The fairies have moved back in!

It’s been a busy week getting lots of bits and bobs done and we started it off by having our monthly rangers meeting outside in the sunny yard.

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Monthly rangers meeting outside in the sunny yard.

We have worked really hard this week to finally get the fairy doors back out into long wood for the family discovery trail – and they are looking fantastic!

We finished the pyrography, applied wood preservative and varnish and have installed them back into their respective woodland homes, each with their own hoggin front patio. There’s still some gardening work to do around them but the fairies have all moved back in so I expect they’ll be looking more natural and homey in no time.

Rob and I spent the day on Tuesday doing some tidy up jobs on Bushey Norwood – clearing an old fire site from our scrub bashing, litter picking and removing a rather sad-looking collapsed tree guard.

We also went to the balcony at the top of Rainbow Wood Fields to have a look at a dead beech that has just been felled by contractors. When we climbed up the hill to where the very top of the great tree trunk has cracked off, I saw scraps of old wax comb strewn across the floor amongst the sawdust and rotting wood. – And there inside the hollow of the tree was a honeybee hive, still partially intact even though there had clearly been lots of damage. The sweet stench of honey filled the hollow and there were at least five or six worker bees hanging around and tending to cells. I have never seen a wild colony before so it was very exciting for me. I returned to the site yesterday with Tabi and Rachel as I hadn’t had my camera with me when we found it, and Tabi and I had a tiny taste of the honey that we found in a cell of one of the comb scraps.

Usually we would have left the tree as a standing monolith to conserve the habitat for its resident mini-beasts. However, due to the new installment of the pond over which it was towering, we are expecting the site to attract many more visitors and so it unfortunately had to come down for health and safety reasons. I am unsure as to whether the hive will survive this level of disruption or being so close to the ground and in reach of potential honey thieves but I will be keeping an eye on it and we shall see.

It just goes to show how important it is to leave standing deadwood like this wherever possible – as I was explaining in my last post, Lambs??…It’s definitely Spring. Many solitary and social bee species rely on tree hollows like this to nest in and, no doubt, loss of woodland and over-managed woodland is likely to contribute to their declining populations.

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Simon detangling stone and root.

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Tabi crosscutting the offending tree

Tabi, Judy and I went to Smallcombe Woods on Wednesday where we worked alongside Simon, the waller who’s rebuilding the boundary wall between the woods and Smallcombe cemetery, to extricate a hazel tree that had managed to well and truly incorporate itself into the wall; in places looking as though it was assimilating the stones into itself so that tree and wall were one thing. I was able to get some more practice with the chainsaw and we had fun using brute force to bash out most of the stones from between the roots.

Rachel came to meet us after lunch so that we could walk through the woods and plan a school bug hunting event that’s coming up – the sun was beaming and the carpet of wild garlic and dogs mercury was glorious in the light.

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Smallcombe Woods

I also did my brushcutter course which completes all of my training. I am now well on my way to becoming a bona fide ranger. I’m looking forward to putting all my new skills into good use around the skyline for the rest of the year.

Lambs??…It’s definitely Spring

The field next to the rangers yard has been residence to a flock of pregnant ewes ever since I started here. I arrived at work this week to the shrill bleats of the first lambs. I watched them stumbling around in their mothers’ wake while I drank my morning coffee, mostly looking a bit lost. I continued to observe as the farmer came towing a trailer laden with feed into the field and, while the rest of the sheep flocked straight to him, the mothers and their little ones held back, obviously hesitant to join the wild throng of hungry adults. And then there was this one little guy who stood abandoned in the great expanse of open field just crying out – it was a heartbreaking sound. Then as the farmer moved around towards him with the trailer he ran after it as bold as anything and allowed himself to be fed. Anyway, I’ve been enjoying having them around, they’re all very sweet, and I’m excited for our Meet the Lambs event on April 2nd when we’ll get to say hello to some of them more personally.

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Spring Squill – Fairy Wood

We were going to have the whole ranger team out working with the dry stone wallers on Wednesday but it was rained off. Instead, most of us spent the day doing some much-needed tidying and reorganising in workshop – which is now looking lovely – while dancing around and singing to the radio.

Tabi and I spent a gorgeous, sunny afternoon in Bathwick Woods ring-barking three young beech trees that are threatening the longterm health of a great old veteran beech. Trees growing in very close proximity to each other compete for available resources such as water and nutrients from the soil and space and light at the canopy. By removing overcrowding succession trees, we can effectively reduce the competitive pressures experienced by the target tree, in this case the old beech. This increases the amount of available resources for the beech, reducing negative impacts on its health and lifespan. This woodland management technique is called haloing.

Ring-barking is a process by which you initiate the gradual decline of a tree by cutting out a band around its trunk, severing the vascular tissues of the plant and preventing it from transporting water, food and minerals between the canopy and the roots. While this may seem a little crude, ring-barking – as opposed to felling – can be a very useful tool in woodland conservation management as it allows the trees to be thinned while causing as little disturbance to the surrounding environment as well as keeping the current habitats provided by the tree mostly intact. As the tree slowly dies, the habitat will change, as will the community of organisms that depend on it. The deadwood, for example, will provide excellent sustenance and shelter for many invertebrates that will in turn supply food for other woodland foragers such as bats and rodents. The thinning of the canopy will also allow more light to reach the woodland floor encouraging the growth of shade intolerant plant species and promoting an increased species richness in the understory. In this way we are protecting one of the oldest trees in the stand while helping to create a more complex woodland environment that can support a greater number of species with different niche requirements.

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A bumble bee taking shelter amoung the leaves – Bathwick Woods

At the end of the week we had loads of us out on Claverton Down felling and clearing small trees, shrubs and brambles from the next section of wall to be rebuilt. As I have mentioned in my previous post,  A taste of dry stone walling, these self seeded trees are likely responsible for the collapse of the original wall and so need to be removed. Although I am not able to do any felling myself, I was able to use my new chainsaw skills to cut the felled trees into smaller, more manageable pieces – some of which have been kept for fire wood and other bits for some potentially more creative purposes. Much of the hawthorn has an elegant, bone-like curvature and is very attractive. Rob and I had thoughts of using it aesthetically – perhaps some kind of sculptural display. I managed to get my first nasty blackthorn experience. It wasnt too bad, but I did get a good stab to the thumb which proceeded to swell into a solid lump around the wound. My whole hand and wrist ached terribly and felt quite arthritic for the rest of the day but, since, it has only been a bit bruised so I think I got off lightly by the sounds of some of the stories I’ve heard.

Today, Rob and I lead a guided sunrise walk around the Skyline. I woke at 4am to a pretty miserable morning and it bucketed it down all the way to the rangers yard. Despite the rain, I was in a great spirit and looking forward to the walk. I relished being up and out so early; there is something wonderful and strangely exhilarating about driving in the stillness and quiet of the wee hours while the rest of the world still sleeps.

The rain had mostly slowed to a foggy drizzle by the time we set off from Bushy Norwood at 6am with 18 folks in attendance. I was very impressed with the turn out! Unfortunately, the views were obscured by thick fog for the first couple of hours and the gradual lightening of the grey was the only indication of the sunrise. But, the air was fresh and warm and Rob kept us all entertained with the history, ecology and conservation work related to each site. By the time we got to Bathwick fields we could finally see Bath, which was well appreciated even if it was looking a bit gloomy.

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An adventurous snail enjoying the moisture – Bathwick Fields

Walking through Bathwick and Bathampton woods was particularly lovely, the rich palette of greens, from the dark, wet ferns to the luminescent lime mosses, accentuated in the dull light. We met a red-legged partridge, perhaps the first I’ve ever seen, who jogged beside us for a bit and a snail along the way. It was a superb morning enjoyed by all and when we said our farewells to the group just after 10am, I still had a whole Sunday remaining for some rest and relaxation.

A torrent of training

The last fortnight has been packed full of training and courses and I have emerged from it with a whole handful of new skills that will allow me to be much more independent as a ranger and considerably more useful to the team.

At the beginning of last week Rob got me driving the National Trust 4×4 Hylux, both on and off-road. I have never driven a 4×4 – I’m only used to driving my little Micra – so learning about the control and safety of the vehicle off-road was all new to me. As part of my driving practice, I also took us to pick up some hedging plant saplings (whips), including blackthorn, hawthorn and hazel, that we would be planting over the next couple of weeks. I also spent a day at St. Johns Ambulance in Bath carrying out my course in Emergency First Aid at Work for which I am now qualified. I feel confident that I could bandage someone up, perform the Heimlich maneuver, carry out CPR and use a defibrillator should I need to; though, hopefully, I wont have to test any of those skills.

Post Doris saw the most glorious day last Friday; still air, blue skies and sunshine. It was wonderful to have the whole team of rangers out together, which doesn’t happen that often. Joined by some of our dedicated day volunteers, we took a walk around Smallcombe Wood to allow Judy and I to familiarise ourselves with the site as neither of us had been there before and to assess whether there was any critical health and safety work to be done after the storm.

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Judy and Miles enjoying the sites in Smallcombe Woods

Smallcombe Wood is a beautiful copse of mixed deciduous ancient woodland. While much of the growth doesn’t appear ancient, you can see great old coppice stools of hazel and ash that are hundreds of years old.

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Rob standing with another one of his favourite trees, a huge old ash, in Smallcombe Woods. I think we decided to name this one Arthur.

At this time of the year the woodland floor is carpeted with moss and new wild garlic shoots and, even with the plants still so young, the fresh scent of garlic fills the air.

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Scarlet Elf Cup – Smallcombe Woods

There has been little in the way of coppicing here over the last half a century, only bits here or there carried out by the rangers to open up the canopy and allow the light in. However, there has been exciting talk of plans to assign coppicing coups and start a proper coppicing program, but that will not start at least until next winter. Having walked a full circle, we began work on a small patch of hazel coppice on the edge of the wood, looking out over Smallcombe Vale. Not only would the coppicing help to encourage a greater biodiversity on the woodland floor, but it also provided a load of new den building materials which we took over to the Woodland Play Area in the afternoon.

We ended the day planting a thicket of hawthorn and blackthorn whips at the southern edge of the Woodland Play Area to provide some privacy for our neighbours from the ruckus of playing children.

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Miles building an ‘impenetrable’ wall of brash in the Woodland Play Area

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Tree planting in the Woodland Play Area

I spent almost every day of this week commuting to Blandford Forum in Dorset where I completed my all terrain vehicle (ATV) training and chainsaw maintenance and crosscutting course. It was fairly easy to get the hang of driving the ATV – we did some basic off-road driving, driving up and down steep slopes and route planning in more complex, wooded environments – up until I had to reverse with a tailor around a slalom course, at which point I almost definitely would have failed had it been part of the assessment. Luckily, it seemed to be just for some additional experience and I passed the course despite knocking over all of the cones. It’s safe to say that I’ll need some more practice at that some time in the near future.

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Judy getting in some practice driving the Kubota at our ATV training.

The Chainsaw course went really well. The first day was spent looking at health and safety and chainsaw maintenance. Tabi had helped me swat up on most of these bits already so I was well prepared when I got there. On day two, we practiced various crosscutting techniques and the safe use of chainsaws. At the end of all the teaching, we were instructed to make a stool out of a single log allowing us to practice a little more accuracy with our cuts. I completed the course competent and in one piece – so, definitely a success.

On our way out of the woodlands, after completing the chainsaw assessment, the instructor and I were driving across an open piece of grassland when we disturbed a great barn owl in the grass beside the road. It rose out of the grass and took wing, but flew alongside the van in the same the direction, keeping pace, for about 30 yards. I have never had such an extended, up close viewing of an owl in the wild – it was quite spectacular. We also had the pleasure of watching 4 young roe deer bouncing across the fields ahead of us. A wonderful end to a fun and productive couple of weeks.

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A hedge Tabi and I planted on Wednesday last week on the boundary of Prior Park Garden and the Skyline

It feels like spring already.

It’s been a lovely week here on the Skyline and at Prior Park. It feels like spring is beginning to peak its head a little early, which is somewhat unsettling, but one can’t help enjoying the warm sunshine and the early flowering daffodils.

I have been working with the gardening team at Prior Park Landscape Garden in Bath. This garden was part of Ralph Allen’s estate – an 18th century entrepreneur and philanthropist who earned his fortune through founding the postal service – and was donated to the National Trust by Prior Park College who own the mansion-house at the top of the garden. On Tuesday, I joined Alice the gardener and her team of volunteers in some path maintenance along the bank of the lake. While the lads rebuilt the wooden revetment, Alice and I resurfaced a stretch of path that had become waterlogged due to insufficient drainage. I spent some time using a mattock to dig out the old surface hoggin (a mixture of clay gravel and sand) and a couple of inches the dense clay below before refilling it with a layer of rocks. We then lay a sheet of membrane fabric between the rocks and the new surface of hoggin to stop the finer hoggin from just falling through the rocks. The gardeners are a lovely bunch and it was great to get some experience in path building.

It has been the half term holidays this week which means I got to take part in hosting my first Wild Wednesday! We had all sorts of winter wildlife activities for kids to come and get involved with. Unfortunately it poured with rain for most of the day but while we weren’t out hunting for wildlife and collecting animal track stamps from around the Woodland Play Area we were huddled under the gazebo making bird feeders out of toilet roll tubes, honey and bird seed and painting birds and trees with our fingers. The kids were unperturbed by the rain, everyone eager to get involved in all of the activities, including those that meant leaving the protection of the gazebo. And it was equally admirable that so many parents were willing to endure the weather for the sake of the children being able to utilise the outdoors as an exciting learning environment. Much fun was had by all!

Friday was another day spent at Prior Park, which is where we share office space with the gardening team. It was so lovely outdoors that none of us wanted to be in the office. Thankfully, Tabi needed to go pond dipping to collect data for a course project; so we were able to distract ourselves from office work by taking a walk up to the serpentine pond at the top of the garden to discover which little creatures are residing there.

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Rachel and Tabi pond dipping, Prior Park.

It is quite astonishing how much life you can find in such a small area of pond! And we were only seeing the organisms big enough to catch in our net. When you really stop to take a proper look, the world is a much busier place than one might initially perceive.

We found plants and animals from a wide range of different taxa including all sorts of pond weeds and algae, fresh water snails, annelid worms, shrimp, insects, frogs (and lots of frogspawn) and fish. I’ve picked out a few of my favourite finds that you can see in the pictures below.

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Mayfly larva (Ephemeroptera sp.) – The aquatic larvae of mayfly species, called naiads, are easily identifiable by the three caudal filaments at their posterior. Although they are not easily visible in this picture, the larvae have external gills that project from the sides of their abdomens. The naiads of most species are herbivores or detritivores, feeding on algae and detritus, however, some are predatory and will feed on smaller creatures such as Chironomid fly larvae.

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Caddisfly larva (Tricoptera sp.): These insect larvae are renowned for being innovative builders. Many species use silk they produce in their salivary glands to glue together bits of plant or mineral debris to make themselves a protective case. Here we can see a larva with a case made from pond weed. When the insect feels threatened it retracts its head and thorax  back inside its case where it is well hidden from potential predators. This taxa is also omniphagous and species can vary between being predators, algae and plant grazers and filter feeders (filtering organic debris from the surrounding water).

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I don’t know which species of fish this is but it was very sweet floating as still as a statue with its pelvic fins stuck out like fans. I imagine these were the fish that we watched being plucked out of the water by the resident kingfisher.

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Leech: I believe (but not sure) that the species of this individual is Hemiclepsis marginata, a common fresh water leech found in ponds and lakes. It moves using two suckers on its ventral surface; anchoring itself with its posterior sucker, it extends the front of its body forwards and then, after getting a hold with its anterior sucker, the rest of it’s body is pulled forward. In the picture, the anterior end of the leech is the thin part, stretching forwards and navigating its surroundings. Watching it move was quite mesmerising. H. marginata are able to roll themselves up into a ball, much like woodlice, so that they can roll away down hill to rapidly avoid danger. This species feeds on the blood of fish, tadpoles and molluscs and, as creepy as they seem, are not a threat to humans.

There is also a kingfisher that feeds at this pond and, as Rachel had promised, it was there sitting on the stonework around the pond, intermittently diving down and plucking fish from the water, its iridescent blue flashing in the sunlight.

When we were done, we walked back around the other side of the lake to that which we had come as I had not come this far around before and over the Palladian bridge which still has the wicker hearts hanging between the pillars. The garden is stunning, especially in the sunshine. The long-term aim of the gardeners is to recreate the garden as it was before 1764 when Ralph Allen was still alive. There are very few herbaceous flower species, only those that grow naturally here such as snowdrops and wild daffodils. The garden primarily hosts native green shrubs and trees (or species that were present in the UK before 1764 at least) which gives it a very natural feel.

In the afternoon, I started decorating one of the fairy doors we’ve been making over the last couple of weeks with a pyrography pen. I got so involved in it I didn’t want to leave – but finishing the door will have to wait for another time…

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A sneaky peak of the door I have been working on with the pyrography pen – this door belongs to the fairy known as Whispy Sapling.

 

 

 

A taste of dry stone walling

One of the things I’ve been looking forward to most is learning the traditional practice of dry stone walling; my first lesson came sooner than expected. On Monday afternoon, I strolled down to Claverton Down where our team of volunteer wallers, headed by Kim, are rebuilding a dilapidated farm wall. The wall has fallen into disrepair primarily due to years of unmanaged self-seeded hedging plants, such as hawthorn, taking root too close to the foundations – or even between the stones – and destabilising the contact between the interlocking stones

Kim began by outlining the principles of dry stone walling. The type of wall being built is appropriately called a ‘double wall’ – a fairly typical structure for dry stone walls in the U.K. It is made from two rows of large stones with their flattest sides facing outwards. The spaces between the two rows are filled with smaller stones called hearting. The idea is that, when the stones are placed they have as many points of contact with adjacent stones as possible, fixing them in position by gravitational and frictional forces so there is no potential for movement. The foundation stones are usually set a foot or so into the ground and the stones being added to the outer walls become smaller the higher it’s built so that the wall becomes narrower at the top. All of these factors ensure the stability of the load-bearing structure of the wall – no human or cow should be able to shift as much as a stone in a properly built dry stone wall just by pushing it.

Then it was time for me get my eye in for stone selection and placement. There was a small section of foundation stones that had already been laid, so I started there. Firstly, one needs to locate and take note of the 3-D shape and size of a space that needs to be filled. Then, it’s just a case of glancing over piles of rocks – in this instance, stones recovered from the old wall – and picking the stone-of-best-fit. For those with an untrained eye, this can take some trial and error – and time. For masters of the wall such as Kim, however, the stone-of-best-fit is more often than not the first stone that they choose and if it’s not quite right they will find a better place for it. Ideally, one doesn’t put a stone back once you’ve picked it up. I am quite in awe of the accuracy of eye – it is not at all as easy as it may sound.

Kim and his team of volunteer wallers have been working on this bit of wall for the last 6 months.  They’ve built about 40 meters of wall and expect to be working on this stretch for the next 5 years. It is a task that takes a lot of patience and commitment. I only managed to get about an hour out with the wallers, before it started raining and we packed up for the day – by which time I had assisted in placing all of about 4 stones, one outer stone and three bits of hearting. I like to think that my judgment got better as I went, but it’s probably a little early for that; any apparent improvement was likely to be fluke more than anything. We are very fortunate to have such a dedicated group of volunteers that come and work on the wall two days a week – so there will be lots more opportunity for me to work on mastering the art.

 

Cake, George and pruning saws

Well, the weather has been pretty miserable, but that hasn’t stopped us from having a fun and productive week. We may have been blessed with the beauty of blue skies, sunshine and frost over the previous couple of weeks but it wasn’t half cold! It’s been nice not having to scrape the ice off of the car in the mornings.

On Tuesday afternoon Rob and I met a group of about 20 prep school kids and their teachers (who had clearly not been discouraged by the horrible grey drizzle) in the rather muddy woodland play area. They had come to volunteer for an hour to help clean up the site. They were in surprisingly good spirits (I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been if I’d been dragged out into the rain to pick up rubbish at their age) and contributed enthusiastically in the discussions we had about the National Trust and conservation. We all got to work, dismantling dens that had been built outside of the designated den building area. These restrictions are there so that our neighbours are not overly disturbed by the ruckus of playing children. The scene reminded me of worker ants when they’ve found a tasty food source – the kids marching back and forth along the same line, carrying logs from one side of the woodland, dumping them in another and then back again to collect more wood. Within minutes, the dens were gone.

We then set to clearing any large bits of wood and rock debris from around the adventure course, which is nestled in a small hollow that used to be a quarry. The children had some time to play on the zip line and rope swings and then they went off back to school looking very cheery. A brief whirlwind of activity and it was done. Rob and I retreated back to the office and out of the rain. The session left me feeling very satisfied and invigorated. Not only had I had a good work out pushing a wheelbarrow laden with rocks up out of the hollow and further into the woods, the children brought a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm to the woodland and it felt good to have gotten a lot done in a short space of time.

The next day, Rob and I had a lovely stroll around Rainbow Wood Fields where we visited a very old beech tree (seen in the picture below), hidden away at the top of the hill – an old veteran that Tabi had discovered not so long ago. It has a magnificent shape; its biggest branch bowed over, back towards the hillside so that it rests upon the ground again. I’m not sure what conditions it has faced to end up like this but it has obviously seen some hardship and has battled well to keep itself going to strong. Rob very fondly named the tree George before we moved on.

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Rob saying hello to George, one of his favourite trees on the Skyline – Rainbow Wood Fields.

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View of Bath from Rainbow Wood Fields.

We spent a couple of days continuing with the brush clearance on Sham Castle Down with the help of various volunteers and have had some lovely great big fires going. It is very gratifying work. There is such a stark difference in how the meadows look after you’ve cut and burned large areas of brambles and hawthorn. It opens everything up and makes it feel so much more spacious. I can’t wait to see what these fields look like in June and July when they are full of wild flowers and buzzing with pollinators.

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Bonfire on Sham Castle Down.

Rachel had made an absolutely scrummy cake for my birthday (very thoughtful and generous) and we all enjoyed a well deserved tea and cake break on Wednesday afternoon. What a treat!

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Rob and Judy tucking into birthday cake on Sham Castle Down.

On Friday morning, Rob, Miles (a weekly day volunteer) and I took a trip to Priory Close Woodlands; a new site to me. We accessed the property via a suburban alley between two houses. You would never have guessed that there was a beautiful little strip of woodland than runs behind the street houses there, emerging at the end of the row to border a wonderfully unkempt hillside meadow. The meadow is on the other side of the valley to Rainbow Wood Fields so I could see where we had been walking and working the week before and, of course, there were fantastic new views of bath. The pathway through the woods is very rustic and it was clear that not many people pass through, which gives it a nice secluded feel. Unfortunately, the spot has a bit of a problem with people dumping unwanted garden waste, which can cause various problems like the introduction of non native garden plant species.

We were primarily there to prune some of our trees that were overhanging the neighbours drive and collect some large logs of ash that had already been felled. I learned how to use a extendable pruning saw, which is actually quite hard work, especially when trying to make an undercut to stop the bark from stripping when the branch you’re cutting snaps off.  After working together on the pruning job, we took some time to clean up the woodlands a bit and take down a tyre swing whose rope was slowly being incorporated into the wood of the tree. It had started to rain lightly just as we had picked up our tools and had gotten heavier as the morning wore on. It was actually quite refreshing  while ones heave-ho’ing on the pruning saw, but when we were done we were all quite happy to be heading back to the yard for lunch.

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Me cutting off a branch of an ash tree using an extendable pruning saw – Priory Close Woodlands

The week ended with a rainy afternoon at the yard. Tabi had spent some of the morning cutting new oak fairy doors for the family trail. Many of the old doors that have been outside attached to the base of trees for a few years have been looking a bit worse for wear and so are being replaced or refurbished. Miles and I worked together on planing and sanding the little doors so that they are ready for some styling and decoration. The shapes and wood grain of some of the doors are so elegant and pretty. I’m really looking forward to decorating them. We also worked on some tool maintenance, scouring the blades to get rid of any rust and giving them a light oiling.

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Some of the fairy doors after planing and sanding. The righthand one is my favourite.

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Miles cleaning up a bow saw in the workshop at the rangers yard.

Everyday  I’m learning new skills, understanding more about what it is to be a ranger and all of the different jobs that need to be thought about and scheduled in – there’s a lot to it and it certainly keeps one busy and entertained. I really am enjoying every moment of it, helped, no doubt, by the fact that I have joined such a lovely and energetic team of rangers.

A warm welcome to a frosty Bath Skyline

Wow! I have had such a lovely first couple of weeks on the job. The reception I’ve received from everyone at the Skyline has been so positive and welcoming and I already feel very much part of the family.

During the days leading up to the start of my traineeship I had mostly been very excited, and definitely a little nervous. I arrived for my first day at sunrise on the morning of Tuesday 17 January and was greeted by Rob Hopwood-Stephens (Rob HS), the Skyline ranger and my volunteer manager, with a big smile and warm words of welcome. I was lead into the mess room, the kitchen/living area at the rangers yard, to meet the rest of the rangers team – Tabi, part-time ranger, and Judy, my fellow volunteer ranger. Before heading out, we took some time to chat and drink coffee in a very comfortable, relaxed and friendly atmosphere and my nerves dissipated almost immediately. It was already very clear that I had joined a team of enthusiastic and like-minded people who I was going to get along with just fine.

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Sunrise from the rangers yard, Bath Skyline

After having a brief walk out onto Sham Castle Down (I’ll come back to that), I was thrown straight into the first monthly rangers meeting of the year where I met Rob Holden (Rob H), countryside manager at the Skyline, for the first time and some of the rest of the full-time team. It was great to meet everyone and learn about the current affairs on the Skyline – when each new item on the agenda was addressed Rob H made sure the context was explained for my benefit and I started to get a real sense of the events and work going on on the skyline, some of the issues that are being faced and the dynamic of the different teams across the National Trust properties here.

Rob HS, Tabi, Judy and I spent most of the rest of the day walking around Sham Castle Down, Rainbow Wood Fields and Bathwick Woods, introducing me to the ecology and history of each site and discussing the upcoming conservation work that was to be carried out at these sites. Sham Castle Down and Rainbow Wood Fields are two of the prime herb rich limestone grassland sites that the National Trust manage and protect here at the Skyline. They require strict management practices in order to maintain the huge levels of biodiversity that they support. Over the winter, scrub clearance is some of the key conservation work needed to prevent the beautiful pristine grasslands from being overrun with brambles, shrubs and self-seeded trees in natures attempt to develop the grassland into woodland – part of an ecological process known as succession. Both sites, like much of the Skyline, are on the hillside and have fantastic panoramic views across bath, the valley it’s nestled in, and the rolling green hills that surround the city. Even on that first day, walking around the sites, listening to Rob and Tabi talking enthusiastically about how things have changed over the last few years, the work that has been done here and their favourite trees, I knew that I was going to love it here and couldn’t wait to get out and start working.

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Frosty morning view across Bath from Sham Castle Down

It was only the next day that I was out there on Rainbow Wood Fields scrub bashing with Tabi, Judy and a group of 11th and 12th year student volunteers from a local School. After helping to get the fire going, I got involved with raking up the shrubs and brambles that Tabi had cut using the brushcutter (I’m not licensed to use it yet), using loppers to remove any larger tree saplings and clearing the brush around the larger hawthorn trees that were to remain. We also cut back the lower branches of these trees to raise the canopy so that when the cattle were on the land they would have easy access to graze around the base of the trees; further encouraging the development of a healthy grassland habitat there. All of the waste material was then fed onto the fire, which quickly became a roaring bonfire.A team of volunteers manned the fire at all times to make sure it was kept hot and under control.

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Herb rich grassland at Rainbow Wood Fields with a lovely view across Bath. The hummocks seen on the grassland are the anthills of the yellow meadow ant.

I loved working alongside the students. They were very motivated and were a huge help in getting a large section of the site cleared. It was so wonderful to see them enjoying the work and having fun. I think its brilliant that some schools are running initiatives that get their students out volunteering with associations such as the National Trust. It’s a excellent way to get young people more interested and involved in ecology and conservation and helps them to develop some practical outdoor skills. I’m really looking forward to our next session with this group.

The following two weeks have been filled with more meetings, scrub bashing with various volunteer groups and generally learning the ropes of the rangers life. I am slowly learning my way around the Skyline. I had the most amazing walk last Friday. Rachel, the outdoor experience manager, needed someone to walk the whole Skyline route to test the updated written directions for the new leaflet and, given that I had never walked it before, I was the ideal candidate. It was a gorgeously clear and sunny morning and the whole Skyline was frost covered and shining magnificently – a perfect day to be walking. I was able to take my time, working my way around the trail that connects most of the major Skyline properties, and soaking up the unique beauty of each site. I got a feel for the different ecosystems and biodiversity that each site boasted and it was an excellent exercise for learning all the site names and where they are in relation to each other.

I got to walk the trail again the following Friday with Tabi and learned how to carry out an infrastructure audit – checking whether any paths, gates, fences, benches etc. need any maintenance – and how to collect the data  from the gate counters – sensors that record the number of people or animals that pass various points around the skyline. It was really lovely to spend the day hanging out with Tabi. The main highlights were seeing and hearing the hammering of a great spotted woodpecker out on Rainbow Wood Fields and making friends with a very bold robin in Bathwick Fields.

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A very friendly robin on Bathwick Fields

It’s safe to say it has been a busy couple of weeks with lots of new information to learn. But, I am totally lapping it all up and I’m very excited to be learning more and more each day. I have been really enjoying being outdoors everyday, working on the land and getting loads of exercise (especially on these hills). The green gym of life – I’m going to get super fit working here!