First visit to Countryside Restoration Trust

This was the introductory session - we spent half an hour learning about the work of the CRT from Vince Lea, a monitoring officer for the organisation, who also organises and supervises the volunteers. We were informed about the work we were going to be doing - we were told about the Himalayan Balsam, and why we had to remove it, and then we were sent out to collect a pair of waders, and driven to Bourne Brook, where, once we had been equipped with a staff for depth testing, we were sent into the water, straight into a patch of the plant. We were split up into pairs, and sent in opposite directions in search of the plant. Navigating the brook was interesting at times, when nature decided to intervene with our efforts, and the banks were difficult to climb, as the mud was wet and slippery. Nettles were a notable obstacle, with some of us looking like we had contracted a new disease with the amount of stings that we had aquired. I'm not going to talk about the dead rabbits... We removed large amounts of the plant, but our efforts were to be quickly undone by the plants prolific nature. It provides us with lots of future work, but teaches us that nature is exceptionally good (almost too good) at what it does. to see the location of Birds Farm, the headquarters of the CRT, and the site on which we are working.

Helping with car parking at CRT open day

For two hours on the 21st of July, I helped with car parking for the CRT open day. I was, with one other person, the first person on shift - we were given fluorescent jackets, and safety instructions, along with, of course, instructions on how to park the cars. We were told to organise them in rows, but, when I was instructing them as to exactly where to park, the neat line did begin to falter a little... Fortunately the other member of my team of two was able to straighten the other lines out, to avoid a knock-on effect. The aim of the day was to help people better understand the link between farming, wildlife and the food that we eat. They feel that it is important that people are educated in matters that concern them. It was an enjoyable day, with lots of people attending. The CRT say that their mission is to rotect the farmed countryside, its wildlife, and the people with the knowledge and skills to look after it – and to communicate that together these represent a strategic resource vital for our future food security. The objective of the day was to re-enforce that statement, and to communicate to the public how important the  work that they do is.

Second visit to Bourne Brook

This time we all knew what we were doing a little bit more - it was a beautiful day, and very pleasant in the shady brook. After collecting our waders, we headed out - one of our party ended up with waders that only went up to the top of his thighs - needless to say he ended up rather soaked! In our little group, there seemed to be less balsam to find, but it was still there. I fought my way up onto a nettle-infested bank to remove some of the plant. News that there was a wasps nest on the bank ahead did little to put people at ease - it induced paranoia in a few, and fears of an allergic reaction in another. There were a team of Silver DofE volunteers with us that day - they started off close to the wasps nest - lucky them! I learned that I need to work harder on looking for the plant, as Vince pointed out, I did miss a few.

The last Himalayan Balsam

Well, my days of removing Himalayan Balsam are over - today we had a particularly good haul, even if it was only me and Ofek there. We were sent to sweep the ditch on the borders of the farm, meaning that we have cleared it all. I found some massive ones today - lots over four feet tall! The flowers made them easy to see. I managed to avoid the nettles better today, which was good. My waders sprang a leak, so my whole right leg was soaked! At the end of the session, we got into a dry section of ditch that was full of Himalayan Balsam, and with our sticks we beat it all down to the ground! It was very fun. I learnt more about HB today - turns out that competition for space with native plants is only half the problem - because it is only annual, when it grows on river banks, removes all the other plants, and then does, nothing is holding the soil together, so it erodes, thus dramatically altering local geography over time. It is good doing work for a charity, because, not only am I completing my DofE, but I am also helping a charity, and I think that's pretty good, as it is rewarding for me, too.

First try at removing Ragwort

So it was time to take a break from wading in a brook, and take to the fields instead - equipped with gardening gloves, and a special ragwort removal fork, we set to work. It was, as we quickly learned, imperative that all of the plant is removed, otherwise it is quick to proliferate. Ragwort is toxic to animals, but they know to avoid it; it becomes an issue when the ragwort becomes incorporated into the hay - this is when poisoning occurs, when they cannot distinguish the plant. It is an accumulative toxin that causes liver failure, so repeated doses are a problem. Removing it with a fork is the most efficient way, as weed killers are not as effective, and cause collateral damage, too. I have to say that I enjoyed removing the Himalayan balsam more... Probably something to do with the wading in streams, and pulling plants from the ground in vast numbers... Only time will tell if pulling up ragwort is more enjoyable.

Second time removing ragwort

This time I decided that I would take a break from constantly using the rag-fork; it turned out that I was considerably better at removing ragwort with just some gardening gloves, even if more of the roots were left in. It was more difficult, though, as it has to be said that the plant does not come quietly. I made much more progress along the meadow, with my patch looking much clearer by the end, and many bags full of ragwort. I also had the pleasure of finding a pile of burst balloons and streamers - clearly they had been landed there, and it looked like that had been burst elsewhere; still an interesting find. Overall, it was similar to last time, but I am starting to enjoy it more than I did before.

Final time removing ragwort

Today was my last time removing ragwort - I finally mastered the rag-fork - I was no longer leaving sizeable craters in the ground whenever I attempted to remove a plant! The plant does not come quietly, as I may have said before - it takes some effort to remove it from the ground, and this can be problematic at times. As winter looms, my last ragwort session is over - the task now changes to coppicing willows, which will be a nice change. Another thing that I have mastered (again, just in time to finish!) is actually identifying what plant is actually ragwort, and what is not - on the first session, I capably removed many other species of plants with deceptively similar yellow flowers, none of them being ragwort. Fortunately, I was able to fill a couple of bags with the correct plant today, which was good. I have to say that, this is possibly slightly less rewarding than removing Himalayan Balsam - it was nice to see your hard work strung up over a branch, but, seeing masses of your work in masses of bags, and then throwing it away is rewarding too. Anyway, that is the last time that I will be filling bags with ragwort - next time I will be hacking trees to the ground, hopefully with as little collateral damage as possible.

First time coppicing

It was time for a change of tact, and to exchange my gardening fork for a saw and some loppers, and head to the bank of the brook to coppice osiers. Osiers are, in essence, willows that are grown to have particular characteristics, specifically very pliable branches that are used in construction, specifically basket making. Coppicing is the process by which all of the branches are removed, but the trunk, often only about a foot high, is left, so the branches can regrow. When we coppice entirely depends on the weather, and other factors that affect how quickly the trees grow. Often, half a year or more is left between coppicing sessions, but this does not, of course, limit the times we can coppice; there are always more trees to coppice. In this first time, the longer, six foot sticks that we acquired were being sold to a scout troop, but they do, of course, have many other applications. Coppicing, in a way, could be compared to harvesting fuel for a biomass power plant. Although you are doing damage now, the trees will always regrow, and so you are harvesting a renewable resource that has lots of applications. Each tree has a trunk that is a foot or so high, and lots of thin branches - no more than two inches thick, protruding from the top. Thinner branches are dealt with with the loppers, and the larger ones are handled by the saw. Those long enough will be turned into, for example, six foot staves, practical for more sturdy construction, while the smaller ones can be used in things such as fence building or traditional style basket making. I am yet to see whether this will surpass either of the other activities, but I have high hopes.

Second time coppicing

It was a much bigger turnout today - it seems that rainy weather attracts children... not something I would have predicted. Anyway, this time, accompanied by my friends, I set to work, and was considerably more productive than last week, primarily due to my being equipped with some better loppers, albeit an inferior saw to last time. I managed to process at least five trees with the help of my friends, but I was left primarily to myself at the end. The weather was worse this week; it was windy, but fortunately we were sheltered in amongst the trees. We were lucky with the rain - it held off for the entire session (and my cycle ride home!). By the end of the session we had all managed to clear quite a path through the trees, but it seems that there will be much more work to do. I have concluded that this is the best activity yet - it involves the least water, and is, beneficially, the most physically active, which is always good.

First time hedge cutting

Today it was time for a change; no longer was I cutting down trees by the brook, now hacking my way through brambles in a hedgerow. The electric fence (turned off!) is continually damaged by plants growing over it, so today we were carving a gap between it and the hedgerow, which sadly involved cutting through an impenetrable thicket of brambles, which cut my arms to shreds; my gloves proved to be insufficient, as did my shoes, as, on the way there we had to walk through mud that possessed a similar level of adhesiveness to PVA glue. Safe to say, it is walking boots from now on! Fortunately, the brambles were not to stay, as I was relocated to somewhere less sharp. I have doubts as to whether this will better any of the other activities so far...