21 November 2014

Making space for nature in the South Lakes

Nature conservation in the Lakes - nothing furry in sight

What springs to mind when you think about ‘nature conservation’?  Maybe it’s something exotic but vague about tigers or snow leopards - or, closer to home, fuzzy ideas about counting dormice or monitoring butterflies.  The sad fact is that most of the rangers’ nature conservation work is much more prosaic. As a cynical ex-colleague put it: ‘We just cut down trees and build fences.’  There’s a lot of truth in that, but our work’s no less important for it!

For the past few weeks some of us have been hard at work on Hoathwaite Farm, near Coniston, creating a new wildlife corridor through the fields. Our starting point was an old, neglected hedgerow next to a beck. ‘Neglected’ in that it hadn’t been managed by laying for many years, so it had developed into a gappy line of trees. Although trees are important components of lots of ecosystems, the real value of hedgerows lies in the way they provide a continuous, sheltered ‘corridor’ through the landscape, which small mammals and invertebrates can use to move around and live in. The low, bushy growth also provides perfect nest sites for lots of birds.   

The gappy, neglected hedge before we started the project
To restore the hedgerow and maximise its value for wildlife, we felled the ‘overstood’ hedge trees in a process called coppicing – most broadleaved trees will spring back to life when you cut them down with lots of vigorous new stems, so they’ll form the perfect basis of a hedge in a couple of years.  Although it can look a little stark initially, and may seem counter-intuitive, cutting down trees and allowing them to coppice creates a constantly changing variety of different stages of growth throughout the landscape, ensuring that the right conditions are available for lots of different mammals, birds and other creatures – all of which require different things. We’ll also plant new hedge plants between the coppiced trees, to make sure it’s a continuous line, and we always leave the best couple of trees in the line upright as 'standards' to grow on into maturity, for the habitat they provide and to enhance the landscape.  

The old neglected hedge before...

...and after, with trees coppiced and two new fences.

 Fencing - not glamorous but great for wildlife

The only problem with coppicing and hedge-planting on a farm is that the young, soft growth of the trees makes an irresistible treat for sheep and cows.  Livestock will choose tree leaves and fresh twigs over grass, so we needed to fence the hedge-line to ensure that the trees grow successfully.  With its location on a small beck, fencing this hedge created a win-win situation, as fencing stock away from the beck is also great for the ecosystems in the stream, and for the water quality of the whole catchment.  Stopping the stock accessing the beck will reduce the amount of silt washing into the lake where they trample the banks (not to mention sheep poo!), and allow the natural vegetation of stream-sides (‘riparian edges’ in conservation terms) to grow unhindered.  In turn, the increased growth of vegetation slows the movement of water through the catchment, which can help alleviate flooding; and the wild, overgrown strip within the fence line becomes a whole new ecosystem, bustling with wildlife.  We should be able to see wildflowers and native shrub species growing, and butterflies and birds flitting along the beck-side - not to mention all the mice, shrews, beetles and bugs hidden away beneath the plants.

The beck protected within the fence line.

 A team effort

We spent a week coppicing trees (and producing about 8t of firewood), and then built two fences of nearly 200m in length, so we couldn’t have done it without the help of the South Lakes Volunteer Group, and our colleagues in the ranger team – particularly the upland path team, who are down off the fells for the winter and provide vital muscle and technical ability on jobs like this.  

Luke S, Sarah and Stuart hard at work.

We also worked closely with the tenant farmer, Sam; developing good relationships with the farmers so that we work in co-operation with them is one of the most important parts of the rangers’ job.  We need to work together to ensure they can run successful businesses while also providing the other benefits we all need or want from the land; like increased biodiversity, clean water, carbon storage, or a place to go for a revitalising walk. 

One of the other less glamorous sides of nature conservation is dealing with funding, and this work was made possible thanks to Sam’s ‘Higher Level Stewardship’ agreement with Natural England – government funding for farmers to help them achieve environmental benefits, and to ease the difficult balancing act between food production and all those other factors.  

The finished job with two 'standards' left in the line.
Behind the scenes

So while it might look like we’re just ‘cutting down trees and building fences’, the rangers are hard at work behind the scenes building relationships with farmers and our colleagues in other organisations, using our understanding of ecosystems and river catchments to plan effective projects, getting our heads round the grant schemes and sourcing funding, and organising the team and our great volunteers to ensure we get the work done.   

The hard graft’s done at Hoathwaite now – we’ve just got to plant the new hedge trees in a couple of weeks.  We’re all looking forward to next spring when we can head back and see the new plants bursting into leaf and the coppice stools sprouting fresh buds; and beyond that, when the hedge has grown back and the vegetation gets nice and high inside the fence, creating a brilliant new home for wildlife.  It might not be tigers, but its nature conservation Lake District style, and we love it! 

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