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If you go out in the woods today…

… you may well bump into Forestry Commission wildlife ranger, Mark Warn, who has spent 21 of his 39 years working in Wareham forest, as Paula Quiqley discovers

The body markings of every sand lizard are unique, like a fingerprint; a single pipistrelle bat can eat 3000 insects in just one night. These are just two of the facts that Mark Warn has at his fingertips. At 39, Mark has spent more than half his life working alongside the deer, birds, bats, lizards and extraordinarily diverse plant life that populate the forests of Wareham. He followed his forester father – straight out of school – into employment with the Forestry Commission, initially as a trainee ranger in the Midlands before joining the small Wareham team in 1990. His role today is incredibly diverse and less than ten per cent of his working life is spent in
the office.

 

Mark Warn with his dogs in Wareham forest

Conservation work fills much of his week, particularly in the summer, as Mark explains: ‘Whenever timber is due to be harvested, I visit the felling site and make recommendations based on any wildlife that may need to be protected and any local enhancements that can be made to improve the forest, as part of the works. Many years ago, I even made an important archaeological find, uncovering an ancient burial mound – a barrow, which was subsequently scheduled as an ancient monument.’
Mark also manages smaller-scale conservation projects, like the management and restoration of hazel coppices, when he will ‘coordinate where and when tractors can cut back parts of the forest,’ whether for fire protection, recreational access or simply to benefit local wildlife. ‘We have good working relationships with other organisations, like National Trust and ARC (Amphibian and Reptile Conservation),’ with whom Mark undertakes projects to protect our rarest wildlife.
In the arena of wildlife protection, Mark has developed three specialities: dormice, bats and reptiles. He explains that he ‘initially started the dormouse conservation work back in the 1990s. We erected dormouse boxes so we could study this protected species and where they nested, as it was originally thought that they were only found in ancient woodlands. By monitoring them across the entire Forestry Commission land we were able to disprove this theory and discovered that they could also live in conifer forests too. This then spawned further studies across the UK and our work continues in East Dorset to ensure that the local dormouse population can thrive.’

 

Mark checking on a bat during the bi-annual inspections

Although the subjects are perhaps less popular with the public, his studies of smooth snakes and sand lizards have been able to show that both of these creatures, which are protected across Europe, can be found outside conventional heathland conservation sites. The reptiles have been monitored thriving in young, restocked plantations where the trees are typically under fifteen years old. This was a really important discovery, particularly as Wareham Forest is one of the most important habitats for smooth snakes and sand lizards in the UK.
‘We have undertaken a lot of work to open up forests and restore them to heathland,’ Mark says, ‘but the Forestry Commission’s underlying vision is to create a ‘mosaic’ of forest and heathland – and there is clear evidence that a sound approach is creating a good spread of habitats in which reptiles can flourish.’
Mark’s third passion is his bat conservation work, a project which was initially started thirty years ago in Dorset by Mark’s predecessor – one of the UK’s leading bat experts, Dr Robert Stebbings. Bat boxes were sited in Hethfelton and Wareham Forest to research the tiny mammals’ movements and breeding patterns – and this quickly became a flagship project for national bat conservation. ‘Today,’ Mark reveals, ‘we have twelve bat-box studies and have seen an incredible 4000 bats bred from the boxes since
the 1970s.’
Mark’s team is responsible for checking on all the bat boxes twice a year – once in May, just before the breeding season, and again in September. He then rings any bats that are found and their details are logged in a new electronic database, which has helped their studies considerably.

 

A dormouse takes a snooze in Mark's hand

Conservation is not the whole story, though; whilst wildlife is his passion, Mark spends plenty of time helping people to access and to enjoy the forest. Part of his workload involves evaluating permissions for different recreational events – from orienteering to motor-cycling – and ensuring that the routes permitted for these events are tailored to avoid sensitive wildlife sites. He explains: ‘It is about balancing the needs of wildlife with the enjoyment that recreational activities can bring to people from all walks of life; ultimately, we want people to enjoy the forest.’
As a ranger, Mark is essentially the public face of the Forestry Commission; he regularly organises talks and walks for the public, for example. He helps to co-ordinate volunteer conservation groups like the Wood Wardens and also tackles anti-social behaviour across his team’s 4500-hectare (11,120-acre) patch.
In a manner of speaking, this is related to his work managing the deer population, keeping it in balance to allow all species of wildlife to thrive; if their numbers went unchecked, the deer could cause serious long-term damage to the woodland environment. There are around 9000 sika deer in Purbeck alone – the largest concentrated sika presence in the UK – so population control is an essential part of the job; any profits from venison sales are reinvested in the forest.
‘Maintaining the variety of wildlife is what it is all about,’ Mark emphasises. ‘When I retire, I’ll feel that I’ve succeeded if I leave the forest in better shape than when I started all those years ago. I get so much satisfaction seeing habitats enhanced, knowing what they were like and then witnessing the improvements we make to them. Creating a beautiful, natural mosaic is just so fulfilling – which is why I’m able to look beyond the immediate barren aftermath of a chainsaw pine clearance in winter, to see snakes basking in the sun on tree stumps, while butterflies flit about the newly graduated vegetation in summer. It is this love of Wareham Forest’s diversity which I hope to pass onto my daughter and her generation for the future.’

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