Monday, 16 December 2013

The Christmas 'Stake Out' Team shot

The Christmas 'Stake Out'

Wye Valley AONB Volunteers spend a day with the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Hedge layers.

You wouldn’t think it was all that difficult to decide which end of a stick to sharpen would you?  The last volunteering day of 2013 saw us on the side of Howle Hill, south of Ross, preparing material for a crack team of Wye Valley hedge layers.   An area of ancient woodland on the side of an old marle pit area was available for our use - marle was once dug and used with lime from the Howle Hill area.


A well-laid hedge is a joy to behold; clearly contributing to the natural beauty of an area.  And that is irrespective of whether the hedge is laid in Welsh Border manner, or South of England, or any of about 10 recognized styles.  These all pertain to the angles and composition at which the stakes and growing material is laid, so I learned from Haydn.   He and his colleagues Jamie and John were there to instruct us in cutting and preparing the stakes and binders, used to support the living hedge. 


Armed with a variety of sharp tools, we attacked the area at the edge of the woods.  Here a good number of hazel trees had previously been ‘coppiced’. Since each coppiced ‘stool’ had upwards of a dozen branches, it took most of the morning to trim them all, and drag the branches off to a flat preparation area.  Hard work, so lunch was a very welcome break.


We had been well pre-briefed, so we all came loaded with cake of various sorts, and of course some nice mince pies.  Our hosts Bridget and Chris had a table under some cover, and there was a kettle boiling over an open fire for tea.


Then in the afternoon it was the time for which the men had come – time to get busy with sharp-edge weapons.  Mind you the ladies were pretty handy with the chopping too!!  Sarah and the pro team were careful to explain the safety precautions for using the hand-axe and the bill-hook – no wearing of gloves on the hand which is using the tool, and try to stay two full arm lengths apart (easier said than done).


Stakes need a stick of anything between about one and three inches thick, and 5’ 6” long please.  Doesn’t matter too much if there is a bend; that can be useful if there is a rock or some other obstruction.  Binders are longer and thinner, and ideally straight.  The bill hook is great for stripping the shoots off the side; the axes were mainly for sharpening the bottom ends of the stakes – and there the friendly disagreement in the pro camp was heard all day.  Should one sharpen the thin end or the thicker end?  “I was taught this by a national champion”; “We’ve always done it like that”.  I expect there will be letters to The Times after this blog post…..


By 3 o’clock we had run out of energy to do much more than attempt the remaining pies, but we had created some & apparently very useful piles of both stakes and binders.  I look forward to seeing lots more hedges!  Next outing tbc early in the new year, probably a new and again educational challenge – only with fewer Christmas goodies to eat with our tea.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Birch bashing on the Meend

 Staunton Meend

Wye Valley AONB Volunteers turned out in force on Thursday 28th November 2013 for a day of birch management at Staunton Meend, a 51 acre area of common land which is being restored to lowland heath. Over the last few centuries local inhabitants would have exercised their right to graze, gather firewood and game hunt.  Since these practices have fallen into decline the common land has become colonised with bracken, bramble and silver birch saplings. Our task was to remove as many silver birch as we could in the daylight hours given.  Luckily there were new recruits to swell our numbers, Sally and Richard.

Before we tackled this mountain of a task (for the birch saplings appeared to stretch as far as the eye could see!) John Flynn, leader of Staunton Meend restoration group, explained to us about the history of the Meend and previous work undertaken in the restoration work which he has led. The term 'Meend' is probably derived from the Old English Maene meaning 'held in common'.  In the past restoration work has involved bracken clearance, dry stone wall building and heather planting, a key species in the re-generation of the original heathland.

As we eyed the sea of birch saplings, happily thriving amongst the brown bracken, somebody asked why we were pulling them up, rather than encouraging the native tree species to flourish.  I thought this was a good question.  It was explained carefully that lowland heathland is a priority for nature conservation because it is a rare and threatened habitat. It has declined greatly in extent during the last two centuries – in England it is estimated that only one sixth of the heathland present in 1800 remains – and it still faces major pressures (JNCC 2013). The habitat is also home to numerous highly sensitive plants and animals ie reptiles (adders), birds  such as the nightjar. Many scarce and threatened invertebrates and plants are found on lowland heathland too. So the UK has a special obligation to conserve this habitat, given that it supports about 20% of the lowland heath in Europe and it is therefore a priority habitat under the UK biodiversity action plan.

We set to work.  The birch came in a range of sizes, from a pull-able 20cm to hefty trees requiring tree saws and lumbering. The common height was a meter, probably just a few years old yet the roots were tenacious and required two of us to extract them, one to dig whilst the other pulled. We were encouraged by the sight of small heather plants surviving amongst the trees and bracken encroachment. There were also gorse and bilberry plants too, all key plants of a thriving heathland.

Whilst we worked there were other animals at work in the restoration project too, Exmoor ponies who are hardy enough to graze the developing grassland throughout the year, helping to trample the bracken as they search for grass. Our labours were rewarded by extensive views from our vantage point of 250m above sea level of the Autumn colours over the Wye Valley, south towards the Severn estuary.  Over lunch our task master Sarah told us about a new AONB project which has attracted lottery funding whilst we munched our sandwiches, a project developed to enable people living with dementia, their carers of family and professional, to reconnect with the landscape.

All good work and we left for home with tired limbs, but  happy after a  friendly and rewarding atmosphere to work in.  Next  visit, Howle Hill in December.  Sarah also plans to have a day where we can get together and discuss our views on volunteering work in the AONB.  This is my second day working with the AONB and I love being outside, in beautiful countryside, trying to achieve something worthwhile.  I took some of the saplings home and next day, planted them in our wood near Usk and they nestle amongst the ash saplings.  Which has most chance of survival?

Gill Stott