The promise of a pond

This last week has mostly been dedicated to very exciting work on the Balcony and the new pond we have been nurturing there. Originally, where the pond is now, there was a natural seasonal spring-fed pool, which, at best, would resemble a boggy, muddy puddle. It is located just at the top of rainbow wood fields and, once upon a time, would have been a primary water source for the cattle that have grazed the meadows over the last couple of centuries. However, the cattle have more reliable water holes now, troughs that are either spring or mains fed. At some point, a fence was erected around the pond site, separating it off from Rainbow Wood Fields, and the pool was in a distinct state of disuse.

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The original spring-fed water hole.

The dream of a luscious species rich pond began to develop. It was a fantastic opportunity to create a whole new habitat that could have the potential to support a huge diversity of plants, invertebrates, birds and more – increasing the ecological value of the site and providing a new feature for the public to enjoy.

And so the pond project began. It was dug out in October by Barry, one of our contractors, using a mini-digger and the new hole was lined with two feet of puddling clay to make it water tight. The rangers and volunteers then built a wooden board walk around it with the idea that when the pond naturalises it will be used for children’s pond dipping events.  The bank was landscaped to be quite a wide and shallow incline and a few clumps of reeds were dug up from the adjacent field and planted with soil in the clay. The pond is still fed by the spring that comes down off the hillside, the water channelling in through a culvert pipe underneath the balcony path and back out of an overflow pipe.

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The pond after the initial build and landscaping.

The pond, however, became a total dog magnet and the clay and reeds were being completely trampled, disturbing any chances of wildlife – or the clay for that matter – settling in the pond. Not only was the pond still looking a bit more like a glorified muddy puddle but dog owners were having to battle daily with their seriously clay covered canines. The pond project had been set off to a fantastic start, but there was still work to be done.

So, over the last week or so, we’ve been working hard to give the pond a bit of a makeover. Barry came in again and re landscaped the bank so that it is steeper and the surface area of the pond is bigger. Along with unblocking the overflow pipe, this has helped to prevent the water from overflowing the farside bank of the pond, where there was an undesirable swamp forming on the other side of the fence.

A stretch of fencing was fitted across the front of the pond to try to make it less inviting for dogs. The fence has been sanded, primed and painted black and its all looking very lovely.

Rob and Tabi had ordered a selection of waterside plants including forget-me-nots, sedges meadow-sweet and water mint, and we planted them in the clay on the bank with plenty of compost taken from fairy wood. We didn’t plant anything actually in the water in the hope that the plants would spread into the water more naturally. A couple of hazel whips have also been planted at either corner where the fence and the boardwalk meet, again to try to blockade any inviting gaps

Meanwhile, Miles fixed a mesh, taken from a kitchen sieve, over the mouth of the overflow pipe and a rockery of sorts was built over the pipe with a couple of plants around it to obscure it from view.

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The overflow pipe obscured by a limestone rockery

Finally, we had the whole team scrubbing the board walk, washing off most of the clay that had collected there to reveal the wood underneath.

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Mike and Miles washing the clay off of the boardwalk around the pond.

As you can see, the pond is already attracting the local bird life. We hope now that we have given it a bit more of a jump start to become a richer pond environment and that there will be less disturbance from dogs and other wandering mammals.

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Rocket harassing our first resident ducks.

Whole sections of the balcony path have also been resurfaced over the last week. The path is originally one of Ralph Allens 18th century carriage drives, one of many in a great network connecting his large mansion-house – now Prior Park college – to the rest of his countryside estate and Bath. While some is still intact, much of it has become very pot-holed and entrenched in mud over the last few years. Subsequently, walkers circumvent the worst of the mud throughout the winter creating areas of erosion and widening the path.

So, last Sunday Richard and I arrived at the Balcony with a small group from the Bath National Trust Volunteers where we found piles of coarse grey stone by the side of the path, delivered there by Rob the previous week, ready to be used for resurfacing.

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The Bath National Trust Volunteers helping to resurface the skyline path along The Balcony.

We began by removing the surface layer of mud, before raking the new stone over the revealed surface of the carriage drive. We completed one big section on the Sunday and then managed to get another couple of lengths done at the end of the week with our day volunteers. We have definitely resurfaced the worst of it, although there’s probably more work to be done in following years, and we have already been getting very positive feedback from those that use the path.

During one of the days, while we were up at the top of Rainbow Wood Fields, Miles and Mike set to clearing the nettles from around the burnt ash so that it is more accessible for use by the public as a view and picnic point.

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Mike and Miles clearing the nettles around the burnt ash, Rainbow Wood Fields.

We also took the time to try to repair all four of our punctured wheelbarrow tyres – two of which were successful.

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Wheelbarrow wheel puncture repair workshop on The Balcony.

We were up at Rainbow Wood Fields at the right time to catch the cowslips and the cuckoo flowers just before the end of their season. Both are typical, early blooming meadow plants that contribute beautifully to the transition from the winter sea of green to the colourful wildflower mosaic of spring and summer.

And here’s a rain-soaked dandelion seed head that caught my eye while we were having lunch one day.

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A rain-sodden dandelion seed head, Rainbow Wood Fields.

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De-fencing on Freefields (and more)

I haven’t posted for a little while so this is a brief update on a few things that have been happening here at the Bath  Skyline.

We recently finished off some work removing an old concrete and barbed wire fence from the skyline path that separated Freefields (partially council owned land) and Monument field, which is used as a sports field by Prior Park College. The transformation of the space is quite astonishing – It is not until one removes the fence that you realise how oppressive and enclosed it felt. The path has now been liberated, opening it up to be part of the woodland it runs adjacent to – there is now a completely different feel to it.

While we were there, we discovered a strange pale flowering plant without any leaves amongst the shaded vegetation that neither Tabi nor I had come across before – toothwort.

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Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) – This plant has no photosynthesising tissue as it parasitises the roots of hazel and alder trees

Also, tucked away in a corner of Freefields are two of the most beautiful beech trees that Rob has introduced me to. Where the soil has been eroded, the roots spill up and out of the soil and down the bank like lava and you can see amazing cross sections of the bedrock where the roots have grown down through the layers of limestone. Sadly, these trees have been quite mistreated, having been used as air rifle targets and a fire burnt in the hollow of one of them.

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Rob standing with the two amazing beech trees in Freefields to demonstrate the scale.

We have also started our seasonal path clearing, using brushcutters to cut back the spring growth – mostly brambles and nettles – along the skyline trail on Claverton Down. The cut plant material is then slung into the dark hedge to avoid the nutrients going straight back into the soil to feed the next growth.

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Tabi and Miles clearing the verges along the skyline path on Claverton Down.

We had another Wild Wednesday where we got the kids bug hunting and snail racing. We found some really interesting little creatures – of which I, regrettably, have no photos because I was too engrossed in learning about creepy crawlies with the kids to think about taking any. We had a shiny metallic lime green weevil, some other bulbous iridescent green beetles, rove beetles, a speckled wood butterfly, a red admiral butterfly and a couple of grotesque looking mites that were bright orange (clover mites, perhaps?), amongst other common inverts.

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Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) – identifiable by the three eye spots on each hind wing, it is common in and around the edge of woodlands.

We have been seeing loads of holly blues and orange tip butterflies around this spring, especially when walking around Prior Park. It seems that there has been quite a significant boom in their population this year that has been noted across much of the country. It is not fully understood why we have seen these population surges, though i expect the bout of early warm weather has probably had something to do with it!

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My failed attempt at catching a good shot of a holly blue – they are not easy to photograph when they are dancing around in the sunshine.

In other news, James, the farmer, has welcomed a couple of alpacas into his flock to look after the lambs. Apparently, their instinctual herd mentality means that they will protect the young by fending off marauding foxes. They’re very funny looking creatures and we’ve all been enjoying them as our neighbours.

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Two black alpacas amongst a flock of white sheep – Rainbow Wood Farm

Finally, we’ve done a whole load of work up on the balcony and the pond, which is looking absolutely fantastic – so much so, that it is deserving of its very own post, which will follow shortly.

A merry Easter weekend

Well, Easter was a blast. Other than being a bit chilly here or there, we mostly had great weather for the four days of the Cadbury’s Egg Hunt held here at Prior Park. It was a bit slow on Friday morning but it picked up by the afternoon and we were busy for the rest of the long weekend, welcoming over 2,500 guests to the garden during this time and raising an impressive amount for the continued conservation of the property.

We set up the start and finish to the trail next to each other in the Cabinet at the top of the garden. Over 800 trails were undertaken, both children and adults eagerly getting stuck into helping William the woodlouse to find the secret Easter password. At various points around the garden, those on the hunt would come across an egg poster where one of Williams friends, such as George the grasshopper or Daphne the damselfly, would give them a puzzle clue to work out in order to retrieve a few letters of the password. Once the hunters had finished the trail, the password would be complete and they would find themselves back at the finish gazebo where they would be able to exchange the password for a special chocolatey prize – a Cadbury’s Easter rabbit.

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We had loads of really positive feedback from those that got involved in the egg hunt and it seemed as though it had been a good balance between being entertaining, accessible and challenging enough that it was able to engage all ages. There were even some groups that came back where the kids had been successful while the adults had struggled to figure out all of the clues – however, they were not left disappointed as everyone received their prize providing they had given it a good shot.

A very fun weekend had by all and far too much chocolate consumed…

 

A wicker wildlife willow weaving workshop

One of our key focuses on the Skyline at the moment is a bit of a revamp in the Woodland Play Area. To our visitors’ delight, we have finally gotten the much loved and well-missed swing fixed and back in action and the reconstruction of the seesaw is in process.

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Rob testing out the new swing in the Woodland Play Area

We have talked about other ways of jazzing up the Play Area to refresh the space a little and decided, amongst other things, to try to create some wicker woodland creatures to hang or mount decoratively amongst the trees around the winding woodland walk.

And so, after slogging away at our path and step building on Little Solsbury Hill last week (see In pictures: Path and step building at Little Solsbury Hill), most of the rangers spent a much more relaxed day last Friday harvesting willow coppice from around the serpentine pond at Prior Park and then hanging out together in the sunny yard chatting and muddling our way through a self-taught session learning how to weave wicker creatures.

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Experimental willow weaving

Alice the gardener and one of the garden volunteers, Clare, have had some experience with weaving willow before – Alice’s giant yellow meadow ant can be seen guarding the gated entrance to Prior Park from Rainbow Wood Fields at the top of the Priory path – and so they were able to provide us with some guidance and ideas. Otherwise, we mostly just played about with the willow, exploring the ways in which it can be used and discovering its limitations.

It was a surprisingly successful first attempt at making wicker animals. I think we all pretty much just started off by making random shapes with the willow and then trying to work out what we could turn them into. We ended up with some fantastic pieces, all demonstrating very different styles and techniques and in varying degrees of completion; a ladybird, a couple of butterflies, a snail, and the beginnings of a wasp of my own creation.

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My wasp at the end of our workshop day

I have since spent my spare moments at the yard continuing to work on my wasp, giving it wings and antennae and providing it with more structural stability – I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with how they’ve all turned out. I really hope we get time to make more as I think they will add a lot to the aesthetics of the Woodland Play Area.

 

Wild Wednesday and Woodland Adventure Day

It’s the school holidays and that means Wild Wednesdays! This Wednesday was wild art themed so we had loads of great arty activities for the kids to do; including tree and leaf rubbings, making faces, insects and clay pressings out of woodland forage and filling in a giant bumblebee collage on the woodland floor. While it wasnt that warm, we did have a dry day with patches of sunshine and it was a lot busier than our Wild Wednesday in February when it poured with rain all morning (see, It feels like spring already.).

The following day we ran our first Woodland Adventure Day in Fairy Wood.  Rachel worked very hard organising and setting up all of the activities and Alex and I were there to help out on the day.

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Sitting round the hearth in Fairy Wood at our first Woodland Adventure Day on the Bath Skyline.

We started off by getting the kids involved in some sensory activities where the kids got into pairs and one of them wore a blindfold while the other had to lead or instruct them. for one of them, we had set up a route, with a rope for the blindfolded to hold and follow, which ran around and between trees and stumps, over roots and up and down slopes. Their partner had to give verbal instructions to help them navigate the route safely.

It was quite chaotic at first and interesting to see how differently the children who were giving the instructions took to the task. Some of them were very careful about the instructions, talking constantly about what was in their partners immediate environment, exactly where the trees were and what was on the ground in front of their feet and how they should move to avoid the obstacles. Others couldn’t quite get to grips with the fact that their partners couldn’t see, using hand gestures instead of verbal communication and saying things like ‘that way’ or ‘go around the tree’ without giving any other details or direction. However, every couple improved as they went and, when they swapped the blindfold over, those that had been blindfolded before tended to understand more about the instructions required and how important the accuracy of their communication was for their partners to have safe passage. They also seemed to trust each other a lot even when they were being lead by people they had not met before – more trust than I had when I was being lead by Rachel earlier that day.

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Alex and some of the kids builidng a den.

After a snack break all of the children had a go at setting light to cotton wool with a fire steel – which is effectively like creating a spark with flints – and then they made make-shift firelighters by sandwiching a blob of vaseline between two balls of cotton wool. These firelighters, which turned out to be incredibly effective, were placed at the centre of the hearth where Alex proceeded to make a fire for some open-fire cooking after lunch.

In the afternoon we had an hour or so for wild art and play time in the woods. Most of the boys got involved in den building – we had two tribes building rival dens – there was bug hunting, and clay pressing and making leaf prints by hammering leaves between sheets of muslin cloth.

While this was all going on we hollowed out twenty oranges and mixed up some chocolate cake batter with the help of the kids. The batter was spooned into the orange moulds before wrapping them in tin foil and placing them into the fire to bake.

We gathered everyone together again when the cakes were ready and, while we ate them (they were delicious chocolate orange cake with gooey melted chocolate chips in them – yum!), we  had a sharing about what our favourite parts of the day were – I think most of them said the cake, but I wonder how much that was because they were scoffing it at the time. We finished off by making some popcorn over the fire with our nifty homemade campfire popcorn toaster and sharing it around before saying our goodbyes.

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Enjoying the fruits of our labour – sugary popcorn!

It was such a brilliant day. All of the kids, no matter their age, were very involved and confident in contributing to the activities and discussions and I particularly enjoyed witnessing the cooperation and camaraderie shown within the different teams and partnerships that formed throughout the day.  I think that, with the help of the parents and the kids, we were successful in creating a very open, relaxed and wild learning environment for everyone there – including us.  I am definitely looking forward to more Woodland Adventure Days.

 

In pictures: Path and step building at Little Solsbury Hill

Building a path and steps at the entrance to Little Solsbury Hill alongside the Batheastern Freeholders volunteers has been two of the best days I have had so far as a Ranger. Enormously gratifying physical work in an absolutely beautiful space with a fantastic team of fun, hardworking people – it couldn’t have been better. Here it is in Pictures;

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Thanks everyone for a great couple of days!

The Animals of Rainbow Wood Farm

Yesterday we had our Meet the Lambs event at Rainbow Wood Farm. Parents and kids met us in the front courtyard at the farm, where we greeted them in the sunshine with teas and coffees. Once each group had arrived, James the farmer came to take them on a walk through the farmyard where sheep and their young lambs lounged in a sunny pen bedded with lots of straw. He stopped and talked about the lambing process and how he likes to try to lamb the ewes outside in the field wherever possible as this is a more natural and comfortable environment for them. However, if it is a difficult birth or if the new lamb is struggling to suckle then he will bring them to the lambing shed where it is warmer and more sheltered and he can keep a closer eye on them. Often, when the lambs are born, James will give them a biodegradable plastic coat. This significantly helps them to keep their body temperature up on cold, windy or rainy nights, which is when newborn lambs are at their most vulnerable.

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Lambs in the shelter of the lambing shed, one of them with a biodegradable plastic coat.

James also introduced us to Hurricane, his stock bull. He is absolutely monstrous in size. I couldn’t quite believe how big and muscular he was – more like how I imagine a rhinoceros to be. James had bought him in Scotland for £3000 (actually quite cheap for a bull) and had spent another £300 just to get him home. He is a magnificent beast of great power – I’d have been petrified if he hadn’t been safely behind bars!

There were also pigs and piglets in their own pens. However, the piglets were small enough to run between the bars of the fence and seemed to be free to scamper around the yard snuffling at piles of hay and muck.

At the end of the yard we went into the lambing shed where there were more mothers and their lambs, which were having a difficult time feeding. James indicated one lamb that was much smaller and slimmer than many of the others and had a distinctly bowed back – a clear sign that it had not been receiving the nutrition that it required for a healthy bone structure.

There was a small pen in the corner that housed the ‘pet lambs’. These were lambs that were either orphaned, their mothers not surviving the birth, or had been taken from their mothers because they were one of a triplet or quadruple. James has a rule that mothers are only allowed back into the field with two lambs. Any more than this and the extra lambs are unlikely to get the nutrition they need to survive; so, better to allow all of the mother’s milk to be split between the two sturdiest lambs. While many farmers would not bother to look after the extra lambs, James does his best to give each one a chance by suckling them through an automated feeding mechanism.

At this point, James allowed us to hold and stroke one of the pet lambs. They were all incredibly friendly, obviously used to human contact having been looked after by James and his team.

We all got the chance to have a cuddle, the tiny little one with the mottled black and white coat nuzzling my chin with its wet nose as I dug my fingers into it oily fur to give it a little scratch behind the head. They  really are just so cute! When I asked James if I could take one home with me he laughed and said ‘sure, I’ll even send you off with some milk for it’ – I’m still not completely sure if he was being serious or not.

James also talked about the calving which has been happening simultaneously over the last few weeks. Across the barn was the calving pen where we could see a calf that had been born just a few hours earlier, wobbling around on its new found feet. It’s the busiest time of year for the farmers, having to be on call 24/7 to assist in births whenever necessary over a period of 6 weeks or so. The farm is a suckler farm, which means that they breed cattle and lambs to be sent as stock to other farms for the production of dairy and meat – rather than producing dairy or meat themselves.

We had 3 groups arriving throughout the day. Each group was split into two, half of them going into the farm to see the animals, the others remaining in the courtyard where we had set up a lamb trivia quiz and some sheepy arts a crafts to keep them occupied while they waited. Everyone got stuck in to all of the activities and some beautiful badges and bookmarks were made – unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of any made by the kids, but here are some of the pieces we made as examples.

A fantastic day was had by all and it was an intriguing insight into the world of lambing and calving on a suckler farm.