The fire that destroyed a huge area of Upton Heath on 9th June left nothing behind but a desolate black landscape - or so it seemed. Whilst almost everything in its path was turned to ash in a matter of minutes, some wildlife did survive. The few reptiles that managed to get underground and survive the heat and smoke were the lucky ones - and were even luckier through the simply amazing efforts of an army of volunteers determined to save them.
Reptiles emerging from the safety of burrows or crevices after such a fire are not at all safe. Predators will be scanning the scorched ground for signs of movement, and with a black background and no cover from above, any reptile becomes easy prey as soon as it tries to move. A few reptiles started to emerge over the next two days, although rescue efforts were hampered by the extreme heat from the ground and the danger element as small fires continued to flare up. The Sunday brought a steady downpour of very welcome rain that lasted all day and most of the night - damping down the last of the hot spots and taking away the safety concerns.
A plea for help
It was this change in conditions that enabled us to put out a plea for volunteers to help with the rescues. Steve Davis, Volunteering Programme Manager, put out a plea via email and facebook and this was picked up by the media. By Monday morning the message to meet at the Urban Wildlife Centre had gone out on National and local radio, TV and press. Social media also played a part as Facebook and Twitter spread the word.
The volunteer effort was amazing
The Monday morning saw in excess of 90 volunteers turn up ready to help save the reptiles. Teams of 10 volunteers plus one staff leader were quickly briefed about the task and any safety considerations, before heading out for a morning of walking the site in search of reptiles. Lizards were picked up and stored in pillow cases (the best means of carrying reptiles), whilst snakes were monitored from a safe distance until one of the team of trained staff was able to attend.
Each day was a repeat of the same process, with the volunteer effort attracting a lot of media attention. On one day alone, we had to juggle film crews from BBC Newsround, Meridian News and BBC Animal Rescue 24:7.
Totals and tales from the week of rescues
As each day passed, the rescue numbers started to drop away as expected. The rescue on Saturday 18th June, 9 days after the fire, was the last of the organised events. During that time, some very impressive statistics emerged:
261 individuals volunteered, many of them for several days.
560 reptiles/amphibians were rescued and relocated onto receptor areas elsewhere on the heath. The breakdown of species is as follows:
There were several tales to come out of the week.
A common lizard that was dropped by a passing gull and landed on the head of one of our staff. It was promptly gathered into a pillow case, checked over and later released safe and well - completely unfazed by it's ordeal!
Another common lizard that managed to escape from it's pillow case and sat quite contentedly on the shoulder of a volunteer while she searched for it.
A number of volunteers managed to get knee deep into bogs, and had to be pulled free. Some of them managed to do it twice, in the same bog!
Volunteers turned up from as far afield as Gloucestershire, Bristol and one determined individual from Basingstoke, who camped out in torrential rain.
A call for any old pillow cases prompted an offer of 3 being sent down from Aberdeen.
After a disaster on such a large scale as the fire, it is heartwarming and humbling to be part of the efforts of the volunteers and staff in coming together as short notice in such numbers in answer to that call for help. Thoughts now turn to the future, and plans are underway for HeathWatch, along the lines of 'neighbourhood watch for the heath'.