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.

WP_20170324_008

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.

WP_20170420_003

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.

WP_20170330_003

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.

Photo0647

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.

 

Photo0653

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.

Photo0644

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

Wild Wednesday, Ponds & Footpaths

I came to the Brecon Beacons in March to start a new role as ranger for the Sugar Loaf, Skirrid and the Begwns. There was a short period of getting to know my sites, which involved me in a Land Rover with a map trying to figure out where the heck I was. After getting to grips with the layout of the land it was headfirst into a busy summer.

The National Trust protects special places for everyone, so during the summer months a lot of energy and time is poured into getting people onto our sites and caring for and enjoying the countryside. Over the summer I’ve had a lot of fun organising the family activity days we run on the Sugar Loaf, the aptly named Wild Wednesdays, which are part of the National Trust’s 50 things to do before you’re 11 3/4 campaign to reconnect children with nature. Children are able to build dens, climb trees and hunt for creepy crawlies in the stream; it is amazing to turn over a rock and find a huge Stonefly or Caddisfly nymph and receive appreciative squeals of delight (and sometimes horror). It’s so rewarding to get families outside, interacting with their surroundings and learning something new.

The Begwns, a grazing common between the villages of Painscastle and Clyro is another one of my sites. I first visited on a cold and blustery March morning and was greeted with coldly stark yet awe-inspiring views of the Brecon Beacons, but I didn’t fully realise how exceptional this piece of common land was. My second visit was at night, wearing a fetching head torch and marching out with the local Ponds Group; led by the knowledgeable Hannah Shaw of the Freshwater Habitats Trust. We visited one pond and honestly it was like an aquatic metropolis; Smooth, Palmate and Great Crested newts marched towards the pond for their nightly activities and toads blinked at us from under the vegetation at the water’s surface. The ponds on the Begwns are veritable havens for wildlife, in fact they are so exceptional they have been made a Flagship Site for Wales by the Freshwater Habitats Trust. It is part of my job now to work alongside Hannah to monitor and protect these wonderful habitats.

Something I would never have predicted I would do over the summer is fly over the Beacons in a helicopter, it was during the airlift of stone to the Storey Arms footpath that leads to Pen y Fan. Thousands of people march up the hill every year and they all take their toll on the path. The upland team spend hours stone-pitching the paths and sowing grass seed on the eroded edges. As you can imagine the effect of thousands of people requires a lot of stone, which is where the helicopter comes in. Over the course of three days, over a hundred tonnes of stone was flown up the path. Since then staff and volunteers have worked hard using that material to make the path level and comfortable to walk on to deter people from veering to the edge. Go take a look, but do stick to the path.

It has been a busy, varied and wonderful year. For now there are parts of my sites that I am still yet to explore, gates to replace, events to organise, litter to pick and wildlife to be spied.

Kate
Commons Link Ranger

 

Down in the dumps – why all the litter?

I think we are all fortunate to live in such a stunning part of the country, and I feel especially so having a job looking after many of the special places that form part of this magnificent countryside.

As an area ranger I look after a wide variety of different properties including farms, estates, buildings, river walks and car parks. Working with colleagues as well as full and part time volunteers we engage with many people including tenants, customers, contractors and everyone else in between.

One of the challenges we face is litter! The term encompasses everything from the odd tissue that’s fallen out of someone’s pocket to stolen cars abandoned and burnt out. Along with other organisations, we seem to spend an ever increasing amount of time and resources dealing with this problem as we have to pay to dispose the majority of rubbish we remove.

As you can imagine car parks are a particular hotspot. People enjoying a take away and depositing the packaging out the window, builders dumping rubble etc. and people who make the effort to clear up after their dog but then sling the bag in a hedge or tree!! Yes seriously! Here are a few photos showing some of the litter I have been faced with.

It’s frustrating to think that dealing with this is taking time away from the core conservation work we carry out to preserve our iconic landscape. Maybe the increased pressures put on us by local authorities with regards to rubbish and recycling are contributing to the problem. Maybe the fast food and drink providers should look again at their packaging or how about us as consumers taking responsibility for disposing of rubbish appropriately!

On a lighter note I look at the way my kids are taught in school about how to recycle and look after the environment and I think there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Simon Rose
Area Ranger

Fancy a summer amognst the wild flowers?

Want to join our team, getting out and about and being part of valuable conservation and monitoring work?

We have two different volunteering options open!

Wish you were here?

Wish you were here?

We are looking for a Full Time Volunteer Wildlife recorder for the summer months to undertake species monitoring and surveying across our sites.
We’re also looking for local volunteers who maybe visit our sites regularly to get involved in species recording when it suits you.

Accommodation is provided with the full time role and all volunteers will get support and the necessary training.
Email me on beth.heasman@nationaltrust.org.uk for more information!

Outdoors and indoors, a divided team.

May has been quite a varied month with one half of the woods team office-bound, we’ve not quite been running at full pace, but have ticked off a few of those office jobs that have been put off in favour of getting outdoors.

So, out in the woods Stuart has been dragging in and stacking the timber covered in our previous blogs.  Soft woods from Pont-ar-Daf as part of our woodland plan is making its way into sawmills and hardwood thinnings from the river that are destined to become firewood.  All this helps fund our conservation work in the woodlands.  Removing trees to create space and light, allowing space for new trees and lower flora levels to come through, creating a mixed age structure and levels in the woodlands that benefit a wider range of wildlife and at the same time, not wasting the products of the woodland.  Hopefully this goes some way to a sustainable circle.

Pont-ar-Daf, pick-up sticks

Great big mess of sticks waiting to be pulled in, stacked and sold before we can re-plant.

Not allowed out, Tim has been bashing away at the computer, fixing bits, and out meeting schools and suppliers.  Not the usual things we write about here, but the bits that keep us moving.  Hopefully you will be starting to see a wave of updates and new sections to our websites, social media and notice boards. Planning towards the Welsh 50 things campaign and Hay Festival.
Working with members of the local Forest Education Initiative, we will be helping to provide log circles for forest school sessions in their grounds and have welcomed students from Coleg Powys to help us renovate our volunteer accommodation with the replacement of the decking.
Some of the equipment essential to our every day work has finally had some down time too for essential repairs and spares have been gathered up to keep us going through the summer.

Dan-y-Gyrn deck by Coleg Powys

Getting the new decking structure in with Coleg Powys.

June should see Tim declared fit again and allowed out the office, not soon enough for the woods team, all this good weather they’ve missed out on, best get busy, there’s felling fencing and firewood to be completed.

Glad to be in the woods,
The woods team.