It’s a woods life for me

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Developing the forestry track

Hi, I’m Morgan a full time volunteer with the woodlands team for the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire National Trust.  It’s been a busy six months or so since I moved here from Northamptonshire so hopefully I can give you a bit of an insight into working and living in the Brecon Beacons.

A lot of my working time has been the development of a forestry track in the conifer plantation at Pont ar Daf.  Those of you who have walked up to Corn Du or Pen y Fan in the last six months may have walked past the woods if you took the Storey Arms or Pont ar Daf paths, you may even have heard the chainsaws.

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The finished result

The aim of the project was to increase the length of the original track, allowing a full circuit of the woodland to improve future access and management.  The long term management of this woodland involves felling coupes (half hectare blocks) from the inside working outwards, with a replanting scheme of native hardwoods (60%) and natural regeneration of conifers (40%).  This is a 50 year plan, showing there are no quick fixes in woodland management.

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Morgan working hard

I was straight into felling in my first week under the watchful eyes of Stuart and Tim, the woodland rangers.  I had the chance to get stuck into much bigger trees than I’ve ever felled before and quickly became comfortable and more efficient in the routine of felling and neatly stripping down trees of their branches, ready for extraction.

Once the felling was completed, we began extracting the timber.  Each tree has been graded and, depending on its quality, was cut to length to be sold, ending up as saw mill logs or fencing stakes for example.  Whilst extracting timber, a local contractor helped level the ground, install drainage pipes and stone the track.  The drainage in particular being vital in an area where there is such high annual rainfall.  Being so important, they required suitable protection on both the inlet and outlet sides, using large stones in a dry-stone wall style to retain the earth and stone behind it – especially with heavy forestry machinery using the track.  Below you can see the use of both the natural stone we uncovered whilst digging the track and recycled kerb stones.

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Outside of work, I’ve been lucky enough to live in the Tarell Valley.  The diversity of wildlife found in this fairly wooded valley has been a pleasure to watch in my spare time.  With so many areas to explore from the front door, I’ve been spoilt for choice.  The conditions at these higher altitudes provide different habitats for species I have never seen in the lowlands of the Midlands such as the golden ringed dragonfly, wood wasp and regular dipper sightings on the Tarell river.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Carno wood, where the National Trust has done a lot of positive management over the last 25 years.  It provides a lovely display of bluebells earlier in the year and is bursting with breeding birds in spring – many of these have travelled from Africa to nest in Britain, including willow warblers, chiff chaffs and wood warblers.  I’d really recommend trying to visit this woodland, early spring mornings are almost deafening with the vast array of birdsong.  Seeing the seasons change and the wildlife that comes and goes with those changes has been a privilege.  The pictures of the stream below show the variation in flow rate after a period of heavy rain in early March and over a month of unseasonably dry weather in late April.

Joining the team here has been a fantastic experience, I’m learning and improving my skills every day and hopefully it will result in gaining future employment in woodland conservation and forestry.  I’d recommend a position like this to anyone considering a similar career path.

Cheers, Morgan

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Erosion control on our beautiful mountains

Hi everyone I’m Huw, an uplands ranger in the central Brecon Beacons working in the beautiful surroundings of southern Britain’s highest mountains, Pen y Fan (886m) and Corn Du (873m).  A huge part of my job is erosion control, so I thought I would update you on what we have been up to.

Erosion is the greatest threat to the enjoyment of our mountains.  Upland areas are a fragile environment owing to the harsh climatic conditions.  The vegetative covering takes many years to establish but is easily eroded.  Our main consideration is to prevent further erosion and restore damaged areas in order that the mountains may continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Due to the increase of walkers on one of our busiest paths, the Pont ar Daf (with an average annual footfall of over 360,000) sections of the path need widening.  This work has recently been carried out with the assistance of a working holiday group.  It has been achieved using a number of methods including stone pitching, an ancient technique pre dating the Romans, and involves burying large boulders upright in the ground with each layer of stone overlapping the last, much like cobbling on a larger scale.  This is a very time consuming feat, each one metre square section of stone pitching can cost up to £150 and take one day to construct.  We then resurface the path with soil or scalpings (Old Red Sandstone which has been crushed into gravel) then landscape the surrounding areas.

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Volunteers hard at work amongst the many walkers

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Protecting the newly seeded ground

We have erected a number of fences/hurdles leading from Corn Du towards the saddle between the two peaks.  In order to prevent further erosion we have attempted to re-vegetate this area numerous times, but to no avail.  Due to the location, elements and footfall defeating us, it has stayed bare.  These hurdles should protect the area, while the seed and fertilizer put down with assistance from our working holiday group takes hold.  This process is likely to take a couple of years so these hurdles will stay in situ until then.

Recently the two Bronze Age burial cairns located on the summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du have become severely eroded and were beginning to become undermined due to ever changing weather conditions and the feet of thousands of visitors.  These cairns were excavated in the early 1990’s by a team of archaeologists with the support of the National Trust, where Bronze Age artefacts were uncovered including a bronze spear head.  With the help of our two upland full time volunteers, Hazel and Nathan, who
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Nathan & Huw repairing the cairn

work closely with us carrying out various conservation tasks in and around the Brecon Beacons, we have repaired the cairn on Corn Du using stone pitching to reinforce and stabilize the structure.  Once, the summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du were heavily vegetated and there are accounts of times gone by where people could shelter from the ever changing weather conditions behind two metre high peat hags.  Now there is very little vegetation remaining and the summits are predominantly bare, having eroded down to the Old Red Sandstone bedrock.  Even the fascinating ‘ripple’ marks, the remnants of the seabed that take us back millions of years when the summits of the Beacons were beneath the sea and thousands of miles away from their current location, have begun to erode away.

These upland mountain paths are not purely intended to assist the walker with a solid foothold and clear line to follow, but are actually designed to protect the mountain from your feet.  These hard-wearing, constructed paths take thousands of people to the summits of our highest peaks every year, while preventing further erosion.

If you happen to be out and about walking the Beacons and come across us, please do stop and say hello!

Huw – Uplands Ranger

 

The Skirrid; development of a car park

The car park at the Skirrid mountain north of Abergavenny, Monmouthshire has been open for just over a year.  This was one of the first National Trust pay and display car parks in our area and it has been quite a steep learning curve for looking after and maintaining it.  We went from having a lay by that could hold a maximum of 15 cars on the busy Abergavenny to Skenfrith road to having a spacious safe area for 60 plus vehicles to park – see the before and after images of when it was first opened below.

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Posts inserted to help protect and maintain the entrance

Ongoing improvements to the car park have taken place including inserting wooden posts to mark the edge of the entrance and around the ticket machine.  These help to guide visitors to the parking areas and prevent people from driving on the grass verges, which could cause damage to the land, and possibly get stuck.

As with the majority of the timber we use elsewhere, these posts were felled and processed locally at our own properties.  One of my volunteers, Alan, profiled them before being treated for weather proofing.  Continuing the volunteer theme, Amy one of our full time volunteers who is working with various members of the team to gain some practical conservation experience, helped me put the posts in place.


Unfortunately over the last year the ticket machine has suffered some attempted break-ins which have left it looking a bit shabby.  We decided to replace it with one that will be able to scan membership cards and move it to a more central and secure location in the car park.  Also after a year of operating the pay and display service, we have reviewed and adjusted the tariffs to better reflect the visitor usage.

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A more central and secure location for the replaced machine

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Update hourly car park tariffs

The income from the car park helps towards the upkeep of the area but also contributes to the vital conservation work we carry out on the Skirrid to allow all our visitors to continue enjoying the countryside.

As with all of our sites we are constantly looking to make our visitors’ enjoyment the best it can be.

Simon Rose
Area Ranger

Keeping our meadows special

Hay meadows and other species rich grasslands once made up a large part of the landscape in the UK and played a vital role in our natural and cultural heritage.  High nature value grasslands were found in every parish across the country but since the 1930s agricultural improvements have intensified, along with other developments, and today only 2% remain.  Nearly 7.5 million acres of wildflower meadows have been lost so far and they are still under threat.  What remains has become increasingly rare and fragmented so it is really important we maintain and revive the grasslands we have left.

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Cattle at Lanlay meadows near Cardiff

Looking after these meadows involves no chemical inputs, e.g. fertilisers or pesticides, with grazing being the most natural method of managing the land.  As the cattle graze across the landscape, they create a mosaic of different sward lengths, bare ground and micro habitats.  They are also less selective in what they eat and don’t just target wildflowers like sheep do.  This all contributes to maximising the potential for biodiversity on a grazed site.

Trampling creates areas of bare ground, which is beneficial in moderation.  It creates nurseries for seedlings that might not otherwise survive and habitats and hunting grounds for warmth-loving invertebrates and reptiles.

Dung creates a whole ecosystem by itself.  A range of wildlife move into a cowpat to set up home – more than 250 species of insect are found in or on cattle dung in the UK and these in turn provide food for birds, badgers, foxes and bats.

As part of my role I manage three sites, all of which have hay meadows and rhos pasture (wet meadows) among other grassland habitats that are of high nature value.  One of these is Lanlay meadows near Cardiff.

Grazing is an important part of the management of Lanlay.  Without this method of control, the vegetation would soon become rank and we would eventually lose some of the plants that make this site so special.  It has been a challenge to find a grazier for the site as it is small and tucked away, but this year we have finally managed it!

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Cattle arriving at Lanlay meadows near Cardiff

The cattle seem to have settled in nicely and are doing a really good job of munching on an invasive species called Himalayan balsam – which has spread through the wet fields in particular and is threatening to shade out lots of our native plant species.  We also cut the hay fields once a year in late summer (mid-late July or early August).  If we did it earlier it would prevent meadow plants from setting seed.  The cut grass is then dried on the field.  Turning and drying the hay on the fields lets more seeds to be shed and afterwards in late summer we allow the cattle in for grazing.

How can you help?
Are you a regular dog walker at Lanlay?  If so you could keep an eye on the cattle for us to make sure they are all healthy and safe.  Please get in touch if you notice any issues on 07483 905537 or 01874 625515.  Training may be available in stock checking if you are interested in monitoring regularly.

National Meadows Day

At another of our sites, Berthlwyd Farm near Ystradfellte (Waterfall country), we are having a free open day in the meadows on Saturday 1st July.  This is a unique opportunity and rare occasion as the farm is not usually open to the public.  National Meadows Day is a celebration of traditional meadows across the country and there will be activities for all the family including bug hunts, soil printing and meadow bingo.  There will also be guided walks, flower surveys and moth trapping.  It’s a free, drop in event so come along and take a look at what traditional, unspoilt hay meadows should really look like – full of colour and life.  For more information check out our Facebook page.

Jess, Conservation and Engagement Ranger

 

 

 

 

Elm, creating a future from the past

Once a commonplace tree, elm was favoured for furniture making and wheel building for its dense grain and strength as well as its use with water, for bridges and even pipes, due to its durability.  These days however elm is rather absent from the landscape particularly in its larger, older forms.  The majority succumbed to a fungus spread by beetles best known as Dutch elm disease that saw a rapid drop in elm numbers since the 1960’s.

The Dutch part of its name comes from much of the early study of the disease being conducted in the Netherlands.  Beetle larvae hatch and grow from dead elm, picking up spores from the fungus as they grow.  When they become beetles they fly off in search of fresh elm bark to feed on, at which point they introduce the fungus to a new tree and the cycle starts again.  The beetles favour trees over 20 years old and few elms make it beyond 30 years.  Even their regeneration is thwarted by the fungus.

The Conservation Foundation has set up The Great British Elm Project to try and bring this once common tree back to our landscape.  On a positive note not all elms have succumbed to the disease.  This could be through isolation or, as the project hopes to find and benefit from, a natural borne resistance to the disease.  Cuttings have been taken from a selection of these survivors that have lived through the last 60 years and continue to thrive.  The project has distributed these now saplings around the country where they are to be grown on and monitored to see if the survivors hold the key to the future.

Having seen the effect of the disease and its ongoing breakdown of trees, just as they seem to be getting into their stride, to come across this project towards the end of last year certainly got our attention.  Our five trees arrived in March which was getting close to the end of the planting season as sap was starting to rise, so we decided not to plant them out this year.  For now they have been potted up into bigger pots of compost and placed in our tree nursery.  This will give us the chance to plant them at a better time of year as well as giving them time to become slightly more hardy trees.

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More preparation work

This project comes at a good time.  With the threat of Chalara fraxinea, there is the risk of a disease that could seriously reduce our woodland cover as it threatens one of our most prolific trees, the ash.  Ash and elm favour a lot of similar conditions, so if ash were to be seriously affected, it would be great to have a viable elm population that could help fill the gap.

We have a few thoughts on where to plant them out, certainly at Clytha in Monmouthshire where we see existing elms getting knocked back each time.  We will probably also add some to the new planting at the Skirrid car park, near Abergavenny, where they will be visible below the ancient woodland that covers the southern slopes.  As for the remaining one or two, we still have a few months to decide, so will be keeping an eye out for suitable spots across our sites.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

Combating erosion, a constant battle

Easter is always a busy time of year for the National Trust and this was no exception for us with 30,000 visitors through the gates at Pont ar Daf and Storey Arms during the month of April.  Sadly the visitors to the central Brecon Beacons did leave evidence of their trip by scattering lots of rubbish including 239 bags of dog poo, 109 empty plastic water bottles as well as an empty bottle of champagne and drinking glasses.  Over the Easter break, National Trust staff and volunteers picked up 11 full sacks of rubbish from the slopes alone.  We’re also very grateful to those nameless walkers who continue to pick up rubbish when they are out and about.

Visitor numbers to the central Brecon Beacons continue to grow every year and 2016 saw an increase of over 30,000 people through the gate at Pont ar Daf, the most popular access route to Pen y Fan, compared to the previous year.  And these busy periods are not just restricted to holidays such as Easter.  Each winter, once the snow has fallen, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwalkers avoid the slippery compacted ice on the footpaths and spread out looking for better grip, thus stripping the once vegetated areas below and creating wide, bare scars.  As the snow melts and the rain falls, the soil is then washed away leaving behind ruts which fill with rain water, eventually creating gullies.  During the thawing of the paths, loosened soil gets picked up by walkers on their footwear and when combined with rainfall the soil loss on the footpaths can be over 5cm deep in winter.  The lost soil takes hundreds of years to be replaced naturally; we cannot replace it as the whole area has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, so we can only use what is in keeping with the area, and in this case sandstone.

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University of Bath students getting stuck in

Every spring and early summer we need to landscape and revegetate the areas surrounding the footpaths to try and prevent further loss of soil, in order to achieve this we rely on the help of volunteers.  In March and April we welcomed students from Strode College, Somerset and University of Bath who assisted in opening up some of the cross and side ditches.  These ditches were trampled during the winter period and this conservation work will allow the water to run away from the footpaths once again.  We have many more volunteer groups booked in for the summer period to help us with vital erosion control work.

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Strode College students working hard

The footpaths continue to erode as they are mainly subsoil paths so we need to put a harder wearing surface on top.  This summer we are hoping to airlift 200 tonnes of sandstone scalpings onto sections of the Storey Arms and Pont ar Daf footpaths.  All this work costs money and at present only money received from National Trust member subscriptions are paying for it.  Looking ahead, the income that will be generated from the new proposed car park at Pont ar Daf will assist towards the future financial costs of combating erosion, such an essential part of my role as lead ranger for the central Brecon Beacons.

Rob Reith
Lead Ranger

My volunteer story

Hello, my name is Lewis Robertson and I’ve been a Full Time Volunteer Uplands Ranger with the National Trust Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire team for 12 months now and I wanted to share my experiences with you.  If you’ve been up Pen y Fan in the last year, you may have seen me working on the footpaths with the uplands team.

I originally come from the North East of Scotland and moved here to work as a volunteer after finishing my degree in Environmental Science as I wanted to gain the experience and skills necessary for a career in conservation.

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Preparing the ground ready for grass seeding & fertilising

The majority of my time has been spent working on the footpaths of the central Brecon Beacons helping to control erosion.  With hundreds of thousands of people walking the Beacons each year, it is a constant challenge to not only maintain the footpaths but also minimise the erosion to the path edges.  I’ve heard it being compared to painting the Forth Rail Bridge by visitors and that sounds about right.

 

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Clearing out culverts by hand on Bwlch Duwynt

 

Building drainage features and widening or replacing path sections are very time consuming because almost all the work is done by hand.  When stone pitching, each stone has to be carefully dug deep into the ground and set at the correct angle to match the stones around it.  It sounds simple in theory but it takes a lot of practice and skill to do it quickly.  It’s a very old technique for building a path and predates the Romans but if done well it blends into the landscape and lasts a long time.

Working on the footpaths has given me some fantastic experiences.  Most notably assisting with last year’s helicopter airlift where we moved bags of crushed sandstone (scalpings) to damaged areas of the Storey Arms path.  Not only did I get to work as part of the team on the ground but I also got to ride in the helicopter, twice! It was an amazing experience and I’ll never forget it.

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We need a lot of kit for maintenance work!

Maintaining footpaths in the uplands is very hard and physical work.  It was a little shock to the system when I first started but I soon got used to it.  I enjoy practical work and there’s a real sense of achievement to be gained from constructing stone drainage features and paths.  I myself am a keen hill walker and I really enjoy giving something back to the hills by helping to protect them.

Naturally working in the hills means enduring all weather conditions and the Brecon Beacons certainly hasn’t disappointed.  There have been times where my coffee has been ripped out of my cup by the wind and then continuously refilled by the rain but you soon forget about that on a nice sunny day.

Working in the Brecon Beacons has been an amazing experience, I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed every minute of it.  I’ve worked with some wonderful people in an iconic location and I’ll never forget my time here – highly recommended.

Thanks
Lewis