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

New Beginnings

This winter we have planted 1450 trees across the sites we look after.  Some are direct replacements for felled trees, whilst others have supplemented existing planting or were entirely new.  We plant over winter as the trees are in a dormant state whilst they wait for the warmth of spring and longer days before pushing their sap up and forming buds that will be that year’s leaves.

On the Skirrid we have completed planting of the hedge banks around the new car park.  It

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Hedge planting at the Skirrid

was mostly planted in the first winter after construction, but there were some gaps at the ends where we had run out of trees.  Now the whole bank is planted and we have had a chance to replace any failed trees from the first year, a process known as ‘beating up’.
We have also been making plans to trial some elm trees that have been bred to be resistant to Dutch Elm disease.  We are just waiting for the nursery to be happy with them before planting.  We will be able to plant these later in the year as they will be bigger pot grown plants with a more developed root structure.

Jess has also planted some trees down at Lanlay Meadows following on from some hedge laying she has been doing.  In places the hedge was a little thin, so some new saplings will help to add a bit of thickness and continuity to the hedge.  Hedges are a good food source and provide features that help all sorts of wildlife travel across what would otherwise be open ground.

We have also been continuing to plant at Pont ar Daf as part of our ongoing work up there.  In the clear felled areas we have been planting a mixed upland broadleaf selection to help increase the nature value of the woods and soften its appearance in the landscape. Predominantly made up of birch, rowan and oak.  In the damper spots and along the stream edges we have been planting alder as it is very tolerant of wet ground, in fact, it rather thrives in it.  The last lot of planting has just been finished with the help from Gower National Trust Thursday Group Volunteers who also did some burning to help clear the ground for planting.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

 

Wildlife isn’t just for Christmas

So Christmas is finally upon us and it looks set to be a bit of a stormy one. Luckily our pic-1winter so far has been rather dry and mild. But our staff and volunteers will be out in all weather, rain or shine, to make sure our sites are maintained and managed properly. Some of the work I have been undertaking this winter has involved path and countryside infrastructure maintenance from revamping signs and re-wiring boardwalks to replacing steps, see the pic of Full Time Volunteer Ellie helping to put in some new steps.

To acknowledge all the good work done this year, and of course to celebrate Christmas, we held our annual staff and volunteer Christmas meal last week. Unfortunately I was unable to attend but I have been assured that a good time was had by all! The weather held long enough for everyone to enjoy a brisk walk in the Brecon Beacons before settling down to a lovely home cooked Christmas dinner prepared by our very own Joe and Stuart. So just to reiterate – a big thank you to all our volunteers for all the hard work you have put in this year!

Other festive events have been going on around our properties too – this week in Coelbren we had a crafty afternoon of making natural tree decorations, soil printing and bird feeder wreaths. Why not try using some natural materials yourself this Christmas? It’s a fun family activity to enjoy together and you will probably find most of the materials on or near your doorstep!

Winter can be hard for wildlife – food is in short supply and finding enough to sustain them through the winter can be difficult. It can also be a good time for you to spot wildlife; leaves have fallen from trees and hedges and birds are preoccupied with their hunt for food.

Try putting out some bird feed and water in your garden and sit back and watch from the comfort of a warm house, safe in the knowledge you are doing your part to help them get through this tough period. Take the time to enjoy nature – take a stroll and listen out for the pic-7drum of Greater Spotted woodpeckers as they start their courtship displays in January.

Over the past 50 years we have seen a decline in two thirds of the UK’s plant and animal species, including some of our once common garden species. There are estimated to be over 15 million gardens in Britain, so managing them for wildlife could be vital for the success of a species. One such species is the hedgehog which appears to have lost 30% of its total population since 2002, and is now thought to be declining at 5% per year. See the pic of a little guy I found in the middle of the road last autumn before going off to hibernate.

Go wild in your garden. One small step can make a big difference!

Something as simple as making a small hole in the bottom of your fence can help wildlife like hedgehogs; this joins up fragmented habitats that are vital for their survival. Or leaving a boarder or corner of your lawn to grow long during the summer will attract more insects which in turn is good for hedgehogs and other wildlife such as birds.

Wildlife isn’t just for Christmas, there are many ways to help them in your garden so don’t be complacent and start thinking ahead now!

Jess, Conservation and Engagement Ranger

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

 

Anything and everything

We’ve had a very variable time in weather and work schedule. We’ve been cutting trees down and sticking them back up again, seen many more loads of logs taken away from site, found time to deliver a special load of logs and even been above the tree line in a helicopter. Next month isn’t looking any quieter either.

First off though, we’ve had a little maintenance work to carry out in our yard, John from Usk Valley Training joined us for a day to help tame an oak tree in the middle of our car park. A little attention from time to time will allow us to keep this tree for a long time without it causing issues.

A small trim back to stop it out growing its boots.

I would also like to say a big thank-you to 5th Penllergaer Scouts. They joined us on a lovely day to help with the ongoing care of one of our new woodland plantings. They helped us remove over 2000 tree guards that saplings have now grown out of. The saplings are now 5 years old and no longer need the guards protection, in some cases, the guards were even restricting the trees growth. With the guards collected in, we’ll be able to re-use them again too.

It was all hands to the hill on the 11th May as the access team had their annual air-lift to get all their materials up the hill for this years planned footpath repairs.

Just the last few bags waiting to make their way to Pen-y-Fan.

In Pont-ar-Daf, with all the phytopthora control work out the way, we have started to fell a line to make way for a new access track around the woods. All the wood we fell here is cut to length for specific buyers who have been in collecting loads through the month. Timber from site is making its way to becoming gates and powering the power station at Port Talbot for you cup of tea.

Looking back at where we have come from.

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in Hay-on-Wye this month too. Firstly helping provide the raw materials – some big logs, for a log circle in the school grounds. This means that the infants will now be able to enjoy forest schools too.
The culmination of prepping over the last few months came together as we built the National Trust stand at Hay Festival. The main feature of the stand is a leafless tree. Throughout the festival we have been asking for peoples most memorable outdoor experiences on luggage tags and hanging them on the tree, bringing it back into leaf with colour. As well as providing a selection of logs for seating, we have also built a camp fire on the stand for people to share stories around. Thanks to our volunteers Richard and Philppa there are also some very rustic memory sticks.

That just about sums up May, June holds more rain, some outdoors inspiration, something special on the Gower and hopefully, a holiday.

The woodland team.