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Vole Related task at Hempsted 06.05.2018


The Severnside Project focuses on land between the River Severn and the Sharpness Ship Canal, from Gloucester all the way to Arlingham. A Project Officer is appointed who works on issues of conservation, environmental management and community participation. The River Severn is a wonderful recreational and wildlife amenity, as is the Sharpness Ship Canal, for years the source of Gloucester’s wealth and status, but somewhat quieter now. The project seeks to Conserve enhance and manage important habitats in order to enhance biodiversity in the area, including the traditional landscape character of the flood plain from the river; to Increase opportunities for quiet informal countryside recreation including providing opportunities for local community participation and enabling some of the land to be profitably farmed and managed in an environmentally sensitive manner with wildlife in mind.

The Severnside Project received a top award in recognition of its work conserving the county’s most endangered mammal, the water vole. The project officer and volunteers continue to monitor the water vole population and to carry out management to allow it to spread out from its original release site.

At the North end of the Severnside Project, at Middle Rea near the village of Hempsted, on the South Western urban edge of Gloucester some 1.5 km from the A38, is a piece of land owned by Gloucester City Council but leased to Severn Trent Water Ltd. This land is generally identified as GCC site 461 STW. The parcel of land covers 12.5 Hectares and STW have built and operate a sewage treatment plant there which serves some 200,000 population in the area. The site is flanked by the River Severn and by the Sharpness canal which separates it from Gloucester city. The Severn frequently floods the site in winter, the flood plain extending some 2km all round the site.

In order to screen the treatment plant the planners have required the reinforcement of native and evergreen woodland planting around the site forming a significant planting buffer together with characteristic hedgerows and shelterbelts. An extensive pattern of waterways, drains, ditches, brooks, rhynes draining the floodplain landscape provide important wetland habitats. The annual winter flooding provides fertile, lush meadow and pastures for summer grazing. Areas of wetland meadows designated as SSSIs and Key Wildlife Sites and Local Nature Reserves are managed to maintain high biodiversity interest.

STWL undertakes potentially dangerous and life threatening operations on a daily basis so to avoid any risk to the community as a result of its activities it excludes the general public from operational site areas. there are no footpaths across the site, only around the perimeter.

So with a diversity of woodland, large and small areas of water, wetlands, lush meadow and virtually no human presence the wildlife think they are in paradise.

GVCV have previously worked on this site coppicing to control the woodland and forming elevated walkways through wet areas. Our task on Sunday 6 May 20108 was to input into the water vole survey being carried out on the whole project. Some pertinent information was issued with the task notification :-

“You have all read or seen “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame and seen the character “Ratty”.   No one can understand why Kenneth called the character “Ratty” because he is clearly not a rat, but rather a water vole.   In the book he exhibits all the traits of a vole, he is competent, he is clean and tidy, he looks after Mole, he fights bravely against the Weasels and he is an all round good guy.   Rats do not behave like that, rats really are rats.   Even the illustrations confirm this misnomer; a rat is skinny with a pointed face and a long hairless pink tail and they love polluted water and eating carrion.   The pictures show a plump cuddly creature with a round face and big ears and a short fur covered tail, living in clean water and eating vegetation, all correct attributes of a vole.

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The Wildlife Trust say that voles have declined by 30% between 2006 and 2015 and they are now trying to remedy the situation by including them in the “Back from the Brink” list and by migrating specimens from areas where they are still strong.   So you are invited to come along on 6 May to Severnside (Gloucester) to help the rescue effort – come and cuddle a vole.   I am sure I read somewhere that vole cuddling cures dandruff and increases libido – come along and try out that theory”.

On site the warden gave an orientation talk on water voles from a more informed basis including a novel use for Pringle tubes. Then we started out along a drainage ditch where voles had been previously spotted looking for burrows formed in the bank, access tunnels formed through the base of the vegetation, food piles where voles had stashed pre-cut lengths of vegetation, footprints and poo in the neat, ordered toilets formed by the voles.

It was a blazing hot day and we were working in waist high vegetation on a drainage ditch which was virtually dry.

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Desperately seeking a bit of shade at lunch break

Not altogether unexpectedly we failed to turn up a single sign of our furry friends. Our disappointment was only tempered by the knowledge that a nil result is still a valid result in the context of the overall Severnside survey.

We were compensated by hearing and seeing large numbers of birds and waterfowl and especially huge numbers of a great variety of butterflies.

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Back breaking work for one volunteer and a warden in a seemingly shoulder high patch of vegetation

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Aha a burrow, but a vole that size would terrify me

Stinchcombe Hill 11/03/2018


See GVCV previous report dated 26/02/1017 giving a detailed description of the Stinchcombe Hill site and of our efforts to reverse the decline of the butterfly population with especial reference to the Duke of Burgundy, the Dingy Skipper, the Heath Fritillary and the Large Blue


The Duke of Burgundy Fritilliary, the beneficiary of our efforts, we hope.

The site is managed by a warden from the Stinchcombe Hill Butterfly trust with a team of volunteers and their objective is to bring the site back to its original state of untreated Cotswold grassland forming an environment favoring orchids, butterflies and sky larks. This is an uphill struggle because lack of resources has allowed extensive encroachment of trees and shrubs.

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The “Before” picture

Our task on Sunday was to progress the clearance of the scrub etc on the Western slopes of Drakestone Point consisting mainly of Blackthorn and Holm Oak with patches of dense bramble.

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The “After” picture

Looks like objective achieved, at least for this small section of the site.

The bramble was tackled by the Warden who was armed with a brushcutter fitted with that fiercesome tool, a bramble basher or mulching blade. The normal brushcutter blade cuts sideways and would leave long strands of bramble at higher level, a hazard to the face and eyes of the operator. The bramble basher blade however is designed to drop down onto the top of the bramble clump and to reduce it to woodchip by the time it reaches ground level at the base of the plant. Very satisfying to use

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The Warden with his trusty brushcutter, preparing to plunge into the bramble clump

The remainder of the volunteers tackled the blackthorn etc with loppers and bushsaws, dragging the cut material to a fire site

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A welcome break for lunch,with a the panoramic view of the plain below us

There is some debate as to the ecological significance of bonfires as opposed to retaining the cut material in habitat piles but as soon as the material reaches any significant quantity then the advantages of habitat piles become disadvantages as the retained material covers the very grass we are trying to expose. Better far is a roaring bonfire, consuming the brash, warming the volunteers on cold days and providing the possibility of baked potatoes at lunchtime.

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A good fire consuming the brash we produced and leaving only wood ash behind.

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At the end of the working day, the light is going, energy is long gone, and the prospect of home and a hot bath is beckoning.

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Damping down the fire so as to leave it safe when we go

Nature being nature, the material we cut begins to re-grow as soon as we turn our backs and there are many sites where we return year after year to repeat the process in the same location. In order to prevent this efforts are made to paint the cut stumps with glyphosate which kills the roots of the plant. This must be done within minutes of the stem being cut else the capillaries will self seal and use of this powerful chemical can only be by a trained and licensed operator.

So theoretically, in a few years we will have worked ourselves out of a job, but the expression “dream on” springs to mind.

Sheepcombe Common Scrub Clearance


Sheepcombe Common is one section of the extensive Cotswold Commons and Beechwood NNR and notwithstanding that GVCV has worked on several of the other sections; this was our first visit to this specific area. The environment and the task was similar to that carried out on the other sections, to reduce the scrub element so as to allow facilitate the reversion to limestone grassland for the benefit of the various fauna and flora, a small herd of Belted Galloway’s doing their bit in the grand plan by grazing and fertilising the grass. The common is under the control of Natural England and we worked under the direction of the NE warden in charge of the site.

The site was overgrown with saplings produced from the seeds which the Ash trees drop is so prolifically resulting in thousands of individual stems to be tackled plus dense growths from stools which had been coppiced in the past.

The site before our onslaught

Simply cutting down the stems allows them to re-appear next season so the cut stems need to be treated with chemicals which will kill the root below the ground. Sensible precautions before using this chemical (always under qualified supervision) involves use of protective gloves and suiting all of which transform any wearer to look like something from outer space.

Chemical treating the cut stems

The task is made more difficult by having to hack through masses of bramble in order to reach the ash stems which are the primary objective.

Diving into a bramble patch in hot pursuit of the ash

We continued our love-hate relationship with the “tree poppers” we were introduced to recently. They are efficient in that they remove the below ground root as well as the above ground shoot they are just a trifle awkward to use and failure to achieve a secure grip on first addressing the sapling can result in stripping off the bark or in snapping the root short. A great deal of effort and blue language to deal with only a single sapling. The efficient solution is that demonstrated by the warden – using a chain saw to slice off a complete area of saplings at ground level, ready for immediate chemical treatment.

A tortoise and hare situation – my money is on the hare this time.

The essential element in all of this clearance work is an efficient fire on which we can burn all of the brash produced by our efforts. Step one is lighting the fire, no easy task if it has rained continually for the previous twenty four hours. Step two is managing the fire so that it dies neither from dearth of material to burn nor from suffocation by an excess of material. Step three is the safe closing down of the fire, ceasing loading ahead of the shut down time, turning in to reduce the footprint and monitoring as long as is necessary depending on wind and combustible materials adjacent. Good practice is to have a designated individual who takes responsibility for the fire.


The wire mesh on the helmet is a safety feature – or is this volunteer just shy ?



The cleared site at the end of our efforts



Bulls Cross is one part of a SSSI comprising Bulls Cross, Juniper Hill and the Frith, located within the very large Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods NNR.   The woodland makeup, is dominated by ash, includes yew and a shrub layer of hazel and hawthorn. See GVCV task report of 29/01/2017 for a fuller description of the site.

Our task on 14 January 2018 was to continue the scrub etc clearance in order to encourage the reversion of the area to limestone grassland. The grassed areas on the site are serving their original purpose since cattle were re-introduced onto the land (summer grazing only) in 2013. The plan being followed by Natural England, the managers of the site, is to complete work on the partly cleared strip of land adjacent to the A4070 before venturing into the Ash woodland on the North West side of the site.

The problem with Ash as ever is their profligacy, each tree dropping thousands of seeds, a large percentage of which take root. These seedlings need to be removed by a determined attack to prevent them reaching a size where they in turn drop seeds and exacerbate the problem. This is generally done by cutting off at ground level and treating the stumps with herbicide to kill the root below. An innovation is the use of “tree poppers” which enable small seedlings to be ripped from the soil, roots and all. Of course a small amount of exertion is needed to use these tools – who ever said conservation was easy !.


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The tree popper in use

Movement around this part of the site is problematic because the ground levels vary greatly. The site is transverse by an ancient drove road (hence the name Bulls Cross) which over time has become a cutting with raised banks both sides. There are small borrow pits where stone has been extracted for domestic use and also raised areas where spoil has been tipped including quantities of ash. There are now also quantities of dung, kindly left for us by the cattle grazing earlier in the year, so changing footwear before getting back in the car is a definite necessity.

Taking out isolated seedlings produces no dramatic change to the view so it is only by watching the great heaps of brash going on to the bonfire that the results of our labours can be appreciated.

C:\Users\Roger\Desktop\P1010845 (2).JPGThe results of a whole day’s effort, gone in a puff of smoke

Much of the work undertaken on this site is to improve it as an environment for the rare Duke of Burgundy fritillary which has been seen on adjacent sites. Natural England’s ambition is to create a favourable environment along a continuous string of locations so as to create a “butterfly highway” to facilitate migration and propagation.

Duke of Burgundy fritillary.


I do like to see a volunteer happy in their work


Ongoing restoration of Thames & Severn canal (summit section) at Coates

Ongoing restoration of the Thames & Severn canal (summit section) at Coates

The restoration of this section of the canal by the Cotswold Canal Trust is much delayed by the need to raise substantial finance to repair the Sapperton Tunnel, which has collapsed in a number of places, one collapse completely blocking the canal


Southern portal of the Sapperton tunnel at Coates.

In the meantime the Trust are making all efforts to stop further degrading of the canal and to improve its current state wherever possible. In terms of what is feasable by small groups of volunteers this means keeping the bed of the canal clear by strimming, similarly clearing the earth banks of the canal including removing small trees etc whose roots are applying pressure to the canal walls, and maintaining the towpath which is well used by walkers. All of these ongoing tasks GVCV have assisted with a number of times.

The good news is that we have almost caught up with works needed after many years of neglect in terms of the canal bed and the South bank. This level of restoration now just needs to be maintained. The next target however is the North bank, which has been untouched for many a long year and which contains a number of significant trees to be removed. It’s good to have a challenge to look forward to.

Our task on Sunday was the continuation of the works in the canal bed and on the South bank. The adventure element here was that the bank is very steep, ending in a vertical drop into the canal, so the work was carried out swinging on a harness attached to a rope anchored to a convenient tree further up the bank. Strimming is a strenuous task at the best of times but combined with acrobatics it is a VERY strenuous task. Fortunately the site warden has been doing this for a number of years and is particular about the necessary safety precautions but to beginners like us it certainly resulted in a raised pulse rate.



Rudge Hill Common


Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods NNR is the largest nature reserve in the Cotswolds. It is largely made up of a chain of beechwoods and limestone grasslands around the upper slopes of the Painswick Valley, in Gloucestershire. The NNR includes Rudge Hill common, formerly named Edge Common. Its status as a SSSI is under the name of Edge Common. The area of Rudge Hill is 0.3 hectares or 0.74 acres, a relatively small portion of the whole reserve.

The main habitats are woodland and limestone grassland. The grasslands of the commons feature a rich limestone flora which support a variety of insects, particularly butterflies. These include chalkhill blue, Adonis blue, small blue, dingy skipper, green hairstreak and, at Rudge Hill Common, the rare Duke of Burgundy fritillary.

The Cotswold Way passes through Edge Common.

Duke of Burgundy fritillary.

It is an unfortunate fact that the Ash tree is far too fertile for our liking and drops large numbers of seeds, many of which take root and grow and threaten to overwhelm the balance of the woodland on the site. Removing these by digging out is very disruptive but some clever chap has developed a “tree popper”. This is basically a long steel lever with jaws at the end which are used to grip the sapling at low level and then remove the sapling complete with its root causing minimal disturbance of the ground. Great exercise for the biceps.


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The popper tool in action

On a nearby site, Bulls Cross, Natural England are preparing to install a small herd of cattle to graze throughout the summer. There is a concern that the existing grass might not be sufficient to sustain the cattle so grass seed is being harvested from other sites, including Rudge Hill, to be overseeded at Bulls Cross. The clever trick is that the grass seed will be scattered immediately before the cattle arrive so that they will trample it into the ground and there will be no loss to birds. Collecting grass seed is certainly a lot more restful than most of the tasks we tackle.

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The warden doing her fair share of the work

Cotswold Canal Trust, Coates

GVCV have carried out clearance work on the Coates site a number of times in the past but, you know what, the darned stuff keeps on growing so we have to keep returning to it.   Basically we are keeping the existing structure of the canal in as good a state of repair as we can pending commencement of serious restoration works.

We joined members of the standing canal maintenance team and our main objective on the day was to clear as much of the canal bed as possible of rank grass and low shrubs,   Secondary task was to clear the margins of the tow path to allow easy access by the large number of walkers who use that area on a weekend.

The bulk of the work was done using brush cutters, the only practical tool for the job.   One of our number plus the Warden are qualified users by virtue of attending a formal course and by cascading our knowledge down we managed to increase the  number of volunteers actively attacking the canal to five.   This allowed us to clear a substantial area and provided much appreciated entertainment for the walkers passing by.

I’m sure that our newly initiated machine operatives are proud that they have added another skill to their conservation CV and I hope that a hot bath that evening relieved the unaccustomed strain which the machines put on back and sides.



Stinchcombe Hill


Stinchcombe Hil, near Dursley, is a small site covering some 0.91 hectares / 2.25 acres, owned by Stinchcombe Hill Recreation Ground Trust. It is a SSSI and sits within the Cotswold AOB. The majority is a plateau at an elevation of some 200m with superb views into the Severn valley (when not obscured by rolling mist and rain) with a large part of it leased to a golf club.

The site is managed by a warden from the Stinchcombe Hill Butterfly trust with a team of volunteers and their objective is to bring the site back to its original state of untreated Cotswold grassland forming an environment favouring orchids, butterflies and sky larks. This is an uphill struggle because lack of resources has allowed extensive encroachment of trees and shrubs.





Our task on Sunday was to progress the clearance of the scrub etc on the Western slope having first to gather up and burn the brash left behind by a contractor who had been employed to machine cut part of the slope. We were somewhat surprised to see that the slope had been left covered with shredded stumps six inches high above ground – our normal practice being to take everything down to ground level (except large diameter stumps to be later re-cut and treated with herbicide)



During the lunch break conversation turned to butterflies, the focus for all of our efforts that day and especially to their dramatic decline in their numbers and distribution, particularly referring to the Duke of Burgundy. Reports state that the incidence of butterflies in Britain has declined by 70% over the last 40 years due mainly to habitat depredation.

In the countryside this is due to the action of farmers aggressive spraying and planting genetically modified crops which are resistant to weeds (weeds being the food source for most butterflies). Economics have dictated that cultivation of fertile soil has become more intense, leaving no untilled margins to the fields and also conversely by not cultivating unprofitable (ie no CAP subsidy given) land allowing poor pasture to be abandoned and overgrown with scrub etc.

Decline in Urban areas is even greater than in countryside due to building on urban green space, the loss of surprisingly wildlife-rich brownfield sites, council cuts, the neglect of parks and pesticide-wielding gardeners who have turned lawns and flower beds into driveways and patios.

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The good news is that large scale conservation projects (that’s us folks) are producing some recovery eg Duke of Burgundy, Dingy Skipper and Heath Fritillary and the Large Blue has been re-introduced and is now spreading.



The second main influence on butterfly population is global warming. On the one hand the warmer weather is allowing species to spread further northwards and some summer migrants like the Red Admiral are now overwintering here and producing UK resident populations. Some species are now producing two broods each year (though this puts pressure on habitat and food sources). On the other hand the Exceptional Weather Events which come with global warming are having huge effects on butterflies, not yet fully appreciated. Certainly warm spells in the winter cause butterflies and larvae to emerge too early and to be then killed by following frosts. The Big Butterfly Count in 2016 was dramatically down following the exceptionally warm winter of 2015. Many species are sensitive to events such as heat waves, heavy rainfall and droughts. The Ringlet population crashes after every drought.

This is not just a British problem, it is worldwide. He most common butterfly in USA is the Monarch, in their overwintering groves there were once so many Monarchs that the sound of their wings was described as a rippling stream or a summer rain. In 2016 they recorded a 68% reduction in 22 years and in 2017 the count was down 30% down again Spraying and genetic modification of crops to eradicate Milkweed, food of the Monarch is generally considered to be the cause.

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In Europe grassland butterflies declined by 50% between 1990 and 2011 due, it is thought, to Intensifying agriculture and abandoned land. The Europeans are pinning their hopes on legislation to force positive action by the farmers. I think the appropriate expression is something about a snowballs chance in Hell.

Bulls Cross, Painswick

Bulls Cross is one part of a SSSI comprising Bulls Cross, Juniper Hill and the Frith, located within the Cotswold AONB.   The woodland makeup, is dominated by ash, includes yew and a shrub layer of hazel and hawthorn. The ground flora is dominated by bramble and dog’s mercury.  A secondary woodland to the north includes silver birch.   The site is a tiny (3 hectare) common consisting of 4 triangles of limestone grassland/secondary woodland intersected by 3 minor roads and bordered by a busy B road on its eastern edge

Bulls Cross is perhaps one of the best known commons in the whole of the Cotswolds thanks to Laurie Lee’s descriptions of it his much-loved book, Cider with Rosie.   Lee depicts Bulls Cross as a ‘no-man’s crossing… a ‘ragged wildness of wind-bent turves [where] travellers would meet in suspicion, or lie in wait to do violence on each other, to rob or rape or murder.’  [so no change there]   Lee states that a hangman’s gibbet once hung here.   To this day Bulls Cross is a very busy crossroads and this goes back many hundreds of years to the days when it formed an important intersection of the routes linking Painswick and the older parts of Stroud to one of the main saltways between Berkeley and Birdlip.

Until sometime around the middle of the last century it was a bare, open patch of grassland that would have been visible from much of the surrounding Painswick Valley. Laurie Lee himself describes it as ‘a curious tundra, a sort of island of nothing set high above the crowded valleys… a baldness among the woods’.  The grass used to be kept short by commoners cattle, then the 1960s the crash in rabbit populations removed the natural grazers that in many cases had continued the grazing in place of the commoners’ livestock


In 2013 cattle were returned to Bulls Cross after more than half a century of absence, the ban on permanent fencing on the common entailing the annual erection and removal of 800M of fencing to each of 3 paddocks.

The Duke of Burgundy butterflies still breed here in good numbers in the spring, glow worms and slow worms can still be found across the site, kestrels hunt overhead and hundreds of orchids including lesser butterfly, pyramidal, common spotted, twayblade and white helleborine can be found thriving beneath the rampant bracken and willowherb.

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GVCV task on a cold and wet day was to cut out the ash sapling which had escaped the previous cull, allowing the warden to apply herbicide to the cut stems to kill the roots.   Of course Ash Die Back, evident over most of the site, will eventually negate the need for all this


In the afternoon we were able to tackle the dense clumps of bramble to reduce their coverage of the site – a much more satisfying task, allowing us to look back and see our normal end-of-task vista of NOTHINGNESS.

Juniper Hill, Painswick, Stroud


Bull Cross, The Frith and Juniper Hill is a 42.33-hectare (104.6-acre) biological and geological Site of Special Scientific Interest in Gloucestershire. The site lies within the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is part registered as common land and part owned and managed as a nature reserve by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

Natural England Unit 4 Juniper Hill

Juniper Hill is a partly wooded unit at Wick Street, 1.5 km south of Painswick and consists mainly of unimproved limestone grassland.

The woodland makeup, which is dominated by ash, includes yew and a shrub layer of hazel and hawthorn. The ground flora is dominated by bramble and dog’s mercury. A secondary woodland to the north includes silver birch.

The grassland is semi-natural and the dominant species is upright brome. Also recorded are quaking grass, cock’s foot, cowslip and other limestone herbs. Significant numbers of orchids flourish on the site including musk orchid, but these are threatened by invasion of scrub such as hawthorn. Yew, whitebeam and juniper are scattered on the site.

The grassland supports a wide range of specialised plants and animals including many rare species including the Marsh Fritillary Butterfly and Adonis Blue Butterfly, Early gentian and Juniper to name but a few. Scrub habitats associated with limestone grasslands are also often of high value for wildlife.

Our task on 15 January 2017 was a continuation of our ongoing attack on the all pervading ash saplings.

As well as using traditional loppers and brush saws we were able to play with the Wardens new tool, a sapling puller. This is a metre long steel handle with a claw at the bottom which clamps onto the base of the sapling. Pulling back on the pivot at the bottom produces a very strong pull which extracts the sapling plus a significant amount of its root. Very efficient, but the drawback is that the ground is left looking as though it has been ploughed.


We worked under the direction of the Natural England warden and in conjunction with her team of local volunteers. With six of our people and four of theirs we formed a worthwhile task force and achieved a significant amount of clearance, the visible difference by the end of the day was certainly striking. On this occasion we removed only the Ash leaving the bramble and blackthorn in place. We had a fire and so were able to dispose completely of the brash we created.

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The weather was very kind to us, the torrential rain forecast for all day actually stopped just as we began work and did not start again until we were clear of the site. The atmosphere though was too damp to allow the use of herbicide on the cut stems to kill the roots so we cut some 9 inches above ground level so that the Warden can return on a dryer day, re-cut down to ground level and apply the chemical.