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

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