Phil and Helen both spent their careers in the NHS, mainly in the Blood Transfusion Service. They have lived in the Forest of Dean for 22 years now and really love this special area. They are both lifelong naturalists. “We run the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s (GWT) Forest of Dean group (with much appreciated support from Mike, John and June). We are both very keen wildlife photographers and give a wide selection of wildlife talks to a variety of different groups in the area,” said Phil. After finishing work, they have both been keen to enjoy much more of the things they want to do, “such as travel, spending more time in the Forest and undertaking some more volunteering activities” said Helen.
“We heard about the Foresters’ Forest through GWT’s Rosie Kelsall, who is always very good at keeping us up to date with what’s happening locally,” said Helen. Foresters’ Forest Programme Manager, Sue Middleton also gave the GWT group a talk about what was happening, which cemented the couple’s interest in getting involved. They were particularly interested in the work to maintain and monitor the newly installed eel pass at Blakeney Weir and seized the chance to become a part of the volunteer team to clean and monitor the new pass. This is the only eel pass in the country to be overseen by volunteers so the group are part of a pilot to see if this can be achieved successfully. The eel pass was installed to give migrating eels a route up the weir in Blakeney village as these manmade obstacles stop them reaching further upstream. “I wanted to give something back to the Forest which has given me so much over the years,” Helen told us, “this is such a special, little known area and eels are a little known and underappreciated species, which man has had a major impact on either through creating obstacles to their watercourses or through fishing.” Phil was also keen to help a less ‘glamourous’ yet important species. “It is always nice to help in a positive way with local projects and particularly with something that is not high profile.” He said.
Helping to look after the eel pass has turned out to be quite an unusual and skilled task. “All winter we have been on a rota where, approximately once a month, we visit the eel pass to carry out the cleaning of it. This is to ensure that when the eels start migrating, they have a clear way through the pass to reach upstream” said Helen. “This has been quite challenging, especially when it was cold or the water levels were high earlier in the year. We’ve been provided with the appropriate tools to do this job safely. These are stored in Blakeney where all volunteers can access them easily.” She said. “From April onwards we were due to visit the eel pass more frequently to provide data on any eels which are using the pass” said Phil. “It’s a great pity that we are not able to see the fruits of our labours, as we are now unable to visit the eel pass due to the Coronavirus lockdown measures.” Unfortunately, the eels migrating upstream this year will be unable to make use of the eel pass. With volunteering on hold during the Covid-19 outbreak, the pass has had to remain blocked on advice from the Environment Agency. “We are looking forward to the pass benefitting the eels, and being able to carry out the all-important monitoring in 2021!” Phil said.
Helen and Phil have had some rewarding experiences through volunteering to care for the eel pass. “It’s been good to meet more local people and get involved in being part of the dedicated team of volunteers.” Phil commented. Helen also told us “It was our turn to do the cleaning over Christmas when we had my elderly father staying with us, so he came along to see what it was all about. He got chatting to some locals whilst we were busy cleaning the eel pass and we learnt a lot about the history of both the wildlife found in the water and the village itself.” She said.
Both Helen and Phil have found volunteering with Foresters’ Forest a great introduction to more local volunteering. “It has got me more involved in the local community which I am enjoying” said Helen. “I’m not sure what I will do next but it has whetted my appetite for volunteering generally. During the Coronavirus outbreak, I have been volunteering at Yorkley Health Centre which I am finding very rewarding.” They are both looking forward to getting back to other wildlife related activities once it is safe to do so. Phil told us “We are always up for getting involved with local projects so hopefully when the Covid-19 crisis is over with we can volunteer for other Foresters’ Forest activities”.
The Blakeney Eel Pass has been installed as part of the Foresters' Forest Waterways and Ponds Project.