25 September 2015

Learning to love our beautiful bogs

Anyone who’s walked the Lake District will have had an experience where they’ve sunk up to their knees in a bog. But next time you’re cursing your soggy feet, bear in mind that bogs aren’t all bad – they’re amazing habitats that also provide all sorts of important benefits for humans.

Walla Crag
A typical boggy scene facing the hill-walker (LDNPA photo)

There are a couple of types of bog in the Lakes. Blanket bogs cover vast areas and sit on top of flat plateaus; these are mainly found in the north and east Lakes, and are more typical of the Pennines and Peak District. Much more common, especially around our patch in the south Lakes, are flush bogs. These form in smaller, flat hollows on hillsides and hilltops where the movement of rainwater slows down, leading to permanent waterlogging.

Sphagnum mosses

Sphagnum mosses are easily overlooked but they're beautiful species in their own right. Good quality bogs can hold around ten different species. (Photo Rob Clarke)

The wet ground is colonised by carpets and hummocks of sphagnum mosses, which are ‘keystone species’ in bog formation (species which produce an environment that other species need to survive). Sphagnum thrive in the acidic flushes and create a layer of peat, made from the dead plant material that doesn’t decompose due to the cool climate, waterlogging and its own acidity. As the peat doesn’t decay (as long as it remains waterlogged) it can build to many metres deep. This wet, peaty environment then provides a home for other specialist plants such as cottongrass, bog asphodel, cross-leaved heath, and the insectivorous sundews; they subsequently support a specialist range of invertebrates, as well as birds like curlews.
Sundew growing amongst Sphagnum moss (Wikipedia photo)

How bogs help us

Peat bogs aren’t just great for wildlife, they’re vital for us too. By slowing down the flow of water off the hills, they reduce flooding downstream, and help improve water quality. As the plant material that is sat, undecomposed, in peat is primarily carbon, they are also a huge carbon store – in the UK, they’re our biggest resource of carbon (with 22m tons stored in the Lakes alone) and have a net cooling effect on the climate.

South Lakes rangers puzzle over the identification of a Sphagnum moss at one our important bogs (photo Rob Clarke).

Bogs in trouble

Their importance for carbon storage and water management can mean that threats to bogs have serious consequences. Over the last few decades, peat has often been drained to improve grazing for sheep, and was traditionally a source of fuel (although this practice is fortunately fairly rare in the UK today). Dry, degraded peat bogs are prone to erosion from rain, which unlocks stored carbon, increases the speed of run-off, and requires increased treatment where water is collected for drinking. Eroding peat bogs in the Lakes are thought to be emitting about 32,000 tons of carbon every year.

Here at South Lakes, we look after our flushes by damming drainage ditches to ‘re-wet’ bogs that have previously been drained, and by clearing the encroachment of trees where necessary, which can also dry them out. We also build appropriate paths through bogs to ensure ease of access and stop people ploughing through sensitive habitat. Elsewhere in the country, huge projects are underway to re-wet entire blanket bogs, often paid for by utility companies because it’s cheaper to improve the water quality at source than to treat it when it comes out of the reservoir. It’s likely that ‘eco-system services’ like this and carbon storage will become an even more important part of our economy in future.

So, next time you’re confronted with a bog on your fell-top ramble, try not to curse and remember all the wonderful things the unsung heroes of Sphagnum and peat are doing for wildlife, and for us!

18 September 2015

The silver lining

There has been lots in the media about tree diseases over the last couple of years, Ash Dieback and Oak Processionary Moth are just a couple.

In the South Lakes woodland we have been battling a disease which affects larch trees called Phytopthera ramorum (Pr).  Its a fungal like disease which eventually kills the tree.  It's spores spread on the wind and in water so conditions in Cumbria mean the disease is a real threat, particularly our larch trees but sweet chestnut is also affected.

The Forestry Commission fly over the county in May and try to spot individual trees which may be affected from the air - they show up as having yellowy needles - healthy trees are a lovely pale green.  Once spotted the trees are tracked down on the ground (not easy even with a GPS!), felled and tested.

Peter Fox (FC) testing a suspect tree.

The inner bark is removed and tested with a special kit in the woods, if it's found to be positive further samples are sent to a lab to confirm the diagnosis.

Pr. larch on FC land above Windermere.
If  a tree is confirmed with Pr. we work with the Forestry Commission (FC) and are served a Statutory Plant Health Notice (SHPN) around the affected tree.  A radius of 100m is often used though in some circumstances it can be wider, any susceptible tree within the area is felled.

Once the SHPN has been identified it's a matter of deciding the best way to deal with the trees contractor or our own forestry team?

 Moss Eccles Plantation before work started.

Harvester at work felling the trees.

Job half done.

The harvester felled and converted 4.5ha of 30 year old larch in 8 days!  It took much longer to move the timber to market as the wood was a the end of a long narrow track.

Plantation behind Basecamp before work.

Harvester at work.

Moving the felled timber with a forwarder.

Not all sites are suitable for large forestry machinery the final site was steep, rocky and had power lines running through it, it was felled by our forestry team.

NT foresters snedding felled larch.

The timber from the infected sites can be sold (the disease doesn't affect the timber) but it has to be moved by licenced hauliers to licenced sawmills to be processed.  
In order to reduce the spread of disease all equipment used on a Pr. site has to be cleaned before it leaves the site this includes chainsaws, tractors and boots.

Matt not enjoying having his boots cleaned.

You can help reduce the chance of spreading the disease through Cumbria's woodlands by cleaning as much mud and soil form your boots, tyres and paws as possible between woodland walks.

And the silver lining?  Many of the larch plantations were planted in the 1960s on sites which were native woodland and though things can look a bit bleak right now felling the trees because of the disease does give us the opportunity to try and establish more native woodland to fill the gaps.

11 September 2015

Ramblings of a Long Term Volunteer

It’s hard to believe that it is six months since my last blog back in March at which time I was one of the new faces on the block at Boon Crag, just starting my time as a Long Term Volunteer. What an incredible time it has been! With so many highlights I thought I’d share just a few of the most memorable with you.

Spending at least part of everyday outside is an enlightening experience. The passing of the seasons and the changes that they bring play a pivotal part in every person’s life; however during the last 6 months it has been noticing the small, subtle changes that have bought me the greatest pleasure. I can clearly remember seeing my first spring flower, a Wood Anemone, on my morning walk to work. Looking at things on such a small scale really does highlight the remarkable variety of life that we are surrounded with, so much of which would fit right in place in an ‘Alien Movie’ if it was just on a larger scale!
Wood Anemone appearing was one of the first signs of spring

Is this an alien, or a newt eft??
Sometimes when you fully immerse yourself into a situation it is easy to forget where you came from. Although I am all too aware of skills and knowledge that I still need to acquire, I really do feel that over the past six months I have begun to acquire the skill set that is needed to be a modern day ranger. Part of the beauty of this job is that you never stop learning and someone will always have a different solution to the same problem.

learning from a walling master in Little Langdale

New kissing gate on the iconic Cumbria Way
Talking to people that we meet as we are carrying out our work is part of the job that I really enjoy. Sharing a passion for the great outdoors creates an instant bond between people who have never met until that instance, and it is really rewarding to hear stories from people enjoying the land we work so hard to conserve.

Following from this, our 50 Things incentive has once again been hugely popular this summer. Having attended many similar activities when I was younger, I have really enjoyed helping with the activities the rangers have run at Wray Castle during the summer holiday period. Hopefully we have inspired a love for the great outdoors; you never know, some of the kids might now no longer want to be a doctor and may want to be a ranger!

Exploring the canopy, #1. Climb a tree

#35. Discover what's in a pond

Our Upland Rangers, comprising of a team of 5 who work as part of the Fix the Fells partnership, have one of the best views from the office of any job in the country (on a clear day …). Their main project this season is combating erosion near the summit cone of the Old Man of Coniston, and I was fortunate to spend some time with the team up there. We even had some sunny days!

After a hard morning of grafting what could be better than a curry ...

Apart from maybe a quick nap ...
After a 45 minute walk up to the summit and a quick brew, the work on the pitching commenced. Working with stone is a very different experience to wood; it’s not so easy just to shave a slither off to make something fit, but is all the more rewarding when you find the right sized belter that fits snugly exactly where you intended. I was told on my first day that within a few weeks I would be having conversations with the stones I was using, and sure enough towards the end of my time up on the fell they were getting pretty in depth … mostly involving cursing because the stone just didn’t quite fit. The combination of hard work and having a great laugh made this month was one of my favorites so far.

Or even better, a refreshing swim in Low Water after work!

My legacy on the Old Man ... fingers crossed they're still there!

It has always been my dream to work outside, and being fortunate enough to spend this time in the Lakes has been the icing on the cake. I am extremely excited that this has only been the start of my career as a ranger and will be spending the next two and a half years at Boon Crag in the role of Academy Ranger. During this time I will be learning many more practical skills on the property in combination with the theory and tickets during my time spent at college. Life really is good at the moment, and who knows what I'll have to talk about for the next blog!

4 September 2015

Crest is Best

This week's countryside blog comes from the Upland Ranger team based in the South Lakes area. 

"Crest is best" is a catchy little phrase that was introduced to the team recently by Richard Fox, Fix the Fells Ranger for the Lake District National Park Authority. This phrase nicely sums up the approach we would ideally like walkers to take on two upland paths that we have been working on over the last few years.

The projects in question are Swirral Edge and Striding Edge, two iconic routes to the summit of Helvellyn. These have been joint projects and we have worked alongside both the Western and Northern teams.

The main year for the work on Swirral Edge was 2013, although we have been back each subsequent year to continue the work.

April 2013: On route to fill heli-bags with rock for the Swirral Edge project
April 2013: Western team looking down at Swirral Edge
  Will the snow clear in time to start the project......
April 2013: The snow did clear in time - helicopter lifting rock to Swirral Edge
"Squirrel over Swirral"
On Striding Edge we started the actual project work in 2014. We continued the work this year and currently expect to return each year to carry out further work.

June 2013: Initial visit to Striding Edge to plan project for following year
April 2014: Waiting on Helvellyn & hoping the cloud will lift .........

.....it was worth the wait. Helicopter now moving rock to site for Striding Edge project
The key reason for the work we have been doing on these sites is erosion, the underlying problem that drives all of the work the upland teams do.  The erosion is damaging to the upland habitats and also unsightly. In addition material that gets washed down into the lakes and rivers below is damaging to those habitats.

The focus of our work has been some particularly bad areas of erosion that had developed on the sides of Swirral and Striding edges and also multiple routes on Helvellyn headwall at the end of Striding Edge.  These areas had been deteriorating with some becoming very unstable. In places these routes also seem more difficult or dangerous to negotiate than the actual arĂȘtes.

Our challenge has been to stabilize the ground and prevent further erosion and hopefully give these upland areas a chance to recover. 

We have used several techniques which have included using additional rock to stabilize parts and to disguise side routes.  We also carried out work to make any preferred routes clearer and easier to follow to try to stop walkers straying into problem areas. 
June 2013: Working on side route erosion on Swirral Edge with the Western team
August 2014: Working on Helvellyn head wall with the Western team
June 2015: Working on Helvellyn head wall with the Northern team
Various other landscaping techniques have also been used to remove side route erosion along with specially mixed grass seed to help the vegetation recover and stop further erosion. 
BEFORE: Section of side route on Striding Edge with work in progress....
AFTER: Striding Edge side route section after re-profiling & turfing
In summary, we believe that “Crest is Best” for a number of reasons, including:
-  the crest is rock and can withstand the repeated footfall of many visitors without an erosion problem occurring
-  the erosion is both damaging to the upland habitat and the lakes and rivers below
-  the sides routes aren’t necessarily safer as they are unstable and, in our experience, some of these routes are more challenging/dangerous than following the arĂȘte
-  there are rare flora in places on these edges and on Helvellyn headwall; the more people spread out the greater the potential damage to these

Based on the team's experiences, if people want to enjoy walking Striding or Swirral edges we suggest choosing the day carefully.  They are not nice places to be on wet and/or windy days and, even though we know the edges quite well, we would save the challenge for another day.

These projects have become favourites for some of the team members, the locations can be very atmospheric. To conclude this blog here are a few favourite Striding Edge images:

If you would like to know more about the daily work of the South Lakes Upland Ranger team they can be found on Twitter @NTLakesFells or for more about Fix the Fells follow this link: Fix the Fells 

Posted by: Nick, Upland Ranger

28 August 2015

Give peas a chance ..... Growing ambition at High Wray Basecamp

Here at High Wray Basecamp our mission is to help as many different people as we can to engage with and care for the beautiful South Lakes countryside. We welcome people from all walks of life to stay, and many of them join us in carrying out the vital conservation work that keeps the landscape looking the way it does. We feel that we’re in a pretty good position then, with our wide (and somewhat captive!) audience, to help spread the word about issues affecting the countryside and the wider environment.

With this in mind, towards the end of last year, we started thinking about a Basecamp garden.  It was an idea that had been in gestation for a while, and a previous half-hearted attempt had at least gone some way to addressing the issue of what to do with food waste. But the ‘dalek’ style composters and the overgrown, fenced-off area they inhabited was unsightly and inefficient. We needed something more in keeping with the environs, and the Basecamp ethos.

So plans were drawn up for a garden area that would have multi-functional purposes. First of all it would have a properly constructed and positioned composting area, to deal effectively with food waste generated on site, and to provide compost for our vegetable beds, in which would be grown crops for the benefit of people staying at Basecamp. There would be a small herb garden, again for the use of Basecamp residents. Then there would be a wilder area planted with native wildflowers and flowering shrubs beneficial for pollinators such as bees and butterflies. A ‘bug hotel’ would also be installed to give local invertebrates a helping hand. We also decided to utilise water draining off one of the paths to create a boggy area, and to plant an apple tree, for both blossom in the spring and fruit in the autumn.  The whole area would need to be fenced to keep marauding ruminants at bay, and, true to the Basecamp philosophy, we’d put up an interpretation board to let people know what was going on. All this on little or no budget!

The old garden, with old 'Dalek' and 'Tombola' style composters
Volunteers from 'Mind' in Barrow getting to grips with removing the old fence posts

After returning from the Christmas and New Year break we set about turning these plans into reality. As Basecamp would be nothing without its volunteers, we enlisted the help of some of our regular groups to help us dismantle the old ‘garden’ and start constructing the new composters. We used wood and chicken wire salvaged from the timber yard at Boon Crag to make three adjacent units, large and airy enough to accommodate not just food waste, but grass clippings and some woody material, to provide a more balanced compost.

Volunteers from Littledale Hall Therapeutic Community building the new compost bins

The next stage was to build the raised beds. For these we used wood from NT trees, kindly donated by the forestry team. This was a laborious process, not least because the site was on a fairly significant slope which meant that the beds had to be dug in and levelled.  We were lucky to have lots of willing volunteers to help us with this, and with the arduous task of moving a few tons of leftover topsoil from Claife Station to fill them. Once the beds were done and the site was landscaped to allow for the natural slope (resulting in a rather pleasant ‘terraced’ effect we think), we could get on with the exciting task of actually planting stuff. This year we’ve been planting smaller amounts of veg as a kind of test run, but we still managed to plant some spuds, courgettes, spinach, broccoli, peas and beans. We’re using four, fairly large, separate vegetable beds so that we can rotate the crops and minimise the chances of disease taking hold, and we selected varieties that we reckon are going to be hardy enough to withstand the sometimes harsh Basecamp climate.

The garden completed, but looking a bit bare
We then  sowed our wildflower ‘meadow’ with seeds kindly donated by organisations such as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation, who do sterling work in addressing the issues faced by these vital pollinators, such as drastic reductions in recent decades of proper meadows. In the middle we planted our showpiece apple tree, a hardy dwarf variety carefully selected for us by the head gardener at neighbouring property Sizergh Castle. We also included some gooseberry bushes gifted by gardener Pete from Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top.

The nascent herb garden

In opposite corners we built the herb garden and the boggy area. The first of these was raised at an angle as a rockery, to take maximum advantage of the sun and to provide as much drainage as possible. In it were planted herbs which could be used by visiting groups in their cooking, such as thyme, rosemary, and sage. It’s a happy coincidence too, that most of the plants in this area are also great for pollinating insects. The boggy area is fed by a drain which collects water off one of the paths, meaning that in the wet Lakeland climate it is continually replenished, and hopefully in due course will provide some good habitat for water-loving creatures such as frogs.
All that was left then was to gravel the paths around the garden, secure the perimeter fence to keep out the deer and stray sheep which occasionally find themselves in the Basecamp grounds, and construct the bug hotel. This was made from old pallets and materials found around the place, and topped with a ‘green’ roof planted with low growing sedum, to blend in with its surroundings and provide further food sources for invertebrates.

Much greener! The wild flower area on the left with apple tree and raised beds on the right

It’s still early days, the garden’s only really been finished a couple of months, and there’s an interpretation board yet to go in to explain everything, but we’re really happy with the results so far, particularly as we had a very slow start to summer up here.  We harvested the potatoes just last week and most of the other veg is coming along as well. We hope to have more next year, but it’s looking like there should at least be plenty of spinach and hopefully even runner beans for our residents (and maybe even ourselves!)  this year. There’s also quite a few wildflowers emerging, in amongst the inevitable weeds that were lying dormant in the soil (Perhaps an autumn weeding job for one of our groups!) 

First of many? this years small potato harvest

Massive thanks then, to all the volunteers and people who donated their time and resources to help us make the Basecamp garden dream a reality. We genuinely couldn’t have done it without you. As the garden matures and develops over time, we hope that it will provide a haven for wildlife, and all the Basecamp visitors, for many years to come.

By Matt Tweed, Basecamp assistant ranger