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.
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.
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.
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.
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!