The Barlow: Hedge Laying For Beginners

The Barlow, Edgworth, 9th January 2022

Hedgerows are not a naturally occurring feature of the landscape, they are a consequence of human land management. The oldest hedgerows date back to the Bronze Age and were originally remnant woodlands left around land that had been cleared for farming or settlements. Over the centuries these leftovers became an established method of creating field boundaries and an important feature of our landscape, increasing in usage through Roman times and the Medieval era.

The Barlow's woodland.
The Barlow’s woodland.

As farming became more mechanised, and post-war intensive farming practices were implemented to feed a growing population, hedges were destroyed to reclaim a few extra yards of farm land, in doing so they changed a landscape that had endured for generations. What wasn’t fully appreciated was the impact this had on wild life. Wild life had taken advantage of this human creation; nesting birds, pollinating insects, wild mammals all found a home or sanctuary in hedgerows. As hedgerows were systematically destroyed biodiversity and species populations fell. By the mid 1990s the loss of hedgerows had largely stopped, but by then many hundreds of thousands of miles of hedge had been lost.

Thankfully, the conservation value of hedges has been recognised and hedges are making a comeback.

If left alone hedges will start to fail within a few decades, individual shrubs become thick and woody and gaps appear in the hedge as they die, the hedge soon loses its form and function. Hedge laying is the best way to manage a hedgerow. Hedge laying prolongs the life of the hedge, improves its function as a field boundary and provides increased habitat for wild life. There are many styles of laid hedge, BCV use a Lancashire style which, while being a bit rustic in appearance, is very effective. The methods of laying a hedge are also varied. On today’s task two methodologies were used: using a bill hook and using a saw.

Generally the process for both is the same: decide which way direction the hedge is being laid, if the land slopes upward that’s the direction the stem or pleach should go. Next clean up the side branches of the stem you’re working on. If you are using a saw make a cut two thirds of the into the stem several inches above the ground on the opposite side of the stem to the direction you want to lay it; if you’re using a bill hook slice downwards to that point from a point a foot or so up the stem so that the cut tapers inward. Then the stem, or pleach, is bent over in the direction you want it to go. Repeat with each pleach until the hedgerow is complete. Hammering stakes as you go along gives the newly laid hedge support.

BCV and Barlow Volunteers.
BCV and Barlow Volunteers.

On today’s task Rick was training the Barlow volunteers how to lay a hedge, assisted by Francis, Neil, and Dave. Rick is the only fully accredited member of the National Hedge Laying Society working in Greater Manchester and has trained people of every age and level of experience from school children to conservation professionals. Other members of the team used the brash to create a dead hedge. Big cheer for everyone involved.

Doffcocker: Reaping the Future

Doffcocker LNR 12th and 26th December – Reedbed Management

Spreading out.

Redbeds have been one of the UK’s fastest declining habitats. Historically reeds were used for thatching, which because it was a widespread practice helped to maintain the health and extent of reedbeds, but as slate and other materials replaced reeds the maintenance of the beds lapsed and they began to decline. Some beds are still managed for thatch but it is only on a small scale.

In recent years reedbeds have had a renaissance for both commercial and conservation purposes. Reedbeds are excellent water filters and can be used in sewage treatment, but they only have a lifespan of 5-15 years depending on the effluent load that flows through them. For us the value in reedbeds lies in their importance to conservation.

Reedbeds support around 700 species of invertebrate plus many species of bird, amphibian, mammal and fish; bittern, water rail, reed bunting, reed warbler, water shrew, otter, to name a few. Not all of these are found in Bolton but Doffcocker does have a fine collection of warblers and has been visited by bittern.

As a reedbed ages dead material and silt build up, this gradually turns flowing water into marsh and then dry land. As the reedbed becomes dryer other species move in such as willow and birch; the same process also affects mossland, a habitat that has also been in decline. Reed cutting and the removal of trees helps to maintain the health of a reedbed.

Reed Warbler
Reed Warbler
Reed Bunting
Reed Bunting

Our two final tasks of 2021 involved removing trees and cutting an area of reed. Reedbeds are usually cut in winter, it can be done in summer but as this kills the new shoots it is usually used to control the spread of a reedbed. Only small areas of the bed are cut at any one time, not all of it at once, this maintains existing habitat while the cut areas recover. At Doffcocker the cutting regime is on a 7 year cycle, so next year we’ll cut a different section and so on year after year.

Being BCV we don’t like to waste anything, so all of the brash and logs from the trees were use to create a dead hedge along the fence between the reedbed and the causeway, this will help to create temporary habitat for wild life as well as removing unwanted material from amongst the reeds.

The reeds themselves were cut with a brushcutter, the cuttings were then raked up. We experimented with different tools and found that 2 and 4 pronged pitchforks were the most effective tools to use and allowed us to remove not just the freshly cut material but also older stuff that was clogging up the beds. Doing this we could create more areas of free flowing water than we could with spring rakes. Ideally the cut material should be burned but as we’re not allowed to burn on Doffcocker Lodge we piled up everything along fences, this isn’t the best solution as this material could make it’s way back into the cleared area. Removal from the site would be a preferred option, but that’s something we’ll have to look at next time.

So, there you go, 2021 reaped and harvested, thanks to everyone for turning out before Xmas wearing Santa hats and also on Boxing Day while still full of Christmas cheer. Happy New Year and see you in 2022.

Fawcett Mill Fields: There and Back Again

Fawcett Mill Fields, Cumbria 26-28th November 2021

Many Meetings
One of the things that had been a feature of the BCV calendar for as long as anyone can remember were the residential weekends, or as we call them Resi’s. Our last resi before the time of Covid was in January 2020 at the Anderton Centre, since then those weekend retreats had been badly missed. So, when Sam and Rich offered us the chance to swap landscapes of brick, concrete and tarmac for those of high hills, steep valleys and gushing rivers we couldn’t say no.

Rich and Sam
Rich and Sam

Fawcett Mill Fields is Rich Greenwood and Sam Kitchen’s new venture, holiday accommodation in buildings that were once part of a water mill. The mill buildings date back to the early 1700s’s, but a mill existed on or around this site as part of Gaisgill Hall as far back as the 1300s. Sadly, previous owners had buried the mill machinery under concrete in less enlightened times, but many other features still remained including the Grade II Listed packhorse bridge over the Rais Beck. It was in this setting that we became Rich and Sam’s first guests, and in return we would be building a dipping platform and laying a hedge.

Seventeen volunteers made the journey, all of us taking at least one lateral flow test in the previous 24 hours, the only unwanted thing to come with us was Storm Arwen. This Arwen was no Elven princess, and as the last of us arrived at Fawcett Mill high winds and snow were already battering the buildings and coating the roads in glittering white. Thankfully Sam and Rich had prepared hot meals for us all, it was like reaching Rivendell after being chased across the moors by howling wraiths; this last homely house was to be our home for the next two days.

In Glades Beneath The Misty Fell
After a night of socialising, and not much sleep our day began with breakfast, followed by second breakfast in some cases, and preparations for the day ahead. The plan was to begin work on the dipping platform on the other side of the packhorse bridge, so we gathered the tools and set out. Over night the temperature had gone from cold to really cold, and the icy chill could be felt even on double gloved hands and double socked toes, but we weren’t going to be put off by a little cold weather.

As we looked at the beautiful countryside it was clear that the site had a wealth of wild life: blue tit, great tit, coal tit, robin, nuthatch, blackbird, chaffinch, and dipper were some of the birds present, but earlier Sam had seen salmon leaping up the waterfalls, and there was also a magical red squirrel that disappeared into the trees not to be seen again all weekend. We were in nature lovers heaven, and we wanted to make it ours.

Red Squirrell
Red squirrel at Fawcett Mill Fields.

The site of the dipping platform was at the end of a small pond and the first job was to remove the vegetation and level out the soil. That done we hammered twenty wooden posts into the ground to support the platform. Sounds simple but the rocks beneath the soil made a straight forward job into hard work, as a result some of the posts were a little bit misaligned, but with a bit of ingenuity we managed to make it work. After fitting a weed suppressing sheet around the posts, joists were screwed in place and the posts cut down to size. Finally boards were fixed and fitted to make the platform’s surface, the work being finished on Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, another team worked on laying the hedge at the side of the road. A ragged hedge was trimmed and treated to the BCV hedge laying style creating habitat for birds. Trees were cut back and pruned and everything made neat and tidy. As with the dipping platform the work was spread over two days but both jobs came to an abrupt end as the snow began to fall, but more about that later.

A Long Expected Party
The weekend wasn’t all work and no play. As it happened the trip coincided with Carol’s 75th birthday, so a celebration was arranged. Cakes were brought and decorated by Jane, songs were sung and mugs of beer were drunk, as too were most of the volunteers. As the round moon rolled behind the hill there were riddle games and guessing games, and leg pulling and hair pulling long into the night. One by one the celebrants drifted off to bed and slept the sleep of heroes.

Happy Birthday, Carol.
Happy Birthday, Carol.

Many Partings
Sadly all things end and the weekend’s fellowship was broken by the return of Storm Arwen. As we finished fixing the last planks of the dipping platform and the last pleaches of the hedge the snow began to fall heavy and thick and the risk of being snowed in was suddenly very real. The team quickly packed their bags and gathered up the tools. With the help of Rich and Karl, a quad bike, and bag fulls of salt we made our escape down slippery roads back to the world of concrete, brick and tarmac.

Many thanks to Sam, Rich and Karl for their hospitality and superb meals, we all look forward to coming back soon; thanks to Tom and Caroline, and Rick, for co-ordinating everything; thanks to Lynn, Justine, Katrina and the cooking crew for breakfasts, second breakfasts, and lunches; thanks to all of the volunteers who made it a great weekend; and finally thanks to all of the drivers for getting all of us safely there and back again.

The packhorse bridge.
The packhorse bridge.

Also, thanks to Francis for three of the photos.

Dunscar Woods: Tree Thinning

14th October 2021

Dunscar Wood is a new woodland near Egerton, Bolton. The wood occupies 5.7 hectares of what was formerly green fields which were bought by the Woodland Trust in 1998 as part of their millennial Woodlands on Your Doorstep project. Old maps do show a small patch of woods in the area but not of any great size or significance.

The Dunscar Wood Management plan says that in 1999 wood was planted with a mix of sessile oak, ash, birch, cherry, rowan, aspen, holly, alder, hawthorn, blackthorn and goat willow. Mature sycamore is also present and is thought to be a remnant of previous field boundaries.

Pedunculate Oak
Pedunculate Oak

New woodlands such as this are often planted quite densely, with only 2 to 3 metres between each tree. Although there is always some loss through animal grazing, disease such as ash die back, and climatic conditions, the trees take up more room as they grow and need to be thinned out.

Another purpose of thinning is to improve the age structure of the woodland. One of the problems of planting lots of trees at once is that all of the trees are more or less the same age hence the mix of long lived trees such as oak and short life-spanned species such as birch. The Trust envisages that over the next 80 years the short lived species will die off, his will provide standing deadwood and fallen logs which will benefit a range of bird and invertebrate species; gaps in the canopy will benefit also woodland floor flora. This area of Bolton has limited natural tree cover and a limited mix of species, as the wood regenerates naturally this should improve and the wood will become self sustaining.

Candidate trees had been marked up by a Woodland Trust officer, many of them were diseased and posed a danger to the rest of the wood and the wood’s users. The day before the task many of these marked tree were taken down by chainsaw, leaving Sunday’s group the job of cutting them up and making the brash into habitat piles and log stacks. The day was also a good opportunity to train some of the younger members, and Duke of Edinburgh students, how to fell trees safely and how to use tools correctly.

Despite the amount of material dealt with there is still plenty left to do and we may need to come back at a later date. In the meantime well done everyone. Thanks to Rick, Tom and Caroline for organising, and special thanks to Mr. Riley of the Woodland Trust for letting us work here. Also thanks to Dunscar Industrial estate for allowing us to park.

Chew Moor: Field of Screams

October 31st 2021

Autumn Crocus
Autumn Crocus

Chew Moor, Lostock, a Site of Biological Importance, the importance being the autumn crocus that sprout up in September and October. The story is that the Knights Hospitallers brought them back from the Crusades, it was believed that they were effective against the Black Death but they were also more valuable than gold because of saffron. To prevent the valuable saffron being stolen the Knights laid a curse on the flowers, binding the spirit of one of their own to the meadow for all eternity. The ritual used to do this was gruesome and hideous and unbreakable, it is said, that on grim days his tall hooded shade can be seen walking the perimeter of the meadow in the exact areas where the crocus grows.

As BCV arrived on a cold October day the pale knight was already making his presence felt; punctured tyres, flat batteries, and sudden illnesses plagued the volunteers. Strange ghostly faces peered from the undergrowth as workers tried to cut back branches from the path, evil screams emanated from deep amongst the trees, and gloves would mysteriously go missing.

The volunteers tried to appease the vengeful spirit with cake and tea, and explained that the work was to help the meadow not damage it, cutting back the hedge and the trees would help improve habitat for birds and also help the flowers. The spook gave a hollow laugh and possessed a couple of our party to help speed the work along. He also made another one of the group so obsessed with the long handled pruning saw that we had to leave bits of him behind buried by the path.

All in all a typical BCV task.

If you want to see more creepiness go to Hallween Hall of Horrors.

Doffcocker: Island Hideaway

17th October 2021

Doffcocker Lodge was designated as a Local Nature Reserve in 1992 and until 2000 it was Bolton’s only LNR. The lodge it self was created in 1874 as mill lodge, although the lodge’s original purpose has long since ended it is now home to dozens of bird species and a range of habitats.

On the northern shore of the main lodge is an island which for many years has been managed for common tern, kingfisher, moor hen, coot and other birds. The problem with the island is that its western tip is eroding due to wave action and also the island’s interior becomes clogged with vegetation. Which is where BCV comes in. Every year for as long as anyone can remember we ferry volunteers over to the island where they hack and slash the vegetation down which is then used to protect the island’s exposed shores.

Erosion control 2012
Erosion control 2012

In 2012 we wrapped the sides of the island in weaved willow stems and stuffed the gap with straw (see above), now the straw has gone we dump everything we cut down behind it instead, providing a buffer to autumn and winter weather. As the willow has a habit of regrowing we harvest it and use it for willow weaving projects with local schools.

So, the birds are happy, the schools are happy, Bolton Council is happy, the island is happy and BCV is happy. Now some nautical photos.