18 April 2014

Easter Fun

Easter is upon us, so soon! The mild winter has passed quickly bringing with it fair weather, some lovely sunny days and a few well earned days off for many. National Trust rangers have been busy over the winter months working on an extension to the play trail to entertain the young and old at Wray Castle. See the previous blog entry when construction first started on the trail [A new play trail for Wray Castle].

New features added include a monstrous scramble board. Be sure to visit in a few months time when those timbers aren’t so new and grippy! 

There are two ropes to help you up the scramble board... race  you! 
Follow the trail through the living birch arches, balance on the fallen cherry tree, navigate your way over the stepping stones, hide away in the big den, or better still build your own even better den in the freshly woodchipped ‘den building’ area. 

Lots of space for new dens in here!

Here, rangers are constructing a slackline with platforms at either end.

Have you mastered the slackline yet?
It just goes to show though that play items need not be fixed down. Timber set aside for the slackline platforms had been used for play by some creative play trail users! 

Fun can be had in many different ways...
There are lots of other Easter themed activities going on at the castle too this weekend. Check out the Cadburys Easter Egg trail where proceeds to go to charitable causes and you get a yummy chocolate egg as a prize.

The forecast is looking great. So why not give the castle a visit this weekend? It will be perfect weather to get out cycling. Did you know you can get there completely off-road from Ambleside and from the Windermere car ferry. Why not leave the car at Bowness and get the ferry over to the west shore of Windermere. Bring your bike (or hire one) and cycle away from the traffic along the lake shore. If you have a mountain bike, you could take an OS map and head up onto Claife Heights as well to make a day of it. You can get fantastic views up and down the length of Windermere. Look out for Claife Station opening up in the next few months to recreate those Victorian views.

Don’t have a bike? Take a leisurely stroll. It only takes about an hour to walk to the castle from the car ferry or get a boat directly to the castle from Ambleside. Or why not cycle from Ambleside, it is off-road most of the way and takes you through some delightful countryside with views over to the Langdale Pikes and the Coniston fells on a clear day. There is also a very good bus service running from Hawkshead and Ambleside. Check out the Go Lakes website for more information on all the different sustainable transport options. Please avoid bringing your car; the castle car park gets very full quickly.

Enjoy eating those chocolate eggs and spend some time burning off those calories by making your way to Wray Castle under your own steam (and have fun on the new play trail when you get there!). Have a Happy Easter and make the most of the beautiful Spring weather!

11 April 2014

Moving on from winter .....

With winter now in full retreat (we hope), we’re coming back to full volunteering life at High Wray volunteer centre. The back end of winter was spent hedgelaying on a big hedge near Coniston, helped by all manner of groups including the Fix the Fells lengthsmen and a National Trust working holiday. It’s a classic countryside task and typical of the sort of work we do here, but not by any means the only sort of thing we do.

Hedge with a view - National Trust hedgelaying working holiday

We recently spent a very different day with TTP (Trust the Process), one of the large drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres we work with, at the National Trust’s campsite at Low Wray. Using large logs, loads of gravel and the enthusiasm and hard work of this group we were building platforms outside four of the camping pods there. It’s quite muddy in places near the pods, so these ‘patios’ will not only give campers extra room to sit out but will also reduce the amount of mud being trod into the pods on shoes.

TTP with one of the completed 'patios'
The combination of being out in the fresh air, working together as a team and doing some constructive work that’ll increase people’s enjoyment of this beautiful place was a big hit with the group even if most of the mud did end up all over them!
More mud than volunteer - the results of a hard day's work ...!
It’s this variety of task and volunteer group that is one of the best things about our job. The contrast between different volunteers’ knowledge and experience was highlighted when a member of TTP who’d never left the city before asked what the white stuff was on the mountains. We’d had a fresh snowfall (since the path team’s last entry) – he’d been told it was snow by the other group members, but thought they were winding him up. When we confirmed it was he was amazed – even when winter has gone everywhere else it can still hang on up on the hills ….

7 April 2014

Small leaved lime trees - a taste of true wilderness in Coniston

Two hundred years ago, the now-peaceful woods of Coniston and Langdale would have been alive with the noise and chatter of men at work and their families, coppicing trees to produce fuel for iron smelting, raw material for charcoal burning, bark for tanning leather, and a myriad of other products for which we now rely on plastic and metal, from buttons to barrels.  Woodland management was a precise science to those woodsmen; the ‘semi-natural ancient woodland’ we enjoy today is the direct result of their work, as they encouraged the species with the most value – like oak and alder – and ‘grubbed out’ the trees that didn’t have a use.  Truly natural woodland would have a different mix of species, and by looking for some of these species that would have occurred naturally but have been almost wiped out, we can experience some fragments of real wilderness in the midst of Britain’s man-made landscape.

Fall in love with lime

For me, the most remarkable of these ‘lost’ species is small leaved lime.  Lime is an easy tree to love.  Folklore considers it a feminine tree, and with its graceful, slender shape and down-curved branches creating a leafy cascade in summer, that’s hard to argue with.  Woodpeckers adorn the smooth bark with orderly rows of diamond scars as they search for moisture or insects (no-one really knows).  The leaves are exquisite, irregular heart shapes the size of your palm at their very biggest, and create a mottled shade that lets the sun glitter-ball through the canopy.   

Lime leaves, flowers, and 'bracts'
At the height of summer, trees in full sun are covered with pale lemon flowers that exude the most intoxicating smell of the woodland year, beautiful but incredibly subtle so that it leaves you chasing after each gentle hit.  You can hear a good, sunny tree from quarter of a mile off thanks to all the bees swarming the flowers.  Coniston’s relic limes are particularly characterful as they ‘walk’ down the becks, drooping over water falls and casting their gentle shade over tranquil pools.

A living link to the Vikings…and beyond

We know from pollen records that before humans started to influence the British landscape, lime would have been one of the most widespread tree species, and was dominant over much of the country.  Since then, it’s been progressively grubbed out of most woods as it just didn’t have many uses for our ancestors on an industrial scale.  Anglo-Saxons did use lime for their shields, as it’s light and absorbs impacts well, and parts of its bark are fibrous and were used to make twine and rope, including on Viking longboats.  The clean, pale wood could be used for kitchen utensils and for carving – renowned wood sculptor Grinling Gibbons worked in lime, which allowed him to produce his breathtakingly intricate 3D reliefs.  You can see one at Dunham Massey in Cheshire, where I also worked as a ranger.  (I once had to hold it during a fire drill and casually asked how much it was worth – ‘priceless’, came the terse reply.)

A bee forages on lime flowers
Beehives placed in limewoods were reputed to produce the tastiest honey as well as the cleanest-burning beeswax for candles – elsewhere in the country, lots of limewoods that have survived are right next to abbeys, for these reasons.   But if you’ve ever tried to use lime in the wood burner to heat your house (I have), you’ll know it makes appalling firewood, and it’s not strong enough to use as structural timber or for tools.  The discovery of other sources of rope as Europeans explored the globe, like jute and hemp, was the death knell for lime in British woods, and it was grubbed out all over the place.

Coniston’s walking trees

A huge, 'lapsed' lime coppice stool
There are some hidden spots around Coniston, however, where you can still find remnant lime trees amongst the managed ancient woodlands.  They’re usually tucked away up inaccessible ghylls (steep valleys with becks in the bottom), where their survival is due to the fact that it was too much work to make it worthwhile to grow and harvest other species of tree there.  Sometimes, these trees still display the classic coppice form, with a number of stems sprouting from the same ‘stool ‘ showing that they have been managed as a crop at some point. 

Others are ‘walking trees’, demonstrating one of lime’s most fascinating ecological characteristics; where low branches bow down and touch the ground, they’ll often set roots and create a whole new tree or even an entire thicket.  As the original tree grows old and dies, the younger, genetically identical parts take over next to it, meaning that in genetic terms, ‘walking’ lime trees are probably some of the oldest living things on earth. 

A walking lime tree - the failed branch on the left is still attached to the parent tree, but the branches have also rooted in the field creating a whole new thicket.  The rangers have fenced it off to protect the new low growth from stock.

What’s even more remarkable here in the Lakes is that lime doesn’t readily reproduce by seed this far north; at the limit of its range, it’s just too cold to meet the exacting conditions of warmth that it needs.  So most of the remnant trees we see have probably regenerated vegetatively  - by ‘walking’ – in the same spot, time and time again since the last Ice Age.  To stand under one is to experience the pre-human ‘wildwood’, as a truly wild organism quietly forges its own path despite the long history of human intervention in woodlands.

The tree of peace

With such powerful ecological history, it’s no wonder that many cultures venerate lime.  To Anglo-Saxon cultures, it symbolised peace and conflict resolution, and lime trees were often used as places to meet and parley, or on boundaries.  This cultural connection continues in Northern Europe today, and it seems likely that even our recent ancestors understood something about the importance of lime on boundaries that’s since been lost to us; as well as the specimens in ghylls, there are other lime trees out in the Coniston landscape, whether in woods or fields, that have been left for reasons other than utility, but that we don’t understand. 

A classic Coniston relic lime, wandering slowly down the ghyll.
But I’m not telling you where they are – finding them is half the fun.  Spring is the perfect time to get out and explore ancient woodlands, when the bracken and bramble is low but the ground is full of wildflowers.  Grab a tree ID book and a map and head up some wooded becks on the east shore of Coniston.  Find a lime tree and you’ll find a living remnant of the real wilderness before humans started messing about with the landscape, and a connection to the lives and lore of our ancestors – not to mention a simply beautiful, atmospheric tree.  What more do you want from a day out?

28 March 2014

Bags of Rock

"Bags of Rock" probably aren't of much interest to most people.  For Upland Rangers however they can be something to get excited about!

At this time of year we are getting ready to return to the fells to start upland path projects. The bags in question are the ones we fill with rock to be moved by helicopter to the project sites.

The first stage of the process starts before the bag filling commences as it needs to be agreed where the rock can be collected from. Wherever possible we use rock local to the area so that it is consistent with the surrounding landscape. Nearby screes are a good starting point for potential locations. These have to be agreed with Natural England, a public body responsible for protecting and improving England's natural environment. There may be reasons a scree should not be used, such as rare or protected flora, and there may be limits on how much rock can be taken. For example during the current rock collection we are avoiding areas of woolly hair moss.
A 'good-looking' rock but the woolly hair moss means we won't use it
Once the sites are agreed we can start bagging up the rock although we need to first get the 'heli-bags' to site.  This means carrying around 10 bags per person up to the rock sites.
Our main project this year is a joint one with the Western team, tackling erosion on the path from Red Tarn to Crinkle Crags.  The rock sites selected are between Crinkle Crags and Cold Pike and our walk up from the Three Shires stone is around an hour. A fairly good warm up before the 'main event' of bag filling!
Carrying heli-bags towards Crinkle Crags with the Western team & others
Once we arrive at the rock site with the bags a quick break is in order before the bag filling commences.
Some of the group enjoying a break before bag filling
(Ian seems to be amused about something)
There are various things to consider when filling the heli-bags with rock. This might include finding a nice spot to place the bag close to some suitable rock. The size and shape of the rock needed depends on what you want it for, such as stone 'pitching', drainage or landscaping work. Most of the rock recently collected is for stepped stone 'pitched' path work. This means chunky rocks with a bit of depth and a fairly flat surface that people can plant their feet on are in demand. It can be quite challenging rolling the rocks into the bags especially if it is windy the bag is flapping around.
First rock of the day - a nice pitching stone "in the bag"
Sarah hard at work filling a bag
A full bag with bag-filling continuing in the background
The heli-bags are designed to carry a ton of rock which is the limit that the helicopter can usually carry in one go. In reality the filled bags tend to weigh around 700 to 800kg.
The number of bags that can be filled per person in a day can vary widely depending on the site,  the type of rock needed and how accessible the rocks are. The author of this blog likes the challenge of filling all of the bags he carries up but has only managed this once this year.
There are legendary tales from the past of path workers filling impressive numbers of bags in a single day.
A single rock fills this bag,
(Courtesy of Jon, from the West)
Bag filling can be quite a gruelling task but is satisfying and a great work-out.
Searching for particular shapes and sizes of rock can have side effects and you may find yourself noticing suitable rocks wherever you go. You can even find yourself strangely attracted to rocks and describing them as 'beautiful'. It is fair to say that this trait may not be appreciated by others, particularly friends and family when not at work.

After spending the winter doing mostly lower level work it is a great feeling returning to the fells to focus on the upland work that we enjoy.
One of many nice views enjoyed during bag filling
If you would like to know more about the daily work of the South Lakes Upland Ranger team they can be found on Twitter @NTLakesFells.

Posted by: Nick, Upland Ranger

26 March 2014

Idiot or evolution ?

"How do I get myself into these situations ? " I ask my wife, whose opinion I  value and whose comments normally , and quite annoyingly,  get directly to the heart of an issue . " Because you’re an idiot" she replies with a look of exasperation , one that you might give to your pet dog after it has swallowed a whole  j cloth which had some peanut butter smeared on one corner. I fear that she may be right, but I am certain that this is not the only reason  I find myself in this predicament.

 Our new neighbours  moved in just before Christmas.   Colin  is  about 15 years younger than me and is an Outdoor Education instructor . Unfortunately  for me he now does the same commute into work  that I’ve been doing for the last couple of years  and what ‘s worse is he sets off on his bike  at about the same time.

Last Monday I set off a bit before Colin and he overtook me half way there, we exchanged pleasantries and agreed it would be great if the rain held off until we both got into work . As he passed me, I picked up my pace a bit  but struggled to keep up with him on the hill.

The following day I again set off ahead of him and was definitely peddling just that little bit faster knowing he was behind me , I was puffing and blowing a bit on the hills and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed that he passed me again , me red faced and grimacing ,  he  chatting amiably , not out of breath , hardly having broken sweat !

The view I should have been enjoying if I wasn't sweating blood.

Now I’m not an overly competitive person normally , if I’m playing Trivial Pursuits I am quite happy to lose as long as we have had some fun along the way. Last Friday I again set off slightly ahead and something inside got the better of me and I went straight into racing speed , I became Sir Chris Hoy,feeling that I couldn’t face the humiliation of being overtaken for a third time that week I was out of the saddle on the hills ,muscles burning,  heart thumping,  the taste of blood in my mouth ( must see the doctor about that ). Of course I was doing my best to make it look like I wasn’t racing ;  trying to look around at the scenery in a casual manner when really I was peddling at top speed and trying to check if I could see Colin 's front light behind me . When I reached Hawkshead I saw a light behind , thinking it was the ' silent assassin' I  peddled even faster waiting for the inevitable wave as Colin passed me by.

Miraculously it didn’t happen and I  made it into work without being overtaken . My pride and self worth fully in tact , I did it in record time .......and it very nearly killed me , I needed to lie down for a few hours to recover .

Any sense of relief was short lived as it dawned on me that I was going to have to do it again next Mon , next week and every week until one of us ( probably me ) dies of a stroke  or gets another job.

 And how did I get into this situation because I'm an idiot well yes that's certainly part of the answer, but also I feel that I may be a victim of evolution.

Competition within species is a fact of life and is particularly apparent at this time of year. During the spring, the males of many species are establishing and protecting their territories and then trying to attract a mate. Being the strongest, the fastest and the most colourful all helps. The older males each year have to prove that they have still got what it takes.

It’s about strength 

Blackbird with rowan berries

Blackbirds and Robins are familiar birds in our gardens but fiercely territorial , Blackbirds will go to great lengths to protect a single tree laden with berries, providing food during the winter, using elaborate calls and flight patterns, to let other birds know that this their territory. Robins despite their  cute and friendly image , will become particularly  aggressive if they feel their patch is being intruded upon by another robin , other than a mate. 

Cute garden visitor or vicious thug ?

If you take a walk along the side of Lake Windermere , you will almost certainly see Canada geese protecting their nesting sites on the islands with loud ‘honking’ and aggressive wing flapping.

 it’s also about timing

At this time of year the procession of late winter/ spring flowers has started , the white snowdrops have given way to the daffodils and the wild garlic is pushing through to be followed by  the lesser celandine , wood anemone and primrose . All these plants flower early in the spring to avoid competition with other species and to make the most of the light before the canopy closes as the trees come into leaf.

Spring flowers Primrose ( light yellow ) Wood anemones ( white ) Lesser celendine ( deep yellow )

If you are looking for a great place to enjoy  these and other early signs of spring , why not take a walk around Tarn Hows near Coniston or along the West shore of Windermere to Wray Castle in thernext few weeks .

Keep an eye out for the sweaty red faced idiot on the bike, and show some pity , he’s just trying to prove he's still got it, he's a product/victim of the evolutionary process.

7 March 2014

A wall with no mortar

Drystone walls ….. If you spend any time in Cumbria they’ll be a familiar sight and if you spend any time working in conservation they’ll soon become a very familiar sight. They’re called drystone because they have no mortar to hold them together, just a set of rules that are applied to every stone you put on the wall. How fast you do it often comes down to how often you do it – practice makes …. well, let’s say gradually improving ….
It's always a right mess when you start, but all those stones need to go back

A National Trust drystone walling working holiday getting some practice in ....
Here’s some of the basic drystone wall rules:

  • Build the wall with two ‘skins’, with a centre of smaller stones (hearting)
  • Try to use the biggest stones at the bottom of the wall, smaller ones higher up.
  • Always place the stones on the wall so their tops are not tipped up, they are level flat.
  • Two on one and one on two – always try to cross the joins by placing the next stone so that it spans the gap between the two stones below it.
  • Place stones so their length goes into the wall, not along it (a tracer)
  • Try to ensure the outer faces of the stones present as flat a surface as possible.
  • Your wall should be roughly twice the width at the bottom it is at the top. This gives it it’s ‘batter’, or sloping face.
  • Finish with a row of larger stones to pin it together (the ‘cams’)
Starting with the biggest stones at the bottom
We’ve had lots of opportunity to put those rules into practice recently. The Red Nab bridleway runs from a popular car park towards Wray Castle, much of it flanked by a wall. It was starting to look like a very tired wall too and in great need of some TLC, which is where we came in. For the last two years we’ve repaired many sections of it, all with the help of volunteers. We recently had one of our last days there with the local group the South Lakes Conservation Volunteers, putting the cams on a long stretch.
South Lakes Conservation volunteers adding the final 'cam' stones
It was a nice feeling to be wrapping things up there but we wonder if it won’t be long before we return. The trouble with fixing up the worst bits of a long wall is that the bits that weren’t so bad suddenly look like the new worst bits by comparison. And that’s where another simple rule comes in:

  • For your own sanity, know when to stop ….! 

By Rob Clarke, Basecamp Community Ranger

28 February 2014

Wet Working Holiday

The Trust here in South Lakes would struggle to get through the amount of work we do without the army of volunteers who support us, Fix the Fell'ers, Base camp groups, South Lakes Conservation Group,  regular day volunteers and loads of others all pitch in.  Last week we were reinforced by a working holiday doing various 'woody jobs'

 Cutting hazel from around landscape beech

The first two days were spent clearing scrub and 1980s planting from the designed landscape around Monk Coniston.  This is important because some of the really impressive mature trees have become lost in scrubby woodland which has developed round them, thanks to the efforts of the volunteers we can 'see the trees for the wood'!

More hazel removed

After a morning spent meandering the East Coniston woods clearing scrubby growth from the hundreds of archaeology site in the woods (I forgot to take photos - sorry) the rest of the day we spent clearing beech regeneration from Tarn Hows wood.

 Another one down

After a well earned day off the group returned for the last two days. 
Following 3 days of tree and scrub removal it made a change to do some planting - after all what will future volunteers cut down if we don't plant anything now?

 Putting the stake in for another tree

The planting is part of a joint project with Windermere Reflections to inprove water quality.  The site is being returned to native species like oak, alder, birch, and hazel after the larch plantation blew down in 2005.  The trees were planted in tubes to stop them being damaged by red deer which are found on the site, after two days the group had planted about 350 new trees.

  More trees planted

The trees are planted quite close together so they will need thinning in perhaps 15 -20 years perhaps another working holiday can help?

The weather throughout the week was terrible with loads of wind and rain but the group remained cheerful and got some really good stuff done. 
On their last night we where invited to a meal with them at Basecamp.  How could we refuse an offer of crisp appetisers, spagetti bolognaise, left over apple sauce and custard (I don't like rice pudding).  The evening was great fun and even included a poetry recital!

Working holidays run at properties all over the country doing all kinds of jobs so if you fancy a go check out the website.
A huge thanks to this years 'woody' working holiday for the work they did, roll on 2015!

Richard Tanner
Woodland Ranger