Red squirrels at Allan Bank

  1. Allan Bank above Grasmere in the Lake District is an unusual National Trust house: unfurnished and deliberately informal in a way that puts some NT properties to shame. You won’t find volunteers telling you off for getting a smartphone out to look something up (“No phones here young man!”) or even worse a camera (viral marketing by happy visitors passes them by…) No, at Allan Bank you can pull up a chair, get one of the board games out, try the paints, help yourself to coffee. When you arrive they really do tell you to make yourself at home. Which is nice, because it’s in area with active red squirrel conservation and the animals are easy to see at the feeders on the lawn and in the surrounding woods.

allanbank-room3William Wordsworth lived in the house in 1808-10, and while he condemned its exterior, he loved its views over Grasmere and up to the surrounding hills and mountains. You can see Grasmere in this picture, along with some of those paints I mentioned. There’s plenty of paper too.

The house was severely damaged by fire in 2011 but restored and opened to the public by the National Trust for the first time a year later. The walls are bare plaster and there’s donated furniture, an informal cafe, a self service shop upstairs (pay at the till on the ground floor if you want to buy anything), a small mountaineering library, a room full of toys and dressing up outfits for children, and lots of places to enjoy the views.

allanbank-stairs allanbank-room2 allanbank-room1

That last picture shows the view out on to the lawn where bird and squirrel feeders are set up. At the opening time of 10am it was very quiet and squirrels were helping themselves. (It was also no surprise that a selection of binoculars were provided by the house.) I took several batches of photos but this sequence starts with a view of one of the feeders taken from the far side, well behind the bushes and trees.

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The reds are there because of the hard work of the volunteers of the Grasmere Red Squirrel Group in controlling grey squirrel numbers. And yes, that does mean trapping and killing them. Greys suppress red squirrel numbers by competition, but they also carry the Squirrel Pox virus which almost eliminated the red population in 2002. Another outbreak started in 2015 and the public’s help is needed again. Longer term I think pine martens will be a big part of suppressing the North American grey squirrel in favour of the native red, but we have to keep the current population of reds going until that time comes.

I also spotted squirrels on the steep walk up through the woodland that surrounds the house, which has same excellent views too. This panorama from a stone viewing platform at the top of the walk, shows the view into the next valley and an almost canopy-level view of the trees.

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The house also has a kitchen garden, which was given a Beatrix Potter flavour as Mr MacGregor’s garden this year. Work is ongoing to restore it, and there’s a newly built gardener’s bothy with a verandah where you are invited to sit and enjoy the view.

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Allan Bank really is a gem of a house, as well as great place to see red squirrels. Just don’t tell everyone else, ok?

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Posted in Red squirrels, Rewilding, Woodlands | 3 Comments

Rudyard Lake

Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire is an artificial lake created at the start of the 19th century to supply the canal network in the area. Once the railways arrived it became a popular destination for people from the surrounding cities, and has the feel of the Lake District.

DSC_0070Along with boats for sailing and rowing, small pleasure steamers, and other water-side entertainments, the lake acquired hotels and guest houses. However, people also built huts and chalets on the banks of the lake and the surrounding hillsides.

Today the lake side is a mixture of public areas, farmland at the north end away from the busier “dam head” at the south, and modern cabins and chalets in private hands on long narrow plots from the lake to a road or bridleway – some of which can be rented for holidays. However, there is a surviving hut site on the far side of a field at the north end.

DSC_0016This first picture shows two huts in a fenced off area in the field to the north side of Reacliffe Road as it turns southeast from running southwest. The huts’ fence has gates and it looks as if they had gardens. There are prominent “Trespassers will be prosecuted” signs near the road and on the huts themselves.

DSC_0010DSC_0004These two surviving huts look pretty run down and unoccupied, but have been repaired with modern materials at some point.

Back down at the dam head is a visitor’s centre, parking, toilets, cafe, boats for hire, and a narrow-gauge railway.

DSC_0036In the trees to the north west of this area is a caravan site, which is often a sign of former hutting sites. I think it was in the woods to the north of this caravan site that Paul Barrett found derelict railway coach bodies in 2014, that presumably had been used as huts. I couldn’t find these this year, but it was quite overgrown this time of year. Judging by historical photographs, it looks as if the whole area has become a lot more wooded than it was at its height, and presumably before that it was entirely given over to sheep farming.

 

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Rewilding and permaculture at the Hay Festival

Yesterday I was at the Hay Festival and went to sessions about rewilding and permaculture. This was my first time at the festival, although I’ve been going to Hay-on-Wye’s second hand bookshops since I was young. The annual book festival is about ten days long and takes place in tents and covered walkways in a field outside of town. There is an official book shop and some stalls, but it’s mostly discussion sessions and talks. Some of these are plugging someone’s new book, but others are about other interesting topics.

DSC_0002 After a bit of an explore, the first session I went to was also the first of the festival and was entitled
“Elements of re-wilding: perceptions and prejudices”. It took the form of a panel discussion led by Rob Yorke, with Sophie Wynne-Jones of Wales Wild Land Foundation and Bangor University, Julia Aglionby of the Foundation for Common Land (i.e. land with commoners who have a right to use it), and Minette Batters the deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union.

I’m interested in rewilding for several reasons. It includes reforesting land.  The likely missing, native species we’re talking about have intrinsic value, like restoring a painted-over fresco. Keystone species can dramatically improve natural checks and balances, such as beavers building dams which mitigate flash floods downstream. Three species may be significantly reduced which are bad for saplings and suppress the natural regeneration of native trees from seed, either in re-established forests or to replace felling in existing woods: pine martens control grey squirrel numbers, and lynx control deer and rabbits. Rewilding moves the British landscapes closer to their naturally wooded state, which people will engage with more, and start to rewild ourselves. I believe more basic “accommodation” like wild camping and hutting have a role in that.

Rob Yorke had a list of prepared topics to provoke discussion, and started with definitions of rewilding, and then things moved on to differing land uses, environmental benefits such as flood control, climate change, and even the EU referendum. One theme that kept being emphasised was the desirability of avoiding conflict and trying to find consensus, rather than the sometimes stronger language that you see. I had a feeling that phrases such as George Monbiot’s “White Plague” description of the impact of sheep on the landscape were in people’s minds when saying this.

Consensus and compromise are good, but they are a two-way process, and it became increasingly clear that Minette Batters and Julia Aglionby were dragging us away from rewilding step by step. Eventually the idea of reintroducing pine martens for their own sake and for the way they suppress grey but not red squirrels was countered by the idea that we might just not bother and be satisfied with conserving the refuges the reds have been reduced to.

Simultaneously, farmers had to be acknowledged as the custodians of the landscape who take a multi-generational view in contrast to politicians and the public; and yet the 25 years for tree planting to take full effect could be deployed dismissively when discounting trees for flood control. Consistently, the message was “management”. A managed landscape that must continue to be managed. It’s understandable that people whose uneconomic lifestyle is subsidised by the more productive elements of the economy in return for “management” of the landscape are attached to the word. But it’s missing the point in a discussion about rewilding, where the intent is to see how far we can let go.

The discussion took a more worrying turn when Minette Batters got on to the subject of lynx. She’s clearly horrified by the idea, and the thought they might take lambs, and deployed some unfortunate and untrue arguments. In particular, she claimed that “we” had decided to remove lynx from Britain because they are dangerous to people (and to the aforementioned lambs.) This was picked up by the Telegraph reporter present (or planted by the NFU?) with the lurid headline “Releasing lynx into wild puts ramblers in danger of attack, warns NFU“.

I’m struggling to believe that Minette Batters is ignorant of the European experience with lynx. Humans aren’t attacked by lynx. If you attack a lynx it will defend itself, but they actively avoid humans. The whole idea was implicitly undermined elsewhere in the discussion: we weren’t even to consider lynx as a way of controlling badger numbers (which are crashing the hedgehog population) because there was no way a lynx could tackle a badger.

In retrospect I should have made more of an effort to get the audience microphone and object to the falsehood that lynx endanger humans before the discussion moved on. But it illustrates that an untrue statement can conveniently shut down a debate in the moment, and then get spread by other media to a wider audience (with comments turned off, too.) People do say some very harsh things about the NFU’s behaviour, and this is the first time I’ve seen it up close. Unfortunately Minette Batters is ignoring replies to her comment via Twitter, despite happily tweeting away about other things.

So all in all I felt it was a wasted opportunity to really get into the subject of rewilding, and that being nice and trying to find a concensus doesn’t work when this kind of thing is going on in the room.

Next I went to “Permaculture and climate change adaptation” with Thomas Henfrey (who has a new book out), Maddy Harland and Andy Fryers. There were some interesting overlaps with rewilding. One striking example was the Tamara village in Portugal where reforestation was part of improvements in water availability throughout the year, where previously cork oaks had been replaced by eucalyptus, accompanied by a collapse of lynx numbers incidentally. Permaculture shares with rewilding a recognition of natural systems  and the way their elements fit together and cannot be broken down into separate parts and controlled.

DSC_0013 DSC_0007Back outside, the Woodland Trust have a stand at this year’s festival, and were fielding waves of children from the school coach trips that had been organised, in between the sessions they all seemed to disappear in to every hour or so.

DSC_0057Hay is normally a different kind of town anyway, and the festival accentuates this. On the road between the town and the festival field, ad-hoc cafes and shops pop up, like this one in a front garden. There’s also a convenient car park next to the festival run for Macmillan, which you can pre-book.

DSC_0026 IMG_3589 DSC_0021The weekly market in front of the castle still goes ahead, now in the hands of the Hay Castle Trust after it was sold by Richard Booth, who started Hay on the path to becoming  a “book town”. His old bookshop is now in other hands, but he started again with the much smaller “Richard King of Hay” bookshop.

There are fewer shops than there used to be, and I’m guessing that’s the internet. I used to scour second hand bookshops but now use sites like Abebooks.com if there’s something out of print I need. Searching rather than browsing I suppose you could say. However, just as vinyl records have survived despite cassettes, CDs, DAT, MD, MP3s, and now streaming, people still enjoy the experience of browsing and reading physical books.

DSC_0041This last photo is taken from Hay Bridge, showing the wooded banks which include the Wye Valley Walk. Across the bridge is the main site of the How the Light Gets In festival which runs at the same time as Hay Festival itself. They have a helter skelter and a big wheel (amongst other things) though.

Sun 29th May update: Ben Eagle has posted another first hand account of the rewilding panel at Hay. Minette Batters of the NFU still hasn’t retracted (or defended!) her falsehoods about lynx.

Thu 2nd June: another first hand account (“What would Eat a Badger? Rewilding at the Hay Festival“), from Graham Strouts at Bangor.

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Weeding the forest

What does “mismanaged woodland” mean? It’s very like saying “a weed”. It all depends on what you’re hoping will grow.

Gardeners complain about weeds and go to great lengths to eradicate them. But in other contexts, the very same plants are crops or part of natural, even protected, ecosystems. “A weed” has no botanical meaning. It’s a judgement we make, based on our objectives, plans, and even dreams for the ground in question.

People often talk about “mismanaged woodland” in the same way, often without realising it. It becomes a shorthand for woodland that is neither Ancient Woodland being preserved nor other woodlands being managed to produce timber or coppice products.

But again, those are judgements we make. One symptom of this is that those judgements change, often quite radically. Almost as fashions. Once upon a time, Ancient Woodland with native trees was viewed as “mismanaged” because it wasn’t producing as much commercial timber as grubbing up the trees and planting conifers could. These Plantation on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) are now out of fashion, and clear felling them and replanting with more even-aged conifers is not the “right” kind of management.

For me, preserving and, where possible reviving, Ancient Woodland is the right thing to do because its loss is irreversible. Just as a weed in a garden is indeed a weed. But when we’re talking about planted woodlands that we have already or might create in the future, “mismanagement” always has to be viewed against the objectives we choose.

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BBC “Out of doors” episode on hutting

BBC Radio Scotland’s “Out of doors” did a half-hour feature on hutting this morning, including interviews at the 2016 Hutters Rally in Kirkcaldy, at the new hutting site on Forestry Commission land near Saline, and with Lloyd Khan during his visit from the US. The programme touched on some important issues surrounding owning hutting land or renting, how hutters at a site can organise themselves, how hutting might catalyse regrowth in rural communities, and planning and building control.

I thought it was interesting that over thirty-five landowners were already looking to provide hutting sites. When you’re talking £500-£1000 per year for the ground rent of a hut on Forestry Commission land, it’s easy to see why landowners are interested. This is why I’m always banging on about planning permission: as soon as you start to get that sorted (as the Thousand Huts campaign is doing), the raw economics of huts and the low cost of suitable rural land (less than £2000/acre) start to make it all happen.

You can listen to it on its page on their website via BBC Radio iPlayer for the next 29 days.

Added Sat 21 May 2016: today’s episode of “Out of doors” had a discussion of the costs of building hut in the last few minutes. Last Sunday’s episode of “Landward” on BBC Two Scotland also had an item about hutting about 16 minutes in.

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Hutters.uk word cloud

tagxedo2016-05-13Word cloud done with Tagxedo, based on the last dozen or so posts.

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Paul Merton at Braystones

Last year I posted about the Braystones beach huts on the coast of Cumbria. Today I noticed a spike in visits to the article, and discovered that Paul Merton had include Braystones in the second episode of his “Secret Stations” on Channel4 last night. There was also a story about it in the Radio Times, and mentions in newspaper TV reviews today.

Paul_Merton_on_the_joy_of_request_stopsPaul walks along the beach in front of the huts, and talks to Jack of the Lobster Pot. Just like we did when we visited the site. In fact, just like lots of other people have since Jack is a friendly guy who strikes up conversations with passersby, and is a mine of information about the huts and life right on the edge of the land.

You can still view episode two on Channel 4 catch up website.

 

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