The nature of CAT – an interview with the woodland team

Home » The nature of CAT – an interview with the woodland team

We are extremely proud of our biodiversity here at CAT and are very lucky to be surrounded by such rich habitats every day. We caught up with Alex Chadwick, a Conservation Development Assistant and part of the woodland team here at CAT, to learn a little bit more about how the site is managed for nature and to find out what wildlife to look out for at this time of year.

What do you do at CAT?

Alex Chadwick - Part of the CAT woodland team“My role involves maintaining and developing the Quarry Trail and its surrounding woodlands, as well as providing activities for visitors, including woodland tours, evening events and volunteer work days.”

How has the visitor centre and surrounding woodland been managed to encourage biodiversity and specific species?

“There’s actually quite a lot of sustainable management of our woodland. We use hand tools rather than heavy machinery as much as possible, which avoids collateral damage to valuable habitats. Whenever we prune vegetation, cut hanging branches or fell trees, we leave the material in situ in a habitat pile, which is fantastic shelter for insects, small mammals and amphibians.

We maintain a diversity of tree species (mostly native broadleaves, but there are some conifers too) as well as a range of tree ages. This provides food and habitat for as many species as possible. We spend a lot of time controlling invasive species, particularly Rhododendron ponticum, which frees up space  and light for a greater diversity of native ground level plants and mosses to thrive.”

“We discovered hazel dormice had moved in’

“We’ve dedicated a section of our woodland to dormice. This
was previously a sweet chestnut coppice but when we discovered hazel dormice had moved in we started managing the area as a dormouse habitat, promoting the growth of a dense understory with lots of honeysuckle and hazel. We’ve also built and installed boxes for the dormice to nest in, as well as variety of different bird boxes, including one rather large owl box you might spot.

We use untreated, locally grown wood as much as possible for our fences and gates, which means they can be left to decompose at the end of their life rather than going to landfill – dead wood is often overlooked but is a very important habitat and shelter for insects.

Finally, the Quarry Trail isn’t just woodland. We maintain two small areas of heathland full of heather, gorse and bilberry, and we’re also developing the old goat field into a wildflower meadow. Having a mosaic of different habitats like this is a fantastic way to boost biodiversity, as it greatly increases the number of niches that different species can exploit.”

“Having a mosaic of different habitats like this is a fantastic way to boost biodiversity’

What can visitors look out for this summer?

“On a warm, still day there’s always a profusion of butterflies and bees busy visiting the flowers at the gardens on site (next to the poly tunnel). The meadow is a great place to go nature spotting – so far this year I’ve seen half a dozen different kinds of beetles, either scurrying around in the grass or supping up the pollen from the tops of flowers. There are also often slow worms and common lizards soaking up some warmth on top of or underneath the basking sheets in the meadow – lift them up slowly and carefully to take a peek. In the woods you’re likely to see a grey squirrel or two, and if you’re lucky you may even see the elusive hazel dormouse. You can tell them from a wood mouse by their furry tails.

Finally, of course there are plenty of birds around for the ornithologists amongst us to admire – as well as the omnipresent robins, blackbirds and song thrushes, I’ve also seen nuthatches, tree creepers, swallows, wood warblers, wrens, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, buzzards, kites, chaffinches, pied wagtails, and even a lesser spotted woodpecker and a tawny owl.”

Any exciting nature news from the woodland team?

“This year we’ve all been quite enthralled by the unfurling drama of a family of swallows that nested underneath the solar roof outside the café. It was wonderful to watch the parents swooping in and out to feed the chicks, and hilarious to see the furore they made when dinner arrived. It was a great privilege to watch the parents coax the final chick out of the nest. Though it was a bit sad to see them leave home, I’m pleased to say they successfully reared four chicks, and now every time I see a swallow singing on site, I  wonder if it’s one of ‘ours’.

It has also been very exciting in the pond next to top station, where for the past couple of weeks there have been dozens and dozens of dragonfly nymphs emerging from the water and crawling up the reed stems to pupate into adults. It was mesmerising to see them push themselves out of their husks, slowly unfurl their wings and change from lime green to a darker greens and blues as they dried out and warmed up ready for flight.”

How can people get involved?

“We always appreciate an extra pair of hands to help with managing the woodland and meadow with our small team of volunteers. You can apply to stay on site as a long term (six-month) volunteer with either the gardens or woodlands team, for which you receive food and board in exchange for your help. We also run twice monthly dedicated volunteer days called Woody Wednesdays, where you’ll be helping with either biodiversity monitoring or practical tasks around the trail or in our woodland across the road from the main site. If Wednesdays don’t suit then we’re happy to have you either as a day volunteer coming in as and when works for you, or as a short term volunteer (e.g. over the summer holidays or as a week’s work experience).

We also run various events throughout the year – coming up we have a dormouse conservation evening on 26th August, where you can learn about dormouse habitat, surveying, nest boxes and conservation.”

This summer, the Centre for Alternative Technology is celebrating the great outdoors and invites you to come along and get involved.

There will be plenty of free craft activities taking place in CAT’s Straw Bale Theatre, including making origami animals and building solar powered boats. Families can explore our quarry trail and there will be scavenger hunts taking you on an adventure over the whole 7 acre site.

More information on this and other events can be found on both the CAT Facebook page on our website at