the ancient trees in the surroundings of the village and help the park authority to shape its biodiversity and woodland work in the future.
The recording of ancient trees, which could be hundreds of years old and are defined by Natural England as “trees that are or look old relative to others of the same species,” is seen as invaluable by the authority as they are considered to be of high importance biologically due to the diverse selection of plants, birds, fungi, bats and insects they can support.
Since Autumn, the majority of Alasdair and Alex’s days have been spent roaming around some of the district’s most impressive and tranquil countryside with only each other, the occasional deer or on one memorable occasional - a common buzzard - for company.
For Alasdair, 24, it has been his first job since graduating with a Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation at Leeds University.
“It has been great,” he said. “The best thing for a graduate is to leave university with that knowledge, the majority of which is theoretical, and be able to get stuck in while it is still fresh in your mind and apply it to real world conservation.
“To do that particularly in the North York Moors is wonderful as it is such an impressive landscape.”
Alex, 26, of Sleights, agrees: “I have absolutely loved it. It has been a really nice project to work on, I have learned a lot about veteran trees in general and Hawnby is a lovely place to be surveying.”
Their work began when the authority’s woodland officer Mark Antcliff and the land agent of Hawnby Estate identified ten areas where Alex and Alasdair could possibly find veteran trees.
Then they were mainly left to their own devices and, after securing permission from local landowners, set out to the historical village of Hawnby, which is mentioned twice in the Domesday Book.
“We used aerial photographs, and Ordnance Survey modern and historical maps, including from over 150 years ago, to establish areas where we suspected there may still be important, notable and veteran trees that aren’t yet part of the Ancient/Veteran tree current record,” said Alasdair.
“We then used GPS to record the location of each of the trees.
“Being able to see where veteran trees are across the North York Moors and being able to compare associated data allows us to build up a picture of this asset and to target efforts to keep the trees going as long as possible and, at the same time, to plant and manage new generations of trees nearby.
He added: “This particular survey that Alex and I are carrying out on Hawnby estate involves identifying the species of each veteran tree and recording the tree’s girth, condition, any biological interests associated with the tree, and any threats currently posed to the tree that we might be able to address in order to ensure that it is able to endure for as long as possible.”
It is a job that often takes them off the beaten track, exploring areas that may not have been visited by people for many moons and offering a rare glimpse of the countryside and its wildlife.
“There have been times when I go out on my own, when you are not making noise and often you come into contact with deer,” said Alasdair. “We were also lucky enough to see a lesser spotted woodpecker which is rare. If you quieten down, the wildlife tends to come back, especially when you are away from the footpaths.
“Sometimes when you are at work, you can get caught up with getting the data and its good to take in the surroundings and appreciate it.”
There was also one memorable tree survey when they met the “bright yellow and beady eyes” of a Common buzzard as it was on the look-out for its next meal.
So far, just over 70 ancient trees have been catalogued by Alex and Alasdair with identified species including the English Oak, Silver Birch, Holly, Sycamore and Rowan, among others.
The survey will continue - but without Alasdair whose six month contract ended yesterday. He will now begin a contract as a Biodiversity Trainee at Chester Zoo and “pass the mantle” on to the capable hands of Alex, who arrived at the North York Moors National Park via the University of Anglia and who has experience of conservation roles monitoring the Common Lizard and bats in Norfolk.
Alasdair said: “I’m looking forward to moving on but at the same time I am going to be sad to be leaving such a good area with a wonderful diverse landscape.”