The Ercall

Oak woodland
The edible arch at The Cut, Abbey Foregate, one of Shropshire Wildlife Trust's visitor centres.
The edible arch at The Cut, Abbey Foregate, Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s HQ and visitor centre.

Shropshire Wildlife Trust has a fantastic HQ, beautiful old restored abbey buildings surrounded by gardens, that once housed the Cadfael Experience, celebrating the books and TV series about a medieval monk with detective leanings, set in Shrewsbury. The garden still has an old-world, kitchen garden feel, with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees promising an abundant harvest.

Jan Mckelvey, Conservation Manager and Pete Lambert, River Projects Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust
Jan Mckelvey, Conservation Manager and Pete Lambert, River Projects Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust

I was there to meet Jan Mckelvey, Conservation Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, to find out more about the work of the Trust, especially how it runs behind the scenes. They have a lot of great projects running at the moment. I met the incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic team running an extensive landscape restoration scheme, The Meres and Mosses, and had a very interesting chat with Pete Lambert who manages the varied work that the Trust is doing to improve Shropshire’s rivers.

Wheat sculpture water feature Shropshire Wildlife Trust Vistor Centre
We timed our visit well, as the Trust was hosting a pop-up restaurant, so we sat in the garden enjoying lovely vegan food and a ferociously healthy smoothie.

Of course I couldn’t visit Shropshire Wildlife Trust without seeing a nature reserve, so in the afternoon, clutching a map and set of directions, we braved the rain and set off to visit The Ercall, little sister to that more famous Shropshire landmark, the Wrekin.

The changeable weather enhanced our experience of the reserve. The Ercall is covered with ancient oak woodland, with moss covered trees, lush green ferny undergrowth, open grassy glades and small ponds. As we walked through the trees, the rain pattered softly through the leaves and gave everything an emerald glow.

Just as we reached the top of The Ercall, the clouds parted and the sun shone through, lighting up the woods and wet landscape in glorious technicolour.

The Ercall is hugely important geologically, the scars left by quarrying reveal that the area was once under a shallow tropical sea just south of the equator.

I loved this poem carved into stone, reflecting the site’s geological history.

Poem carved into rock
A poem inscribed into the rock

Upon my shore you stand
Marking time
A mark in time I am
And older yet than that
Over hill
And under the sea I’ve seen
The birthing of this land

 

By pick and blast made now
Ripped open
It ripples on through me
A scar reclaimed by green
Uncovered
My secrets held in folds
Of quiet eternity

On that reflective note, I have to leave you with a gorgeous Shrewsbury sunset, one of the most fiery skies I saw on the whole trip.

Shrewsbury sunset

 

Highland ambition

 

Moorland at Coigach-Assynt
Moorland at Coigach-Assynt

We think of the Scottish Highlands as being a wild, unspoilt, natural place, but in fact this is far from true. Most of the upland habitat has been changed by grazing, tree-planting and drainage, so that natural habitats are rare. More than half of the species found there are declining, some with a high risk of extinction.

Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander from the Coigach-Assynt Living Langscape Project
Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander from the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project.

Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander have a plan to turn this around. They are running one of the largest landscape restoration schemes in Europe, the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project. This long term project, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, aims to restore wildlife over 60,000 hectares of the Scottish Highlands.

Ben Mor Coigach viewed from Stac Pollaidh
A blanket of cloud lies over Ben Mor Coigach, Scottish Wildlife Trust’s largest nature reserve, viewed here from Stac Pollaidh.

I joined them for lunch at the cafe next to their office at Lochinver, in the heart of the project area. Richard explained that the project involves seven major landowners and several local organisations. They have recently secured a Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership grant, and are just starting to build a team to deliver the work. Having fallen in love with Scotland, I daydreamed briefly about applying to join them, but no, for many reasons, it is not to be.

An example of an Iron Age Broch
The CALL project will excavate and stabilise the collapsed Clachtoll Broch. This is a different Broch, at Dun Carloway on Lewis, but shows the double skinned construction of these mysterious Iron Age structures.

The project is an exciting mix of nature conservation, archeology, training and education. Woodland is an important element of the project; increasing the extent of native woodland will provide new habitat for many threatened species. The project also aims to work with schools to encourage them to use woodland as a classroom for outdoor learning. Working with landowners and local community groups, native woodland will be extended through changes in land management to allow natural regeneration, and by planting of native trees.

 

 

Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery
Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery

How do you get enough native Scottish tree saplings to plant woodland on such an ambitious scale? Boyd took me to meet Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery to find out. Nick collects native tree seeds from local woodlands. Some seed, like willow, needs to be planted straight away, whereas some needs a cold period before it can germinate. These are stored in layers of sand outside through the winter and then brought inside to be planted.

 

Red deer in Scottish Highlands
Red deer are an iconic part of the Highland landscape but are also one of the main reasons for the lack of trees. Grazing animals such as sheep and deer nibble away any tree seedlings before they have a chance to grow.

The trees are sold to landowners who want to create native woodland on their land. They can apply for grant funding to help with the cost of creating and managing new woodland, including putting up extensive deer fencing, needed to exclude deer while the young trees get established.

The Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape is such an exciting project, encompassing stunning habitats from mountain to coast, with fascinating wildlife and a rich cultural heritage. I can’t wait to come back and explore more of the area and see how the project is getting on.

 

Sunset
Sunset over the southern end of the project area

 

 

Wandering by waterfalls

Overlooking the historic village of New Lanark is the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at the Falls of Clyde. A woodland walk from the visitor centre takes you through dappled green shade alongside the River Clyde and past the Corra Linn waterfall.

The Corra Linn waterfall
The Corra Linn waterfall

We had hoped to see peregrines, but sadly the pair that have been breeding here were quite old and it is thought that they have not survived the winter.  Scottish Wildlife Trust hopes that a new pair will soon colonise the reserve.

We happily watched the dippers instead, I love watching them bob up and down living up to their name, and casually plunging their heads into the cascading water to feed on invertebrates in the river. We took a bit of video, (click here) it works best on a small screen as it’s quite low resolution.

 

Here is a short walk through the woodland at the top of the Falls of Clyde reserve.

 

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Spring survey

Bluebells at Thornden wood in the Blean

I really should have known better – I had managed to plan a visit to Blean woods during the first hot and sunny week of the year, and was looking forward to a gentle wander through the woodland, dappled sunlight playing across carpets of spring flowers. How I actually spent the morning was scrambling through bushes, old bracken and bramble and falling down the occasional hole. Still thoroughly enjoyed it though!

Surveying dense scrub regrowth at Blean Woods
Can’t see the surveyors for the trees – Paul and Pica are in there somewhere. In a couple of years this will be even denser – perfect for nesting nightingales.

Paul had allowed me to gate crash one of his surveys, which turned out to be in an area of conifer plantation that was being restored to native woodland. Of course the thing about woodland restoration is that it takes time, and three years in, the area was thick with small birch trees, last year’s bracken and bramble, all growing fast now that the deep shade from the conifer trees has gone. It will be a while before the tree canopy lifts and the plants at ground level become more varied, but we found a fair bit of heather, which is an important part of the mixture of plants we hope to eventually see in this part of the woodland.

Thornden Woods in springArriving late, I had missed the chance for a lift from the car park to the section of Thornden Wood that Paul and his ecology group volunteers were heading for. Luckily, that meant a chance to walk along the track, flanked on either side with trees just erupting into that vibrant but ephemeral spring green. There were plenty of flowers along the woodland edge to satisfy my desire for spring colour; bluebells, wood anemones, bugle and the occasional lime green of a patch of wood spurge, almost fluorescent in the sunlight.

Wood spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides
Wood spurge
Wood anemone, bugle and bluebell
Wood anemone, bugle and bluebell

After a lovely walk down the track, resisting the temptation to explore the Wild Art trail, I found Paul and Mark (the Canterbury Area Warden) with Alex and Paul, two ecology group volunteers, forging through the undergrowth in pursuit of science.

Mark is experimenting with different management techniques, to see which is most effective in restoring the woodland. In the three areas we were surveying, one had been clear-felled (all the conifers removed)  and left to regenerate, another had also been clear-felled  and was being grazed from time to time. In the third, some conifers had been taken out to thin the canopy and let more light in. At this stage, there was a relatively small variety of species to be found, but it can still be quite tricky to identify young plants that are not in flower – fortunately Alex is an experienced botanist and able to help with any unfamiliar species. I can’t report any unusual species in the bits we surveyed, but the presence of native birch, willow, oak and hornbeam shows that the restoration to native woodland is clearly underway.

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Edited 10th June 2016 because I got Paul’s name wrong. Unforgivable, because as well as being an ecology group volunteer he is a regular volunteer at Blean Woods and highly appreciated by the wardens. So sorry, Paul.

Secret Spaces

Have you been for a bluebell walk over the past few weeks? Last weekend I went to some woodland near Patching, in Sussex, on the recommendation of a friend, and was rewarded by a view of bluebells cascading down the rolling hillside like a waterfall. Sadly, my photographic skills didn’t do it justice, but we have no shortage of bluebell woods in Kent, and here is just one of the many images we have of these.

Bluebells at Bredhurst Woods © Neil Coombs

Many of Kent’s bluebell woods are Local Wildlife Sites, and as much of the work of the Conservation team contributes to protecting and improving these sites, I thought it would be timely to write about it.

Only a small proportion of land in Kent is protected by law for the nature that it supports. I wonder how many people know that there are another 450 sites across Kent that hold most of the rarest and most threatened species and habitats outside of the legally protected sites. These are the Local Wildlife Sites, there is probably at least one near you. They might be ancient woodlands, flower filled meadows, old orchards, grazing marsh, chalky grassland or even churchyards. Most are privately owned, although some may be council owned green spaces, and they are found right across Kent, even in the heart of our biggest towns.

Grassland Local Wildlife Site © Neil Coombs
Grassland Local Wildlife Site © Neil Coombs

Many were identified in 1986, when it was recognised that the Sites of Special Scientific Interest and European protected sites held only some of the county’s important habitats. If we wanted to look after the rest of it we needed to know where it was, and let others know, so that it could be protected and managed wherever possible. Since then, Kent Wildlife Trust has been coordinating the Local Wildlife Site system. The system has evolved over time, following government guidance, and there is now a rigorous process for identifying and designating the sites. This is important, because although there are no laws protecting the sites, national planning policy sets out guidance for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity, including Local Wildlife Sites. In order for us to be able to argue for their protection in the planning process, we need to be able to demonstrate exactly why they are important for wildlife and that there is a fair process for their identification and designation.

Alison is in charge of this work, which starts with a request to the landowner for permission to carry out a survey to assess the wildlife value of the site. Sites have to have particularly rare or threatened habitats, or significant numbers of rare and declining species, in order to qualify as Local Wildlife Sites. Existing sites are checked, ideally every 10 years (depending on funding availability) to make sure they still meet the criteria. Over the past few weeks we have completed the review of these criteria, which are now undergoing consultation. We have a small team of experts who survey sites for us, then Alison, assisted by her volunteer trainee, Hannah, checks the results and prepares a map of the site and writes the descriptive citation.

There is an extensive consultation process for new and updated sites and, all being well, the site is eventually approved by the board of the Kent Nature Partnership. It doesn’t stop there though, Alison has to make sure that all the planning departments of local councils have information about the Local Wildlife Sites in their areas, which is provided in GIS (Geographic Information System) format. Alison is our GIS whizz, and tackles all the complicated, techie bits. For people like me, who have yet to get to grips with it, this is the best description of what GIS is that I’ve come across: What is GIS?

Bredhurst Woods Local Wildlife Site
Bluebell woods are an iconic part of the Kent landscape. Bluebells are strongly associated with ancient woodland (technically referred to as ancient semi-natural woodland, as nothing in our crowded country is really free from man’s influence), so much so that they are used as one of the suite of species whose presence indicates that a woodland has been in place for over 400 years. Many large areas of ancient woodland in Kent are designated as Local Wildlife Sites, and we work hard to ensure that bluebell walks in May will be available for future generations.

We do a lot of work to try to ensure that these wonderful sites keep their wildlife, and to encourage their enhancement and many Local Wildlife Site owners work very hard to manage the sites so that they support the best wildlife possible. Richard Neame made a generous endowment to provide an award to recognise the efforts of those people managing the sites and the contribution they make to saving and improving Kent’s threatened wildlife. On Friday, our Chairman, Mike Bax, presented the Richard Neame Gold Award to the Bredhurst Woods Action Group, who have been looking after Bredhurst woods for 10 years, and achieved some amazing results. Neil, our senior land management adviser, has been working with the Group for several years, providing advice and support to help the group enhance woodland and chalk grassland habitats and it was nice to hear him mentioned several times during the evening. It has clearly been a very effective collaboration.

 

Mike Bax presenting award to BWAG
Mike Bax, Chairman of Kent Wildlife Trust, presents the Richard Neame Gold Award to the Bredhurst Woods Action Group for their outstanding management of a Local Wildlife Site.