Monday, 28 March 2016

Strawberry Castle - Part 2

Wednesday 23rd March 2016

Contrary to the wishes expressed by my colleague in last week’s blog we did not have a bonfire this week.

Wot no bonfire!
Our work party consisted of 3 volunteers and the task allotted to us was to return to the Strawberry Castle play area for more relocation of bark chippings.

The team survey the work

The first task completed.

The first task was to level out the bark chippings below one of the swings, and then it was on to the greater task of creating a pathway of wood chippings between some of the play areas. Wood chippings were loaded into wheelbarrows and transported to the area marked out by large logs and a semicircle of large stones. Once deposited the chippings were raked into a neat footpath. When finished the idea is to allow children to move between the various play areas without getting muddy.


Half completed
Relocating wood chippings

The finished article

 A water feature has been created. This comprises a water pump at one end perched on a bed of rocks. Water can be pumped down channels and at the opposite end is an Archimedes screw which pumps the water back up. The whole area is surrounded by sand, children will love this play feature. We did notice footprints in the sand which indicated that the first visitors to the site had been badgers!

Water Pump
Badgers were here first!

 On my walk back to the car park before leaving I had to stop and admire the work being done bay those hardy souls Ruth and John, who once again were stood in water repairing a stone wall along the edge of the Leapmill Burn.
Ruth and John repair the wall along the edge of Leapmill Burn

 Phil Coyne

Monday, 21 March 2016

Fire Next Time

16th March 2016

Like most portmanteau words ‘mizzle’ gets it about right. The mist was thin and seemingly distant; the rain scarcely falling. It took me a while to realize that I was getting wet - and a wee bit cold. Still, the walk over to the woods by the Lily Pond soon warmed me and, once I had started work, I was soon overheated enough to remove my waterproof. Anyway, it’s one of those cagoules that as soon as any energy is expended becomes wetter on the inside than on the outside, precipitation or not.

I was back on the hillside beneath the Monument, laying into the rhododendron once again. Other demands were due to keep me away from Gibside for two consecutive Wednesdays, so there I was on a Tuesday, just me and bird song.
After more than six decades of studying nature, I am still pretty hopeless at recognizing anything other than the most common of birds by their song. With one exception, that did for now: wren, robin, blackbird and an assortment of tits. A red kite cried, drifting over the Lily Pond; crows croaked. Under the western hemlock there were a few foraging scrapes – presumably the work of badgers, and faintly worn tracks that disappeared into the dense rhododendron growth.

A Tangle of Rhododendrons
In recent weeks the team has worked its way up the hill cutting back rhododendron and stacking it in larger and larger heaps. From now the job is likely to become more difficult, for it grows far more densely, and presents as a solid wall of thick, interwoven branches which, when cut through, remain in place held by each other. Some reach up into the tops of other trees and refuse to be dislodged. And there is another problem developing. There is not enough ground space to stack it all. In other parts of Gibside this has been overcome by reducing it to ashes. That could be difficult in this location, but will have to be done.

Yet more ...

The mizzle had long since faded, but an occasional movement of the air and my struggles with the vegetation now brought down accumulated water from the leaves and branches above. Wet once again, I packed in for the day. Perhaps it will be the fire next time.
Steve Wootten

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Of Horsetail and Rhododendron

2nd March 2016

Ranger Dan, wader-deep in the chill water of the Lily Pond, was hauling out colonizing horsetail with Wednesday Conservation Team volunteers Les and Mike taking it in turns to watch out for the total submersion that didn’t happen. Given time and left to itself, the horsetail, reed mace, and assorted other vegetation would reduce the pond to a lush, damp patch. And we wouldn’t like that. So, in order to conserve the pond habitat, young Dan waded in. Mind you, the exercise is also a cosmetic one of maintaining a feature in man-made landscape, and not letting nature take over as it is wont to do.

Working in the pond

The rest of us, meanwhile, cleared stray willow saplings from the ride above the pond, and significantly cut back those growing around it. After a cup of coffee and a bite to eat sitting in the dry under the only Grand Fir on the estate, we returned to our task of recent weeks in the adjoining woodland. This area is, in some ways, the most sterile patch in Gibside, dominated as it is by western hemlock underlain by everybody’s favourite invader, the rhododendron. The western hemlock will have to stay until the Forestry Commission come to claim their crop, but we can do for the rhododendron, help give native species a chance, and bring some variety to the woodland floor.

Thinning out the willow saplings
Continuing the war against rhododendrons

Among other things, our job, working with the rangers here at Gibside, is to manage the environment in order to give wildlife a helping hand. Put another way: we interfere with nature in order to support nature. Deciding what is natural, though, is a little difficult – especially when it comes to non-native, introduced species, and invasive species. As volunteers, we do as we are bid; decisions are taken by the professionals. But it is still a question worth pondering. For example, if we remove non-native rhododendron to stop it over-running our woodland floor, then perhaps we should do something about the native bracken that blankets other parts of Gibside’s woods. And what should be done about the likes of Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and the grey squirrel?

I wonder what's for lunch?

Taking a break under the Grand Fir

It’s all a bit subjective. Some would argue that it’s all part of nature, and that nature will sort itself out. Many introduced species will just find their niche and fit in without negatively influencing the environment or markedly changing their host habitat. But some will just seek to conquer, colonize and drive out native species. We don’t want Japanese knotweed blanketing our river banks, or grey squirrels bringing the plague to our beloved reds. Then again, some of us quite like Himalayan balsam; bumblebees certainly do. Ignore the professionals; leave the decisions to me. Let’s start with buying Dan a boat.

No it's not fog but pollen from a yew tree - a gentle
reminder that spring is almost here.

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne