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

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

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

Volunteers in action

Our volunteers help us massively and hopefully, we help them too.

In the woods team we quite often have a full-time volunteer working with us.  They get to shadow us, join in our day to day work and gradually we introduce them to the skills of our trade and collectively we get a lot more done together.

Our most recent volunteer was Henry.  Henry was with us for a little over a year and saw the whole cycle of our work schedule, there’s more to forestry than just cutting down trees.  Over the period of a year our volunteers often get to be involved in all the stages of a woodland’s life; preparation, planting, thinning, harvesting, milling and construction. Not to mention all the side roles of a ranger, whether that be digging drainage ditches or being dropped up the hill by helicopter.  See some of Henry’s year in the slideshow below.

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Henry isn’t the first of our volunteers to move on successfully, you can find quite a few of our previous volunteers working in the trees or in the conservation sector.  It is great to see them all develop and get to grips with the work and move onto employment.  The only downside is they leave just as they get really good.

Some haven’t left; it is now 10 years since I turned up in the yard as a volunteer with the aim of getting better at forestry so to find work in the sector.  Some would say that progress is questionable, but I am still here and learning and getting to share the experience I have gained with other newcomers, but now as a member of staff.

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Here I am in my early days, clefting oak for a tree guard – with a four-legged friend checking out my work

We will start recruitment for a new woods volunteer at the beginning of 2017 where they’ll get to hit the ground running in the midst of our felling and planting seasons.  Keep an eye out on our Facebook and Twitter pages or take a look at the National Trust Volunteering website where there are even more opportunities and locations if the woods of the Brecon Beacons aren’t for you.

Tim
Woodland Ranger and former full-time volunteer

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