21 November 2014

Making space for nature in the South Lakes

Nature conservation in the Lakes - nothing furry in sight

What springs to mind when you think about ‘nature conservation’?  Maybe it’s something exotic but vague about tigers or snow leopards - or, closer to home, fuzzy ideas about counting dormice or monitoring butterflies.  The sad fact is that most of the rangers’ nature conservation work is much more prosaic. As a cynical ex-colleague put it: ‘We just cut down trees and build fences.’  There’s a lot of truth in that, but our work’s no less important for it!

For the past few weeks some of us have been hard at work on Hoathwaite Farm, near Coniston, creating a new wildlife corridor through the fields. Our starting point was an old, neglected hedgerow next to a beck. ‘Neglected’ in that it hadn’t been managed by laying for many years, so it had developed into a gappy line of trees. Although trees are important components of lots of ecosystems, the real value of hedgerows lies in the way they provide a continuous, sheltered ‘corridor’ through the landscape, which small mammals and invertebrates can use to move around and live in. The low, bushy growth also provides perfect nest sites for lots of birds.   

The gappy, neglected hedge before we started the project
To restore the hedgerow and maximise its value for wildlife, we felled the ‘overstood’ hedge trees in a process called coppicing – most broadleaved trees will spring back to life when you cut them down with lots of vigorous new stems, so they’ll form the perfect basis of a hedge in a couple of years.  Although it can look a little stark initially, and may seem counter-intuitive, cutting down trees and allowing them to coppice creates a constantly changing variety of different stages of growth throughout the landscape, ensuring that the right conditions are available for lots of different mammals, birds and other creatures – all of which require different things. We’ll also plant new hedge plants between the coppiced trees, to make sure it’s a continuous line, and we always leave the best couple of trees in the line upright as 'standards' to grow on into maturity, for the habitat they provide and to enhance the landscape.  

The old neglected hedge before...

...and after, with trees coppiced and two new fences.

 Fencing - not glamorous but great for wildlife

The only problem with coppicing and hedge-planting on a farm is that the young, soft growth of the trees makes an irresistible treat for sheep and cows.  Livestock will choose tree leaves and fresh twigs over grass, so we needed to fence the hedge-line to ensure that the trees grow successfully.  With its location on a small beck, fencing this hedge created a win-win situation, as fencing stock away from the beck is also great for the ecosystems in the stream, and for the water quality of the whole catchment.  Stopping the stock accessing the beck will reduce the amount of silt washing into the lake where they trample the banks (not to mention sheep poo!), and allow the natural vegetation of stream-sides (‘riparian edges’ in conservation terms) to grow unhindered.  In turn, the increased growth of vegetation slows the movement of water through the catchment, which can help alleviate flooding; and the wild, overgrown strip within the fence line becomes a whole new ecosystem, bustling with wildlife.  We should be able to see wildflowers and native shrub species growing, and butterflies and birds flitting along the beck-side - not to mention all the mice, shrews, beetles and bugs hidden away beneath the plants.

The beck protected within the fence line.

 A team effort

We spent a week coppicing trees (and producing about 8t of firewood), and then built two fences of nearly 200m in length, so we couldn’t have done it without the help of the South Lakes Volunteer Group, and our colleagues in the ranger team – particularly the upland path team, who are down off the fells for the winter and provide vital muscle and technical ability on jobs like this.  

Luke S, Sarah and Stuart hard at work.

We also worked closely with the tenant farmer, Sam; developing good relationships with the farmers so that we work in co-operation with them is one of the most important parts of the rangers’ job.  We need to work together to ensure they can run successful businesses while also providing the other benefits we all need or want from the land; like increased biodiversity, clean water, carbon storage, or a place to go for a revitalising walk. 

One of the other less glamorous sides of nature conservation is dealing with funding, and this work was made possible thanks to Sam’s ‘Higher Level Stewardship’ agreement with Natural England – government funding for farmers to help them achieve environmental benefits, and to ease the difficult balancing act between food production and all those other factors.  

The finished job with two 'standards' left in the line.
Behind the scenes

So while it might look like we’re just ‘cutting down trees and building fences’, the rangers are hard at work behind the scenes building relationships with farmers and our colleagues in other organisations, using our understanding of ecosystems and river catchments to plan effective projects, getting our heads round the grant schemes and sourcing funding, and organising the team and our great volunteers to ensure we get the work done.   

The hard graft’s done at Hoathwaite now – we’ve just got to plant the new hedge trees in a couple of weeks.  We’re all looking forward to next spring when we can head back and see the new plants bursting into leaf and the coppice stools sprouting fresh buds; and beyond that, when the hedge has grown back and the vegetation gets nice and high inside the fence, creating a brilliant new home for wildlife.  It might not be tigers, but its nature conservation Lake District style, and we love it! 

27 October 2014


Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome wrote stories and created characters that have become part of the culture of this part of the lakes. Tales of adventures on sunny days, of breezy picnics by the lake,  friendships and laughter. But some stories are much much older, these are stories of love and loss  of violent actions with fatal consequence of madness despair and death, these stories ,centuries old , have been passed from generation to generation and have been around so long they are now part of the soil, the water the rocks and the air.
At this time of year these stories seem somehow closer to the surface. Maybe it’s the cold still autumn mornings when  the mist hangs low over the lake, deadening the background noise, allowing disembodied voices animal and human to reach out through the enveloping grey.  Maybe it was the earth tremor last night; that noise and the shaking woke me suddenly with a bright blinding light and a searing pain down my spine and I have had the mother of all headaches ever since.

Windermere Ferry early morning
And this is how I start my normal daily commute into work as a  countryside Ranger on my trusty iron horse, a journey I’ve made a thousand times before, but this morning it feels somehow different, otherworldly, I have a sick feeling in my stomach and feel so damn cold. A mile along the lakeshore cutting my way through the mist, the sound of the Windermere car ferry , creaking and groaning as it pulls itself along on metal chains. I am reminded of the ferry disaster of 1597. A wedding party  45 strong returning from Far Sawrey cram themselves onto the ferry which was in those days just a large rowing boat. The outward journey in calm waters, full of laughter and merriment turned to disaster on their return as the winds picked up the wedding party high on drink but low on balance capsized the boat and 38 people drowned. The biggest loss of life that this lake has seen.
Since then people have reported seeing faces in these murky waters and swimmers have felt hands grabbing their ankles trying to drag them under to join the wedding party. These are  probably just reflections and submerged weeds, but his morning through the mist the bouys that surround the islands look eerily like floating lifeless bodies .
Sawrey Church
Onward and up ferry hill to the church at Far Sawrey the late flowering devils bit scabious scattered on the grassy road verges. Chattering crows gather on the wall watching me pass by like they’re waiting for  something to happen.
Through the Sawreys and along the side of Esthwaite Water this is always the coldest part of the ride in, this morning it is icy cold I look out across the water towards the Devils Gallop. In medieval times when Hawkshead was the main market town in south Lakeland the packhorse men would spur the horses on double-quick along this lonely stretch of road trying to keep one step ahead of old nick. Through the mists I hear the sound of hooves and a sudden snort of some large hidden beast on the other side of the hedge gets the adrenaline racing and I put my foot down on the pedals just that bit faster.
Approaching Priests Pot, a small circular tarn on the edge of Hawkshead village past the site of the gibbet. This was an upright wooden post with a projecting arm for hanging the bodies of executed criminals. A bit like a giant bird feeder it acted as a blunt warning to the packhorse men approaching the village, with its 14 public houses, to behave themselves when they got paid or as a reminder as they were leaving that they may have got away with it this time but next time they might not be as lucky.
Riding through the village  the speed camera on the corner shouts 13 at me in bright red numbers ( why is it always 13 ) is it trying to tell me something ?
Riding out of the village my nerves on edge not warming up at all I look to my right to Latterbarrow and Claife Heights  my thoughts inevitably stray to the Crier of Claife the ghost that has haunted the Heights since they were the property of Furness Abbey. There was  apparently a house of ill repute on Claife heights where women would provide ‘ refreshment ‘ to the weary packhorse men.  A young monk sent by the Abbey to save these women from a life of sin, fell in love with one of them, but his advances were spurned and the rejection eventually sent him mad, he died love lorn and lost on the heights.
His restless spirit wandered the heights for years wailing into the night. One foggy winters evening the ferry men based at Ferry Nab, heard a desperate call from across the lake “ferryman, ferry man". The ferryman set off into the mist  a single lamp on the prow of the boat lighting the way. After some considerable time,  the boat eventually drifted back across the lake, with no passenger, no light and the ferryman wide eyed with terror, struck dumb by whatever unspeakable horror that he had witnessed .
Well, that was enough for the locals and they quickly engaged two priests with ‘bell ,book and candle' to exorcise the ghost’s spirit to a remote quarry on the heights. If you listen carefully some nights you can still hear strange noises probably just the screech of an owl, the cry of a fox or the bark of young stag.

Claife Under a blood red sky

Climbing up Hawkshead Hill ,out of the mist now the ghost of the mad monk seems to be fading , but the late rising sun offers no heat and has cast a  deep bloody hue over everything , the silent ghostly figure of a barn owl sweeps low  across the field to my left.  It is folklore that these owls carry the souls of the  recently departed I look back to see Claife under a blood red sky, and it looks most peculiar.
Up ahead I can see a black figure crouched over something in the middle of the road is that a shadow or .... As I get closer the figure stands up and breaks  apart, exploding in ten different directions at the same time, the sound of a cape?..... no it’s the sound of wings flapping as a murder of carrion crows  disperse into the trees above, not wanting to move too far from what was interesting them lying on the tarmac.
What was interesting them is a mass of blood and bone and entrails , road kill of some description feeling bad enough I can’t bear to look too closely so I cycle on and the pain in my back and the cold are just getting worse.
I finally reach the crossroads at High Cross and now have an easy descent, freewheeling down to our Ranger base in Coniston. The base is very quiet, unusually quiet for a workday, I walk into the kitchen area and on the table lying open on pages 7 and 8 is the most  recent edition of the Westmorland Gazette and my eye is drawn to a short article ‘National Trust Ranger killed in early morning traffic accident', gripped by a crushing fear and understanding, the cold and the pain intensify, the room starts shaking and then suddenly the pain and the cold disappear along with the colour, the light, the sound………
When you are walking the paths and lanes of South Lakeland if you feel a sudden unexplained rush of wind passing by or the squealing of brakes when no bike is around to be seen, it might just be me on my way into work again ........ghostrider. 
Paul Farrington (1963-2014)
National Trust Ranger
South Lakes

24 October 2014

Rangers ‘walking on the wild’ side…

As rangers, the variety of places we work and the type of work we carry out varies a lot. It almost sounds cliched we say it so often. Whether that is rebuilding a dry stone wall, fixing a gate, filling in potholes, leading a guided walk, doing some 50 things activities with groups of children or presenting our special places to the highest standard (that includes the toilets!). But the most important part of our role is sharing this love of special places with all our visitors.

When I first started as a ranger, I was quite daunted by how much knowledge some of the other rangers had about their patch, ecology and the natural environment. From my volunteer days, I was under the impression that the role was very much about getting your hands dirty through the variety of conservation work such as rhododendron bashing and drainage clearance. But as it turned out it was about so much more than that! 
South Lakes Rangers 'walking in the wild' side in Blelham Tarn
Every ranger brings their own special skills and interests to the job and the South Lakes ranger team is no exception. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience but historically we have not been great at sharing this knowledge around the team (great at sharing with the public!). After lots of ranger chitter-chatter, we came up with a solution - ‘Walking in the wild side’.

Rangers learning about the geology of the Coniston coppermines valley from a very knowledgeable, local historian, Mark Scott
The idea is for a ranger to run an afternoon session of his or her choosing on the South Lakes patch, once a month by getting out and in true Lou Reed style ‘walking in the wild’ side! The topics so far have ranged from dragonflies and damselflies, the landscape history and ancient trees of Tarn Hows, the history of the Coniston Coppermines and a historical walk around Blelham Tarn. It seems hard to see how we can justify the ranger time initially when we look at the mounting work such as fixing wall gaps, repairing fences, filling in potholes, strimming grass. Justification is easy – how can we share our love of special places with our visitors if we don’t spend the time learning about them?

Ranger Paul explaining how farmland can be managed to the benefit of the Windermere Catchment
Many people tell me that you become knowledgable over time, by picking up tid-bits and simply asking lots of questions. I find the best way to learn is to get out and hear passionate people talking about the subjects that they care about! 

The idea is not only to share this knowledge but also to allow individuals to pursue their own interests and learn about a topic to share with everyone else. We have plenty more planned in for the future including meadow wildflowers, Beatrix Potter and her farming legacy, traditional use of woodlands and woodland crafts. I am hoping to run a ‘walk in the wild side ‘ by sharing (and improving!) my knowledge of Lake District geomorphology… The knowledge of the South Lakes ranger team as a whole is improving rapidly!

Rain doesn't stop play - learning about the industrial archaeology and history of the Coniston coppermines

One of the National Trusts’ aims is to pass on a richer, healthier natural environment for future generations. This starts with sharing our knowledge and interests with everyone we meet... We want to help people to recognise the true value of our countryside and have a role in caring for it, for example to understand the impact that wild camping and off-road driving can have on our special places.

So if you see a ranger in red out and about, ask them what they have been learning about recently!

17 October 2014

20 tons of stone and plastic carrots

It’s often striking how varied a National Trust ranger’s job can be. For proof of this you need look no further than some of the entries on this blog that cover subjects as diverse as working with volunteers on mountain paths (3rd October) to spending a few days in Manchester city centre (8th August), building storage compounds for tender boats on Windermere (25th July) to researching mysterious natural phenomena (27th June).

A recent couple of days spent editing video footage highlighted this too. Back in May I filmed a great (if noisy) day working with Littledale Hall therapeutic community moving 20 tons of stone 400 metres uphill as part of the Claife Station project, but hadn’t had the chance since then to put it together into a short film.

However, a few weeks ago I was given the chance to film the opening of the new ‘Peter Rabbit adventure’ rooms at Wray Castle. Being new it was much more important to get this film completed as quick as possible, so I set aside a few days to do so and at the same time managed to complete the Claife Station one. Very pleasing!

You can see both of the films here:

Watching them back was what got me thinking not just about the variety of a ranger’s role, but of the amazing contrast between the different people the National Trust can be involved with. These two groups couldn’t have been less like each other; adults taking back control of their lives after struggling with substance abuse problems and primary school children excited to be entering the world of their Cbeebies heroes. Despite their differences it was brilliant to see how much they both got out of their days with us. Try as I might I can think of few organisations that can boast this broad a spread of appeal – makes you proud to be a ranger!

If you fancy checking out both Claife station and Wray Castle then they’re handily at either end of a lovely lakeshore walk. To refer back to the blog again, the entry from 30th May has a description of this. Do bear in mind though that from 2nd November the castle is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

By Rob Clarke, Basecamp community ranger

10 October 2014

Story of a Shed

Perhaps you have unexpectedly seen a shed somewhere in the Lake District fells?
This blog, from the South Lakes Upland Ranger team, explains why you might see one and outlines the story so far of one such shed.

As an Upland Ranger team we spend much of the year up in the fells working on footpaths to protect them from erosion as part of Fix the Fells. This can mean working on the same path for several months in all weathers and some shelter and storage space comes in very handy.
A shed has become the shelter of choice for this upland footpath team.

This year we have had a shed on the Red Tarn to Crinkle Crags footpath, a joint project with the West Lakes Upland Ranger team. It is fair to say that this shed has been around the block a bit having been previously used in a few locations. It started out life lower down on this path and before returning has been to other locations including Pike o' Blisco and Crinkle Crags.

(Fred the) Shed in an earlier location: on Pike o' Blisco
The sheds we use are (usually) moved between sites by helicopter.  The shed is flat packed and flown to location at the same time as rock for the year's projects is moved.
This year it didn't go smoothly and due to weather conditions and priorities we didn't actually get a shed in place during the main helicopter lifts. However a few months into the project a helicopter was in the area for another job and we jumped at the chance to finally get it moved.
"The Shed has Landed"
(Not a bad backdrop too !)
Once the shed was in place the next job was to re-assemble it. There were some concerns that this shed had seen better days and may be partly rotten having spent three years on Crinkle Crags since its last use. We also had some fun trying to find suitable bolts and screws to fix it together and selecting the correct size nuts for the bolts!
Construction in progress.
Weather holding up nicely.

Finishing touches, tethering the shed down.
Weather has taken a turn for the worse.
We needn't have worried about the condition of the shed and it went together nicely.
The weather was also kind to us and held out for almost all of the construction process.

"Bijou": First lunch inside
The shed was built in time for a three day party on this project with the Fix the Fells volunteer lengthsmen.  It proved worthwhile too as we had some poor weather, consistent with our previous work parties. Some volunteers however seemed reluctant to use it as it would have been difficult to fit everyone in and instead sheltered in front of it.

Some volunteers were too polite to use the shed at lunch time

"Supervisor" Hamish was less reluctant to use the shed
We have almost finished work for this year on the the Red Tarn to Crinkle Crags path and very soon it will be time to take the shed down and flat pack it. We have more work on this project next year and plan to construct it again next spring.
Perhaps this shed will makes its home in a new location in 2016 or will it be time to retire it from active service..... ?

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.

Posted by: Nick, Upland Ranger

3 October 2014

Holiday in the Hills

This week the blog comes from the South Lakes Upland Ranger team.
A Holiday in the Hills probably sounds like a lovely idea, however it is worth noting that this holiday involved 5 days of Upland Footpath work. (Perhaps not everyone's idea of lovely.)
The first working day was a Sunday, the participants having arrived the day before and settled into the bunkhouse at High Wray.  As an introduction to footpath work we took the group on a "drain run". This involves checking an existing footpath route emptying the drains and clearing loose stone from any "stone pitched" sections of path.
The group, including one from Australia and one from Belgium, got stuck into this task and did a thorough job. Unfortunately it was quite a harsh introdution as the weather was not kind with wind and icy rain throughout the day. Although it was a good time to see how the drainage was working.

Grim introduction: A drain run on a cold wet & windy day
After a grim first day we wondered if everyone would return on the Monday as very occasionally participants make an early exit. We needn't have worried as everyone was back bright and early to meet us at the Three Shires Stone on the Wrynose Pass. The group also brought with them much nicer weather.
Early morning warm up by the Three Shires Stone
(Much nicer weather too)
The work for the next two days was on one of the team's main projects for the year, the footpath from Red Tarn to Crinkle Crags.  The group worked on a part where people were spreading out and a widening erosion scar was developing. The plan was to use landscaping techniques to remove any side routes and create a tighter more manageable path line.

Before: Path widening and erosion scar developing 
The landscaping approach used is sometime referred to as "hump & hollow". It involves stripping turf and re-shaping the ground next to the path into humps and hollows.  The idea is to make this area unattractive to walk on so that people don't want to spread out. Once we are happy that the shapes of the humps and hollows are fairly natural looking the turf that was stripped off is re-laid. In addition grass seed (specially mixed for the fells) is used on any bare patches so the landscaping will green over and blend into the fellside.

During: Group working to remove side routes

After: Section of "hump & hollow" landscaping complete  
After a well earned rest day it was a time for a change of scenery and also a change of task. The location was the Tongue Gill path, part of the very popular Coast to Coast route. The work was to build a section of stone path using large rocks that had been lifted to site by helicopter. This type of stone stepped path is known as "stone pitching".
The rock used has an interesting background as it came out of the ground lower down Tongue Gill during excavations for a  hydroelectric power scheme completed this year. The owner of the scheme generously donated the rock to Fix the Fells .

Group get cracking building "Stone Pitching" on the Tongue Gill path

Eight happy volunteers with their completed sections of Stone Pitching
It was a very enjoyable and productive working holiday with lots of good quality work completed !

The National Trust runs a range of Working Holidays all around the country.  An opportunity for like minded people to meet, have a holiday and carry out conservation work with experienced staff.  The costs are fairly modest and cover accommodation in a bunkhouse, food during the holiday and transport between the bunkhouse and work site.  More information on working holidays can be found using the following link: Working Holidays

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.

Posted by: Nick, Upland Ranger

26 September 2014

A galling discovery

It was whilst saying goodbye to a volunteer group recently that one of the party produced an Oak leaf he’d found, with lots of mysterious round growths on the underside. We had to admit to not knowing what they were, so set out to investigate and found ourselves entering a mysterious and very alien world. The world of Galls.

No, not France, but the abnormal growths found on many plants usually caused by some sort of attack or penetration into the plant’s growing tissues, making it reorganise it’s cells. Galls can be caused by many different agents such as viruses, fungi, bacteria, insects and mites and there is a huge variety of them. They’re often very distinctive though so the causer can easily be identified by the gall.

A good example of the possible variety of the growths can be seen in two galls you may well be familiar with – the so called ‘Oak apple’ caused by a small wasp and the ‘Witches Broom’ seen on Birch trees and caused by a fungus.

Witches Broom - picture from Trees for Life.org
Generally, these growths aren’t just caused for aesthetic reasons, but may provide their inhabitants with food, shelter or protection from predators. It’s often a parasitic relationship, causing harm to the host plant but this isn’t necessarily so. Sometimes it gets very complex too, which is what we found when investigating the aforementioned Oak leaf.

A load of old Galls - the Oak leaf with it's occupants
 The wasp causing the Oak Apple gall was just one of many different species of ‘Cynipid’ wasp –  all causing different types of gall in Oak trees and our leaf was another one of them. If you must know, the wasp in question this time is Neuroterus quercusbaccurum. I feel confident in saying there’s probably not a common name for the wasp, but the flat disc galls produced this time is a common Spangle gall.

Alien worlds! a close up on some of the Galls
However, these flat discs are just part of the story. They contain the developing eggs of the wasp and in autumn will drop to the forest floor where the grubs will develop over winter under the cover of fallen Oak leaves. In Spring an all female generation of ‘agamic’ wasps emerges (meaning they can reproduce without mating) and lays their eggs in oak buds. These in turn produce an entirely different ‘currant’ gall in catkins and leaves, with male and female wasps emerging in June. These mate and fresh eggs are laid on the undersides of leaves, developing into more Spangle galls.

It goes to show that few things in nature are as simple as they first appear and even a pile of fallen leaves can have a lot more to it than meets the eye ….

By Rob Clarke, High Wray Basecamp volunteer centre