11-Oct-16

Nine of us gathered at the Crow Hall Farm gate on a rather dull day for a session of sycamore-bashing in the Dene from the old railway embankment to the downstream footbridge. This was Peter’s first day as full time working-party leader; many good wishes and thanks to Russell, who has retired from that role.


The weather, although dull and damp, was just the right temperature – not too hot or too cold – for physical work. There were still a few midgies about in the bottom of the Dene, but few on the side-slopes.


Sycamores need to be kept under control because they are a non-native tree species, and are rather invasive. We can’t cut the big ones down, but we can, and do, pull up the saplings and cut off the lower branches and regrowths from the established trees. This is not a particularly easy job because of the steep sides of the Dene and our nemesis today: brambles - nature’s answer to barbed wire – which form an undergrowth under the trees in many places.


We divided into two squads; the downstream squad found lots of saplings and pulled them up; the upstream squad found fewer because of previous work, but spent a lot of time trimming branches and regrowths. As usual,

there’s lots more to do on future work days! Oh, and we picked some litter up, as usual.


Minor highlights of the day’s work included:

- A broken long-handled saw - proof that we were working hard! – and repairable.

- Robins singing all around us and chasing each other about as they establish their winter territories.

- Reports by walkers of an otter, sighted mid-morning downstream of where we were working.

- We have more friends than we think: a couple walking their dogs got to chatting and said that they sometimes bring a carrier bag and take away some of the litter that they see – many thanks to them!


Oh, and none of us fell in the river on this occasion! And the cattle in the field we have to cross to access the Dene looked menacing but didn’t actually chase us!


18-Oct-16

The magnificent eleven gathered at the gas-pumping station end of Wallridge Drive to partially remove a big fallen beech from the burn and to do some more sycamore control.


The weather was initially dull, damp, mild and (in the Dene) windless, but we benefited from the sun coming out later in the morning, creating a bright autumnal light in the Dene. Absence of midgies was a further bonus.


The beech tree which has fallen across the burn downstream of the Holywell footbridge was far too big to be removed with our limited resources, so we cleared the flotsam that had built up behind it and removed some of the smaller branches with the aid of the winch. It looks as if the local people have been removing bits of this tree for their log burners, and they are welcome to do so (so longer as they don't cut down living trees or branches).

Photograph 1. Fallen beech, showing how it acts as a great litter trap!

Photograph 2. Branches being removed from fallen beech

Photograph 3. Fallen beech afterwards; it is still a problem!


The rest of us divided into two small groups to tackle the invasive sycamores that are particularly prevalent north-east of the footbridge. Saplings were pulled out (although there weren't many), smaller trees were felled and lower branches of the larger trees were removed. We covered much of the Dene from a point west of the footbridge down to the fallen beech (SW of the gas station).


Litter finds today included an old spade, as well as the usual boring-old plastic bottles and doggie-poo bags.


Not many wildlife sightings this time, unfortunately. Several of us got in the river, but this was deliberate – not a case of falling in! All of us got a bit muddy, but we all left feeling hungry and satisfied with a good morning's work.


4-Oct-16

A beautiful October day with early mist melting away as the sun rose into a clear sky with only a soft cooling breeze which gently moved the trees still in full leaf. By 08.30 the eleven expected volunteers had assembled at the Hartley Lane Car Park and with two wheelbarrows packed with kit and personal bags the group, laden with the larger pieces of equipment, walked down to the seat to the south of the metal bridge.

Initially, one volunteer was dispatched to finish some drainage ditch work across paths on either side of the metal bridge while four others, in two strimming teams, started on vegetation cutting along the path.

This path is a bridleway and consequently this means height is as important as width in providing safe access for a person riding a horse. Therefore two other volunteers, with bow saw and extended pruning saw, attacked the overhanging bushes and trees, a job demanding strength and tenacity. This, together with the vegetation cutting is well illustrated in the first photograph.

Photograph 1 Path cutting and bush and  tree pruning

 

The remaining volunteers had the task of finding the oak saplings, in amongst the shoulder high vegetation, which we had planted a couple of years ago. This area of planting has had to cope with the highest level of human vandalism ever witnessed in the Dene. Rabbit guards, stakes and the saplings themselves were simply pulled out of the ground and thrown to one side soon after the initial planting. We replanted some but with many it was too late and even today we found another four had died.

Once a tree was found it was marked with a white tipped cane and the strimming person cut the vegetation around it to make it obvious for later activities; this is illustrated in the second photograph.

Photograph 2 Finding and clearing around oak saplings


By the time we reached the first refreshment break work was well on and so we had time to consume the delicious homemade cakes baked as a farewell to one of our long-serving volunteers.

Then back to work and, as people finished their initial tasks, they were transferred onto the area cutting of bracken and brambles in which we had planted the trees. With five strimmers cutting over the whole area, the task was finished as the clock ticked slowly towards finishing time and then followed the slow walk back to where our cars waited; with people pleased that major strimming for 2016 was at last at an end.

Photograph 3 Task completed.

25-Oct-16

Ten of us assembled at the western end of Wallridge Drive for a session of river clearance and sycamore control. The sky was clear and the air still – a classic misty October day – but the vegetation was damp and it was muddy underfoot.


We split into four teams. The first, the "heavy brigade", got stuck into winching a large log out of the burn at a point south of the gas pumping station. This turned out to be a major operation. We found that the water near this point was chest deep!

Photograph 1. Log being manhandled before winching

Photograph 2. Winch being operated, energetically!


The other three small teams, spread out looking for sycamore saplings. These need to come out, as there are enough sycamores in the Dene already and they are an invasive non-native species. Lower branches were removed from sycamores where practical, to reduce their vigour and ability to produce seed. This work was a bit like jungle warfare in places, especially among the thicket of white willows, many of them fallen down, south of Ridge Way. The area covered was mainly on the north bank, from above the Holywell footbridge down to the point where the path starts to rise up to Dale Top. A dense patch of sycamore seedlings was found at the latter end; they were mostly small enough to be pulled out, and were.


Nature notes:

- A hart's tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) was spotted amongst the jungle; see photo. It's not rare, but the first I've seen in the Dene.

- There were conkers "as big as an elephant's eye" on the ground under a horse chestnut tree.

- Also plenty of blackberries in the undergrowth – very tasty!

Photograph 3. Hart's tongue fern


The river claimed a victim this time: one of us fell in – no names, no pack drill. And it was apparent, not for the first time, that dogs have a sartorial sense – my hi-vis was growled at by a dog being walked in the Dene!

 


1-Nov-16

Eleven volunteers gathered today at the gate on Millfield, Old Hartley, at the usual time of 8:30 to clear gullies and paths and do some sycamore control, by the Seaton Burn estuary. A cloudless sky and still air (“Russell weather”) greeted us, although a chilly breeze blew up later as the tide turned. Some of the trees were ablaze with colour in the bright sunlight.

Two of us went to the Dene Cottage area to trim lower branches off sycamores, pull sycamore saplings (although few were found), and remove some ivy from trees.

The rest of us split up into several small groups to clear the gullies (small drainage ditches) around the south-western end of the estuary. One strimmer was in use, to clear dense vegetation that was obscuring the gullies – they tend to get lost in the summer upgrowth. Otherwise, spades, mattocks and rakes were used to clear the weed and gunk out of the gullies. The best method seemed to be to have one person with a spade cutting down either side of the gulley, and a second person following behind with a rake to lift the loose material out.

We got the gulley work done sooner than expected! So attention turned to the paths – removing grass and weeds from the path edges. This was a back-breaking job, chipping and scooping the material away with spades, sometimes mattocks. Nevertheless, with a good number of us working pretty hard, most of the paths were cleared, including the steps leading up towards Starlight Castle.

Photograph 1. Steps being cleared

Photograph 2. Paths being cleared of vegetation

Natural sightings:

there are always birds on the estuary; this time: two herons and four mallards

one small frog, disgruntled at being disturbed (unharmed) from his nice damp gulley

Not too much litter this time; I think some of the Dene’s other little helpers have kept this area fairly tidy.

We departed around 12:00 feeling as if we had had a really good work-out, but with the satisfaction of another job well done.


 


8-Nov-16

The weekly work party of 10 volunteers gathered near Old Hartley at 8:30 to clear gullies and remove weed and reeds from the pond. The weather was fine but dull, with some blue showing; not too much wind and not too cold.


The pond in question is the one near what was Grove Farm, near the Hartley Lane carpark. It was dredged by the council about ten years ago, but has since become congested with bulrushes (or reedmace, Typha latifolia) and floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides). The pennywort is an invasive alien from the Americas, so should be eradicated if possible.


Four of us (initially) worked on the pond. We pulled the pennywort out with rakes and dumped it nearby. We cut the reeds with slashers (long-handled bill-hooks) below the surface. This technique should cause the plants to rot to the root, killing them off. We kept a large fringe of reeds round the perimeter of the ponds for coots to hide in and build their nests. Cut reeds were also dumped in piles to rot down near the pond.

Photograph 1. Reeds being cut and removed


A pair of cormorants flew over the pond as we were working, and one was seen fishing on the river later. The evocative call of a curlew on the wing was also heard.


There is an extensive set of gullies (small drainage ditches) around that area to keep water off the paths. The rest of the squad used strimmer, spades, rakes, etc to remove vegetation and gunge from these, in readiness for the winter rains. The south side of the Dene from Old Hartley to the big gulley upstream of the stone bridge was attended to in this way.

Photograph 2. Gullies being cleared


When this was done, everyone congregated round the pond to watch and help with the final stages of reed removal. Three large piles of weed and reeds are the testimony to the morning's work. The pond area looks a bit disturbed now, but it will look beautiful in the spring, fingers crossed!


Have we killed off the bulrushes or will they regenerate next year? Watch this space!


And nobody fell in the pond, although the tallest member of the party had a good try!


 


29-Nov-16

A frosty dawn greeted a work party of nine at the Hartley West Farm metal gate for hard labour on the meadow path and gullies. Thin winter sunlight was slanting across a frosted landscape under a cloudless sky at the start, and there was still some frost in the bottom of the dene at the end.


We worked our way up the north-bank path, stopping at each gully to inspect and clear each one – a necessary routine at this time of year to keep water off the paths. Just short of the downstream footbridge, a sub-party of three went on to complete the circuit from there to the upstream footbridge and back via the south-bank path to the Hartley West Farm stone bridge, clearing all gullies on the way.

Photograph 1. Gully clearance


The other sub-party of six backtracked to the meadow (upstream of the stone bridge) and resumed the path maintenance work that was started a fortnight before: the removal of encroaching turf that was narrowing off the path – easier to say than do! This work is now complete.


We noted that the willow ramparts on the north bank of the burn near the stepping-stones had been damaged by the flooding of 21/22 November. This seems to be caused by the current, when in spate, being deflected by a willow stump upstream on the other bank. Perhaps the basket-work can be pushed back and pinned in place. Fortunately, the willows that had been planted along the bank to stabilise it at that point have not been washed out and should continue to develop.


Wildlife interest:

Everywhere we worked, robins appeared and assumed the role of work inspectors – or perhaps they were just looking for grubs in the disturbed earth.

A shrill croak announced a pair (or trio) of herons on the wing along the bank top.

Moles don't seem to have been put off by last week's flooding, judging by the fresh mole-hills in several places.

The rooks are back! I think they simply commute between the fields and their rookery at the farm road entrance: sometimes there in force, sometimes not.


The sun was still not far above the horizon at twelve noon as we departed.

Photograph 2. The improved meadow path (and some tired volunteers going home)

 


15-Nov-16

Today a work party of nine gathered at the Hartley Lane carpark, on a warm, bright November day, to perform necessary path maintenance and remove part of the carpark fence. The sky was blue streaked with high white cloud, and the air was unseasonally warm and fairly still. The Seaton Burn was flowing fast and carrying a heavy burden of silt, but the ground underfoot was not bad for the time of year: moist but not sticky.


The first group, of five volunteers, started by dismantling the old wooden fence along the west side of the carpark, which was falling apart. The main part of their work, however, was to repair and consolidate the steep path down from the carpark towards the pond. Being on a slope, this tends to lose its covering of gravel, thanks to gravity. To discourage this, some of the fence timbers were recycled for use as retainers: placed across the path and dug in. Fresh hardcore was laid on the surface and tamped down. The result is very satisfactory for now, but this part of the path system will always need regular attention.

Photograph 1. Dismantling the fence

Photograph 2. Reinforcing the steep path


The other group, of four workers, tackled the meadow path – the path that runs south from the stone bridge on the west side of the burn. Here the path has been reduced in width from a metre to a foot by grass encroaching from the meadow on either side. The (backbreaking) work therefore involved scraping and scooping the turf layer off the path sides with spades and mattocks, and dumping the material discreetly under trees nearby. We were quite proud that we managed to get halfway along this path; the rest will be tackled next time out.

Photograph 3. Clearing the meadow path


The rookery in the trees overlooking the meadow was utterly silent today, whereas it had been teeming with scores of vocal and active rooks only nine days before. Why? Where do the rooks go in winter?


Anyway, as we trudged back from the meadow to join the others at the end of the morning, the small birds were active in the sunshine, and we heard goldfinches, robins and bluetits calling in a landscape of autumn hues, with the bracken adding russet to the palette. Another tiring but satisfying morning's work completed!

 


22-Nov-16

Today's work party didn't happen – washed out! We assembled in the area of the meadow to do path maintenance and hazel coppicing, but the overnight rain had flooded the meadow, and much besides. The task work reduced to inspecting the paths and river banks and taking photos (which are quite dramatic, see examples below) then going home.

Photograph 1. Flooded meadow

Photograph 2. Raging river, willow defences, flooded path

Photograph 3. Anyone for a picnic?


We can't assess the damage until the waters have subsided, but it looks as if at least the following remediation work will be needed: (1) clearing logs and branches out of the river, (2) restoring water-eroded paths, (3) removing litter left behind by the floodwaters – before we can get back to working on the meadow.

 


6-Dec-16

The task today for a work party of eight was to remove the logjam under the Concorde House bridge and do footpath maintenance in the same area, the raring-to-go volunteers assembling at 8:30 at the western end of Wallridge Drive, Holywell. This was a bleak midwinter’s day, with a sun looking like a light bulb in a chip shop! There was no rain and little wind, however, and the ground was frosted but damp.


The party split into two groups. The first group, of four people, some in waders, used the winch to remove logs and branches jammed under the footbridge below Concorde House, and cleared the mess of twigs, leaves and litter dammed up behind them.

Photograph 1. Concorde House footbridge (before)

Photograph 2. Concorde House footbridge (after)


The second group first tackled the big sump at the low point on the Dale Top path, digging it out and clearing the associated gullies. They then started work on installing retaining timbers across the steep part of the path leading down into the Dene from the gas pumping station. The first group, having completed their work, joined them late in the session to help lay aggregate on the path. The retainer work is not yet complete, and will be finished off on another occasion.

Photograph 3. Gully clearance

Photograph 4. Sump after maintenance


As usual, regular as clockwork, our litter lady extraordinaire joined us at the second tea-break, bringing lunch bars and the ever-hungry Poppy. There was no shortage of litter today: the banks of the river were strewn with an exquisite variety of plastic items – more work needed there!


Nature notes:

great spotted woodpecker calling (a single sharp 'kik', repeated at intervals) as we were working

seven wild geese passing overhead a couple of times, and calling to each other – probably greylags associated with Holywell Pond

a colony of cheepy-cheerful house sparrows in the bushes along the between gardens and the open land below the gas pumping station – not as common a sight as it used to be


Tool notes:

one rake broken while being used to fish things out of the river under the bridge – a sign of hard work, we'll say


The sun was still not fully out as we hauled the tools back up the slope to the car at the end of the task, feeling that we had accomplished a lot with a relatively small turn-out, and in the knowledge that, as ever, there is still plenty more to be done.

 


13-Dec-16

A work party assembled at 8:30 at the Wallridge Drive west end to continue clearing logs from the river, complete the upgrade of the Wallridge Drive down-path and start repairing the entrance timberwork at Dale Top. The weather was distinctly “non-Russell”: bleak, glowering and intermittently rainy – and muddy under foot, of course.


Half of the party set to work clearing logs from the river using waders and winch, working all the way from below the western end of Wallridge Drive to the foot of the path down from Dale Top. Many large logs were removed with the winch, along with other organic and inorganic debris brought down by the river surge after the rains of 21–22 November.


The other half of the party resumed work on the steep section of the Wallridge Drive down-path (the gas pumping station path). This was created, years ago, as a temporary access path for vehicles, so that tree-trunks could be pulled out of the that part Dene when it was being cleared in the early days of the Friends’ activities. It has become a permanent feature because of its popularity with local residents walking their dogs etc. Horizontal retaining timbers were dug into the surface to block downward migration of the surface material caused by rainwater and feet. Aggregate was then laid on the surface. This should be a big benefit – the steepest part of the slope was very muddy and slippery before these improvements.

Photograph 1. Surfacing the path

Photograph 2. The finished path


While the first group continued enjoying themselves hauling yet more material out of the river, the second group went along to Dale Top to mend the gateway. The fence posts either side of the entrance to the Dene have rotted at the base and the fence was wobbly. We installed a new fencepost on one side and screwed the fence to it. The other side will be fixed in due course. The option of removing the fencing altogether was discussed and rejected, as it probably discourages people from dumping in that area. Some rubbish has been dumped in a gap further along the boundary, and we stuffed branches in that gap in the hopes of discouraging such antisocial behaviour in future.


Miscellaneous notes:

excessive evidence of canine defecation – local residents are recommended to invest in some doggy-poo bags

litter highlights included two car wheels, complete with tyres, fished out of the river, and a glass hookah nestling in the nettles at Dale Top!

a nuthatch (bird) was heard calling from the trees

the absence of the litter-lady (and her lunch bars) was noted


We were all relieved to return, shortly after midday, to our warm homes and get into clean, dry clothing at the end of another laborious but satisfying morning’s volunteering.

 


20-Dec-16

Eight members of the working party assembled on Holywell Dene Road and, although we didn’t need an excessive number of tools, what we had were heavy and cumbersome. This made the journey across the main road quite an adventure but we successfully managed to dodge the work/ Christmas shopping traffic which for a time was bumper to bumper at speed. The weather was cold with a slight breeze as we made our way to the field behind and below the Holywell Dene Care Home to the first of the two substantial log jams to be dismantled.

No splitting into groups this morning as there is safety in numbers on a task like this so 4 of us went paddling in waders whilst the rest worked alongside them on terra firma.

The first incident of the morning happened when one of the workers in the water was attacked by an overhanging twig, his glasses flew through the air and disappeared into the murk of the burn. Despite a thorough search resulting in soaking wet sleeves they were unfortunately not recovered.

As the log jam was gradually dismantled branches and all manner of debris was passed to those on the bank and things were going swimmingly. Then the wind began to get up and the second incident of the morning occurred. It became quite slippery on the bank so in order to reach what was being passed, someone who will remain nameless, stood on a tree trunk in the river. Now as anyone who has done this work will know it becomes like a game of Mikado, the wrong branch was pulled out and splat!  Result….. ‘nameless’ slipped and ended up under the water. As he climbed back up the bank the only dry part of him appeared to be his hat. Stalwart that he is, after emptying his wellies, he tried to carry on but half an hour later he left for a hot bath and loads of sympathy from his better half.

At our usual time we stopped for a break and as if by magic our litter lady and Poppy arrived with a very welcome box of confectionary (including the chocolate in the purple wrapper).

Soon after restarting the bulk of the small stuff had been removed from the jam and the real work of winching the tree trunks and larger branches from the river began. It was around this time one of the bank workers was set upon by a bramble growing along the ground and only his youthful dexterity preventing him from falling flat on his face.

Upon completion of the first jam removal we moved downstream to the second. This had been caused by a sizeable tree growing right on the riverbank breaking off about three feet from the ground and falling across the river. In order to make it possible to winch the trunk to the side of the river the upper branches had to be removed with the chain saw. The bank in this area is high and steep so it was more difficult to find an appropriate tree to secure the winch to but as ever we succeeded and the job was completed. A weary bunch made their way back to their cars, the tools seeming so much heavier than at the start of the morning, we wished each other a very merry Christmas and agreed to do it all again next Tuesday.

I apologise for the lack of any ornithology or flora report this week but what I can say is that some very strange looking things make their homes on submerged tree trunks.

Finally, to every one of our members and anyone reading this who hasn’t joined yet the working party wish you all a very merry Christmas.

 


27-Dec-16

Hello, it’s the deputy scribe reporting once again on another morning full of fun and today, I am pleased to say, there were no unfortunate incidents. Fortunate for the working party that is but not so much for me as it makes writing this a little more difficult.

We began the morning with 10 volunteers meeting at the entrance to Crow Hall Farm and walking down to the farmyard where the tools were being off-loaded from our vehicle. This was uneventful as the cattle we often have to dodge had been moved to the barn for the winter from where they watched us pass by on our way to Oxbow lake. The weather was perfect for the tasks on the agenda as it was cold and dry so nobody overheated despite the work being heavy and strenuous. We split into 3 groups. Group one winched 5 tree trunks from the river which were causing a jam adjacent to the west end of the lake, group two repaired the footpath by shovelling up the stone which had been washed from it by the last floods and relaying it, conveniently most of it was in one large pile to the side of the path. Group three began the biggest task of the day which was to begin clearing a huge logjam which had accumulated over several years and had become quite substantial. It had previously been left as the angle of some of it was reducing erosion of the river bank further downstream after heavy rain. It has now reached the point where the size of it has caused flooding and damage to the path so some of it needs to be cleared. The bulk of it was composed of whole trees so there was quite a bit of work to do with the chain saw.

When groups one and two had completed their tasks we had a break and if proof of the working parties dedication was needed it was shown by the fact that one of our volunteers was celebrating her birthday , not only did she turn up but also brought a substantial homemade chocolate brownie to share amongst us.

When we set off again everyone joined in working on the large blockage.  Describing this as heavy work is a slight understatement although I do speak as a mere woman (honorary man on Tuesdays). The log grabbers make things easier though as you can see from one of the photographs below. The smaller branches were piled behind the lake where they will rot down naturally and provide homes during that process for a large variety of creepy crawlies (a technical term). The larger branches and trunks were winched onto the bank, sometimes using two winches together with the snatch block, due to their size. Hopefully they’re far enough away from the river not to be washed back in when there is more heavy rain.

At the end of the morning there was still work to be done but it will be there waiting for us to continue next week. A weary but satisfied band trudged back to the farmyard having well and truly worked off any of the festive seasons’ excesses.

The working party would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a successful and healthy 2017.