A volunteer’s-eye view

I’m the new Full Time Volunteer ranger at the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire base and whilst I am here I will be getting involved in a wide range of projects with both the estate and the nature teams.

We have recently been busy maintaining the railings at Clytha, litter picking and

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Early developments of the Skirrid pond

strimming around paths to keep the walking routes easily accessible and looking beautiful. We have also been busy landscaping a nature pond that will be surrounded by a grassland and picnic area at the Skirrid car park. It is early days for the pond, as you can see from the photo and our basic plan below giving you an idea of its location, but we hope to see lots of wildlife within and around it soon, such as frogs, newts and damselflies.

Preliminary Skyrrid pond plan

Basic plan giving an idea of the location

 

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Meadow Brown butterfly

With the nature team I have been busy nature surveying. This includes a weekly butterfly survey at Lanlay where we have found many Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood and Small Tortoise Shell butterflies. We have also done many flora surveys and I have been blown away by how many beautiful plants are within National Trust properties in Wales. Due to careful maintenance and management of the land, especially controlling grazing levels, the National Trust has been able to welcome many plant species back to areas where they have previously been lost.Some of my favourite plants I have seen are: the elegant (pale coloured) Heath Spotted-orchid at Lanlay, the beautiful (deep purple) Southern Marsh-orchid at Coelbren – of which we found a whopping 48, and the primitive looking liverworts and mosses at Henrhyd Falls adding to its majestic atmosphere.

 

I am very much looking forward to the rest of my time with the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire National Trust team and am eager to learn more about the important land management and habitat conservation work they carry out. I hope that some of you will venture out to see some of the amazing plants and places that I have mentioned above.

Thanks, Ellie
Full Time Volunteer Ranger

Where have all the footpaths gone?

Over the last few years the high rainfall and snow falling nearer to spring time combined with a couple of poor years in the growing season and an increase in large groups walking the hills, have resulted with the Beacons beginning to erode once more.

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Storey Arms path suffering from rising water

In the past, walkers along with the weather had worn down some of the footpaths and the surrounding areas up to 2.5m deep. Due to a lack of funds, we had not been able to build these back up to the original height resulting in them being a catchment for snow and rain.

 

Walkers compact the deep snow turning it into ice which everybody avoids. This results in people spreading out to look for the shallowest snow to walk on leading to a new section of land being worn away. The increase in walkers causes this erosion to get deeper and wider with some areas having seen a soil loss of up to 10cm in one year. This occurs most winters.

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Pont ar Daf – walkers avoiding the compact snow

Due to the erosion, we have to revegetate the area after every winter if we want to prevent further loss of soil. But I have noticed the damage from this recent winter is worse as more and more large groups climb to the summits and continue to spread out.

 

Throughout the spring the weather

L&M NTV sitting down breaking up the ground to sow the seed.

National Trust volunteers working hard to repair the footpaths

remained cold which delayed our revegetation work by several weeks on all the major access routes, so we did not begin work until the end of May. With the help of a group from Pontypridd and London & Middlesex, these National Trust volunteers provided vital help on the path leading up to Corn Du from Storey Arms by digging ditches, breaking up the compacted ground and starting to spread grass seed and fertilizer to give the land some much needed nutrients.

At the end of June we will be airlifting over 100 tonnes of sandstone scalpings (small stone and dust) on to the Storey Arms to Corn Du path. This is the only stone we are permitted to use and we will be doing this because the scalpings airlifted 11 years ago have now all but eroded away.

Look out for the next blog from the access team where we will update you on the footpath work following the airlift.

Thank you

Rob – Lead Ranger

Stop looking and let your senses take over

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Coed-y-Bwnydd bluebells

Whilst we have been busy encouraging you to go and see the bluebells at sites such as Coed-y-Bwnydd (Woodlands at Coed-y-Bwnydd article) and on the Skirrid (article on the Skirrid) with a good dose of images, what these don’t share with you is all the other senses you can only experience by getting out there.

This struck me recently after a recent walk around Coed-y-Bwnydd after installing a new information board by the main gate – more here on our Facebook page.  Walking around to see the progress of the bluebells; experiencing the cool and the warmth as I caught the sun’s heat that was waking the bluebells in between the dappled shade of the emergent leafs on the trees.  More so was the smell of the bluebells, growing stronger as the clusters of flowers got denser.

The smell of different trees is something I have been aware of for quite a while as a forester whilst we are felling or again as we process the timber into sawn wood or firewood.  A selection of smells, some trees are fruity like citrus or a watermelon, others are more plain like school dinner mashed potato and oak just smells like oak and nothing else.  The flowers and blossom that are now present on the trees are also intense and sweet, particularly hawthorn and burr cherry and especially gorse on a hot day.

Not all smells are so welcome, silage is a divisive one (that I like) and some go out of their way to smell bad, like this Stink Horn fungus.

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You can’t see how bad it smells, but you can see how popular it is with the flies

As you walk around, the sound of the birds builds and builds.  The distinctive call of the cuckoo is one that people listen out for.  At the start of the month we heard their return to the Upper Tarell Valley from where we are based and heard through Twitter of their return to the Sugar Loaf at the end of April (how odd does that phrase sound?).

There are a few tastes out there too for the forager right now, but the real bounty comes at the end of the summer as everything comes into fruit.

Stop looking at pictures and start being part of the scenery, close your eyes and see what you discover.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

Maintaining Our Boundaries – Clytha Railings Project

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What railings?

At the end of last year we decided to replace an old section of parkland railings that formed part of a field boundary on Ffynonnau Farm. The original hedge had grown up around them making them impossible to maintain.

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The Woodlands team have been hard at work

 

The Woodlands team cut back as much of the trees and bushes as they could but were hampered by the original railings being entwined in the trees. Traffic lights were also needed as some of the bigger trees had to be felled on to the busy adjacent road.

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Some of the many supporting stanchions

 

I needed to replace 150 meters of railings which meant getting 120 stanchions (metal frames) made to support the railings. With the help of my volunteers we managed to paint most of the frames in the workshop before starting the job. Because cattle will be kept in the field we concreted every 10th frame in place to give extra support to the railings.

I used a solid metal bar connected with short sections of tube for the railings which was then welded together on site using a portable welder generator.

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Making use of an old style

 

There is a right of way that crosses the field and the fence so I had to put a style in as a legal requirement. I recycled an old one and re-enforced the railing with steel tube to take the weight of people climbing over it. As part of the Clytha river walk we are encouraging people to walk along the inside of this stretch of railings and cross the road through the 4’ gate. This is a lot safer than walking along the edge of the busy road.

We had a working holiday at the beginning of March carrying out a variety of work during their week of volunteering. With their help, and the aid of a few days dry weather, I managed to get the railings under coated and top coated. As you can see below they seemed to enjoy the task! The work was mostly funded from the tenant farmers farm improvement grant and goes a long way to maintaining the historical views around the Clytha Estate.

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Happy volunteers providing vital support to the team

Cheers
Simon – Area Ranger

New beginnings – mad as a March hare

After a long and very wet winter, we finally seem to be coming out the other side. The

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Bluebells at Coed y Bwnydd

countryside is stirring and beginning to come alive with the chattering of birds, the emergence of toads and frogs, the first of the wild flowers sprouting through the cold ground and mammals beginning to wake from their deep winter sleep.

One of the sure signs of spring, if you’re lucky enough to spot it, are brown hares sparring. Once a common sight in the countryside, the brown hare has suffered a decline of more than 80% in the last 100 years. Their breeding season is mainly March and there is a saying – ‘to be as mad as a March hare’. This phrase derives from observing the antics of hares during their breeding season, from rearing up on their hind legs, boxing with each other in the middle of an open field, sometimes with an audience, to jumping high in the air and chasing each other frantically. The brown hare eventually became known as the symbol of fertility, and a sign of spring.

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Brown Hare, laying low in a form, Orford Ness, National Trust Images/Andrew Capell

Easter Sunday is a religious holiday to some and a family holiday to others, but how did the Easter bunny get involved? Easter is originally a pagan festival that celebrated the end of the winter and its symbol was the brown hare which represented fertility and the rebirth of nature following the cold, hard winter. As rabbits are similar to hares and are common, the symbol was changed to the Easter bunny. Eggs, like rabbits and hares are fertility symbols of the past, and so came about the rabbit delivering eggs at Easter to mark the arrival of spring.

With the beginning of the new season my role as conservation ranger will be shifting from the winter work of habitat management and maintenance to surveying and monitoring our wildlife and habitats. This is to ensure the management work is having a positive effect and I will also be delivering events with fun activities that encourage people to get outdoors and closer to nature.

To kick this off the Brecon team will be hosting an Easter event on the Sugar Loaf near

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Den building on the Sugar Loaf

Abergavenny on Saturday 26th March which involves a self led Cadbury Easter Egg hunt and a Wild Wednesday event on 30th March and 6th April. During our Wild Wednesdays you will get a chance to tick off some of the 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ activities whilst having a fun family day out. For more info please see our Facebook page or website.

We will be running a variety of different events throughout the year so keep an eye out for updates on our Facebook page or visit the National Trust website for more details.

I look forward to seeing you on an event soon

Jess, Conservation Ranger

Working hard to keep footpaths open

As a relatively new ranger with the National Trust, I thought I would explain some of

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Trench dug and ready to lay pitching

my responsibilities and show what I have been doing. My position as part of the access team is predominantly responsible for the repair and maintenance of the Pont ar Daf and Storey Arms paths leading to Corn Du, Pen y Fan and Cribyn; here I use a number of methods to prevent erosion of the paths and surrounding hillsides, which without constant management can quickly deteriorate. 

The central Brecon Beacons have an average annual rainfall of approx. 2400mm compared with the nearby town of Brecon which on average receives just 1173mm. This level of water can rapidly deteriorate pathways as do other factors such as footfall. With over 200,000 mountain lovers visiting the highest peak in southern Britain (Pen y Fan) each year, erosion is a serious problem. To protect and combat issues like these we use stone pitching, which is an ancient method pre-dating the Romans. It involves laying large boulders in rows embedded into the paths (see below image), which is similar to cobbling but on a much larger scale and a very resilient way of surfacing a pathway.

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Boulders embedded into trench and packed with small stones and soil

We then cover the pitching with Old Red Sandstone scalpings which settles into the ground; this offers protection and a better walking surface. Along with stone pitching and scalpings, we create a number of culverts, cross and side ditches to keep the water off the paths. These are also stone laid for strength, longevity and ease of clearing out which must be done regularly.

Landscaping and reseeding grasses help us stabilise bare earth and blend in our work. I also work closely with our volunteers and those on working holidays who provide much needed assistance to maintaining the footpaths.

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A volunteer working hard on the Pont ar Daf footpath

In addition I also assist with family events such as Wild Wednesdays during the school holidays where we incorporate the National Trust’s hugely popular 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ including activities such as building a den, climbing a tree and damming a stream, all of which are set within the woodland of St Mary’s Vale and the Sugar Loaf.

I hope you can join us for one of our events on the Sugar Loaf, starting off with our Cadbury Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday 26 March. Or if you come across me and the rest of the team working on the footpaths in the central Brecon Beacons, please stop and say hello.

Thanks, Huw Barrell
Ranger – Brecon Beacons

Let’s go down to the woods today

It has been just over 4 years since we started our work at Pont-ar-Daf, the woodland at one of the busiest access points to Pen-y-Fan.  When we first arrived on site, it was a neglected and unmanaged commercial crop.  A study of the site carried out by our nature conservation team considered it to be of little value to nature, the highlights being a strip of old birch and oak wood running through it at the north end, a drainage ditch at the south end and a failed Scots Pine crop in the middle, each being quite significant for the species found in them.

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Work only just starting at the beginning of 2012

The wood has changed somewhat since then, rapidly at first with the discovery of a disease in the larch trees (Phytophthora ramorum) and more gradually as we have improved access around the woods to allow for future management.  We are looking to maintain a mix of species of varying age.  The new tracks intersect old plough lines, in turn reducing run-off.  The intention is to keep these tracks as wide corridors to let light into the wood and give space for woodland floor species.  In other sections we are maintaining cover to preserve the humidity and moisture for ferns, mosses and other damp loving plants.

What has impressed us the most is the explosion of wildlife we’ve seen in the wake of our work.  One of our aims is to increase the nature conservation value of the site and by spending a lot of time there, we are seeing all sorts of things take advantage that weren’t before.

Frog spawn was probably the first thing we spotted.  With the harvesting machines not

Frog spawn

Frog spawn

long off site, they were quick to make use of the puddles left behind by the machines tracking across the hillside.

Apart from the trees we have planted (with varying success until we fenced out the sheep that wander the road), there has been a gradual increase in the natural spread of plants across the site.  Taking advantage of the light now making it to the floor, lack of competition and particularly the disturbance of the ground where we have been working and landscaping.  Various grasses and reeds have come up along with primroses, rosebay willow herb, foxgloves, heather, bilberry, marsh violets, gorse, bramble, bluebells and colts foot as well as some natural tree regeneration of birch, rowan and some of the conifer species that were on the site.  All the seed has been unlocked from the soil or come by natural means.

We have noticed a gradual increase in bird sound, particularly noticeable in the breaks from using machinery.  Just as the sound bursts in and you start looking around, you can see the birds.  Ravens, buzzards and red kites circle overhead, occasionally taking a perch in the tree tops.  Lower down, below the canopy and hunting for insects, we see tree pipit (a rare red status species), redstart (amber), treecreeper, robins and many members of the tit family.

Some species which may be considered shy can be quite brazen.  A quite unexpected spot

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Red Grouse in flowering heather

by Stuart our Lead Woodland Ranger was a Red grouse, walking past him as he stacked timber with the tractor.  It was picking its way through the heather, grazing its way up the hill, taking advantage of the new, young growth.

This was not the only brazen visitor to the woods.  We saw footprints and tracks in the snow criss-crossing the site, but one afternoon during a chainsaw course we were hosting, a fox popped up from the lower part of the woods, trotted over the top of a timber stack, observing the trainees and taking a leisurely walk around.  The fox watched them from a relatively short distance in the trees; one of those moments too busy watching to take a picture.

The increased sunlight and extra ground vegetation cover has allowed for a great increase in the number of sun loving creatures.  Butterflies and moths seem more frequent across the site, following access tracks and floating over the clear fell areas.  Pictured below is one we found whilst fencing the southern tip of the site.  It really stood out with the bright pink on black, sat on top of a yellow flower, unusually bright for a moth.

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Five-spot Burnet moth, spotted whilst fencing

Another sun worshipper, spotted sunning themselves on the tree stumps, or here on one of the old boundary walls, is a common lizard.

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Common Lizard sunning itself

As we walk across the site we have seen various small mammals running through the maze of brash, only the briefest of glimpses as they run for cover, but looking like shrews and mice.

This leaves us with our most recent spot.  Most likely feeding off the small mammals and

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Kestrel, hovering

reptiles, we’ve been watching a kestrel hunt for its lunch while we stopped to eat ours, watching it hover and dive, completely unfazed by a busy car park and walkers making their way up and down the hill.  So a plan for this year is to build a nest box for the kestrel, place it high and sheltered and see what happens.

A lot of this increase is benefiting from the work we are carrying out, but we have been spending a lot of time up there too and just being out there increases your chances of seeing the wildlife.

Tim – Woodland Ranger