11-Jul-17

A ten-strong work party met up today to continue the great summer path-strimming project, this time along the bridleway on the northern dene top. The weather was just right for this kind of work: overcast, warm but not hot, and with no rain (apart from a bit of drizzle) – sunny weather is usually too hot at this time of the year. The vegetation was only slightly damp from recent rain.


The assembly point was Crowhall Farm. We parked out cars at the cattle grid that marks the entrance to the farm and walked up the drive to the farm, trying to ignore the cattle including the (thankfully) docile bull.


Five strimmers and a hedge trimmer were deployed, so we were able to make great progress. The long and short of it is that we managed to strim the verges of the bridleway from the five-bar gate at the entrance to the sewege pumping station east of Holywell right along to the top of the path that ramps down to the lower footbridge, plus some more – so, nearly to the end-point of the last work session.


We also strimmed the dene-top path running alongside the bridleway from the hump-back bridge over the old railway line to the stile where path and bridleway meet. As a bonus, we also strimmed the short path section from the disused railway line near Crowhall Farm to the “moonscape” area frequented by bikers.


Photograph 1. Bridleway being strimmed

Photograph 2. The result


Wildlife notes:

Robins – at least two (or maybe the same bird following us along) – darting down to pick up insects and grubs that we had accidentally disturbed.

A male blackcap (in insect-eating migratory warbler) in the trees near the humpback bridge.

A chiffchaff singing. Most of the small birds have gone quiet, this being the end of the breeding season and the start of the moulting season; it will be the migrating-south season before long!

A reed bunting singing in a field hedge near the bridleway.

Someone has reported a little egret on the estuary over the weekend – an all-white, long-legged, long-necked bird with black legs and yellow feet. They are more common in these parts.


Safety note:

Please look out for the volunteers-at-work sign (it looks like a volunteer trying to open an umbrella, see photo) and take care when you see it. We take great care to look after people who are passing along the paths where we are strimming, but cyclists sometimes take us by surprise by their sheer speed of motion.


Photograph 3. Warning sign


Watch this space for further news on the strimming front.



1-Jul-17

A work party of seven volunteers met by Dene Cottage, Seaton Sluice, to strim the estuary today. The weather varied from dull and cool (15ºC according to my car) when we arrived to sunny and hot (22ºC ditto) when we left. The vegetation was a bit moist but not too wet for strimming despite the recent rains, and the soft ground was hardly a problem as we were working on hard paths most of the time.


We had three strimmers going, and took it in turns to strim and rake. We started at the north-west corner of the estuary area and worked along the path southwards towards the metal bridge. It was heavy going in places – stone-work and boulders hidden by the vegetation in places, briars and honeysuckle encroaching on the path, tall hogweed plants, and the sheer density of the foliage which caused occasional stops to disentangle weeds from around the cutting head. Secateurs and loppers were used to trim back shrubs encroaching on the path.


Photograph 1. Strimming (note the size of the weeds!)


Proceeding over the metal bridge, after a tea-break, we did some bracken-bashing along the riverside path south of the bridge. Hopefully this will reduce the amount of it that grows up next year. Next, we progressed northwards up the eastern side of the estuary strimming path-side vegetation and trimming back the overhanging trees.


During this late part of the task, lots of walkers (some with dogs), cyclists and horses appeared, so we had to take care to warn them and turn the strimmers off as they passed. No one came to any harm, although the dogs tend to be wary of the noise and our yellow jackets. Please take care if you see us strimming when you are out-and-about in the Dene – usually on a Tuesday morning.


Litter report:

Little to report, actually – some cans and plastic items that had been hidden in the undergrowth, suggesting that regular litter-picking tends, as we suspected, to reduce the amount of littering.


Wildlife notes:

Numbers of small brown butterflies – perhaps a dozen on the grassy area close to the Pipe Pond, and other individuals elsewhere. These have been identified as ringlets (Aphantopus hyperantus, see photo), and seem to have colonised the Dene estuary only this year!

A small skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) was spotted and photographed (see below). Apparently it almost exclusively uses Yorkshire fog (a grass) as its food source.

Flies. Lots of them! Especially around the bench close to the (broken and repaired) metal footbridge where we tend to have our tea-break. We didn’t spend a lot of time identifying them – it would have been a microscope job anyway. There must be something about the yellow hi-viz jackets we wear – they seem to attract flies but frighten dogs!


Photograph 2. Ringlet butterfly

Photograph 3. Small skipper butterfly

Photograph 4. Unknown fungus


That’s the estuary done for now, but we may need to be back for a second cut later on in the year. Meanwhile, there is strimming work to do do elsewhere in the Dene – watch this space!  



7-Jul-17

A work party of six turned out today, Friday, for a path-strimming catch-up session, the Tuesday event having been cancelled owing to rain. The assembly point was the metal gate on the Hartley West Farm road, and the objective was to get as much as possible of the north-bank path network cleared. The weather was dullish, warm and humid, but dry. Flies were an annoying problem once again.


The not-yet-strimmed paths are getting a bit out of hand around the Dene – rain has the double-whammy effect of causing the plants to grow whilst keeping the work team indoors. Three strimmers were in use, two heavy-duty and one medium.


It was a simple path-strimming task today, so not much to report. We started near Hartley West Farm at the top of the sloping path from the site of the “new mill” and proceeded westward along the top path to the point where a path ramps down to the waterfall. We then went down that path and past the waterfall – no strimming being necessary here because the path is heavily shaded – and resumed strimming on the bottom path, finishing at a point west of the upstream footbridge.


Photograph 1. There’s a path in there somewhere!


Jungle plants we meet with while strimming. The worst are:

brambles – sending out prickly flying runners across the path

stinging nettles – six foot high in places!

bracken – still growing rapidly

hogweed – tall umbellifer with heavy, hollow stems

thistles – watch out when picking up!


Plus the usual suspects: grasses, cow parsley, various herbaceous plants, etc. We try to strim around the meadow cranesbill (flowers with five blue petals, leaves with five lobes) because they attract butterflies and because we like them.


Oh, and when we go past any recently-planted trees, still with protectors in place, we strim around them to ensure they get their fair share of the sunlight.


Photograph 2. There’s a tree in there somewhere!


We will resume strimming work on Tuesday, weather permitting. Meanwhile enjoy the paths where they have been cleared, and remember the work that goes into keeping them that way!



25-Jul-17

A work party of nine volunteers gathered at Hartley Lane carpark for another morning of path and area strimming. The weather conditions would normally be regarded as poor – dull and cool – but, actually, those are ideal conditions for strimming work (try doing it under a hot sun!). The vegetation was fairly dry despite recent rain, although it has been growing like mad.


The second cut of the year continues. We started where we stopped last week, on the path between the estuary and the carpark, and worked our way back up to the carpark. Five strimmers were in use (and four rakes – to keep the path tidy), so we made good progress. The rest of the day’s work consisted of (a) clearing the path network between the carpark and the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm road, and (b) strimming areas adjacent to those paths to control bracken and keep the young trees in protectors from being shaded out.


We had an early tea/coffee break today after my strimmer ran out of fuel and refused to restart – don’t worry, it started up OK after the break. (We had a second break later. It’s a convenient moment to change roles, from strimming to raking or raking to strimming.).


The area strimming is pretty heavy-going in that area. Reason: bracken. In case you don’t know, it’s a tall fern that covers the landscape in places, such as the flanks of the Cheviot hills. It still grows tall in and dense the Dene despite our efforts in past years.


Why do we bother? Well, a mix of grass, flowering plants and maybe even a bit of bracken is better for wildlife than wall-to-wall bracken, which offers few feeding opportunities for bees, butterflies and birds. We have noticed that area-strimming has weakened and thinned out the bracken in some places but less so in others, and we are puzzled as to why. But we will persevere anyway; perhaps earlier cutting, or cutting twice a year will produce better results.


Photograph 1. Path before strimming

Photograph 2. Path after strimming

Photograph 3. Area strimming

Photograph 4. A nice place to rest!


Pond report. The pond near the carpark (“Grove Farm Pond” as I call it, after the farmstead that used to be there) is looking in good condition, partly as a result of the cutting of reedmace (typha) that we did last November. There’s a good variety of pond plants and plenty of open or partly-open water, whilst retaining the reedbed that the moorhens like to lurk in. Frogs, toads and newts visited the pond to spawn in the spring, but we haven’t seen much sign of tadpoles. We saw no dragonflies today, but the weather needs to be brighter to encourage them to take to the wing.


The work of keeping the paths in Holywell Dene clear for all users goes on. We will be doing a one-off strim near Holywell Pond on Thursday.


18-Jul-17

The work party today consisted of a ten volunteers assembling at Hartley Lane carpark for another morning’s path-strimming, this time around the estuary at Seaton Sluice from 8:30 to 12:00 as usual. The weather was sultry, the sky blue and the humidity thankfully lower than the week before.


This was the second cut of estuary area this year. Five strimmers were in use, although one of them broke down around 9:15. The paths down both sides were tackled along with the path leading up to Starlight Castle and the burnside path leading back to the carpark. Strimming was also done around the recently planted trees, to give them a chance to get some the light despite the efforts of the bracken and rosebay willowherb to shade them out.

 

Photograph 1. Strimming and raking bracken

Photograph 2. Strimming around saplings

Photograph 3. Path after strimming


Miscellaneous wildlife observations:

Swallows and house martins chattering overhead as they chased insects on the wing.

Chaffinches, goldfinches, blackbirds and other small birds calling in the bushes around about.

On a couple of occasions a heron was seen flying from place to place around the estuary.

A common toad scampered across the path, glad no doubt to be away from the strimmers.

The flower that impresses at the moment is the rosebay willowherb: seven feet tall and blooming in massed ranks in the treeless areas alongside the path between carpark and estuary. They grow up from the ground anew each year, and at the top of each plant is a spike of magenta flowers.


Photograph 4. Rosebay willowherb


We’ve sorted out the path verges of the estuary area. Watch this space to find out where the strimming commandos will strike next.



1-Aug-17

The work party today consisted of ten volunteers assembling at Crow Hall farm entrance for another morning’s strimming. It was a day of mixed weather: basically dull and a bit muggy, but with the odd bright spell and the odd shower. Ground conditions were moist.


The objective today was to clear the undergrowth around the trees we planted on earlier occasions and which are still small and protected by plastic tubes, and thus still in danger of being shaded out by the rank weeds. We started in the riverside meadow on the south bank just below the upper wooden footbridge and proceeded down the southern side as far, almost, as the side waterfall opposite the meadow at the stone bridge.


On the way, we ventured down the steep slope to the riverside mini-floodplain under that tall beeches where oaks, guelder rose, etc have been planted (15 of them; we counted them!). These are still developing, and will benefit from the removal of competing vegetation. One of the oaks was showing some mildew, so we removed the ash-tree branches above it to open it up to the light, which should help.


Photograph A. Before strimming.

Photograph B. After strimming.


The alders and willows we planted earlier this year, upstream from the stone bridge meadow, are doing OK, although there has been a small number of casualties, as usual. Whilst strimming around them, we check that the tubes are not choked with weeds. Brambles were cut back and some general path-strimming was done in the area.


Random notes:

A solitary Himalayan balsam plant was in flower on the north bank of the river, and it was pulled out before it could set seed. Nice to look at, but a foreign invader and a menace if they take over!

A vivid orange fungus was spotted on a log – see photo. It is thought to be Laetiporus, sometimes called sulphur shelf or chicken of the woods!

A kestrel, maybe one of this year’s young, was calling from the treetops near the downstream wooden bridge.

Snails seem to like our tree protectors, presumably because they provide a way to escape from hedgehogs, etc – see photo.


Photograph C. Orange fungus

Photograph D. Snails in protector


By the way, if you have been near Holywell Pond recently, you may have noticed that we strimmed the path from the public birdwatching hide to the disused railway line – and it was badly in need of it. This was organised by our usual task leader and took place on Thursday 27th July. It was hard work (speaking as one of the four volunteers) and we got rewarded with a downpour at the end!


8-Aug-17

A good turnout of 11 assembled for another morning of strimming near the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm road today. The objective was to clear the tall vegetation from around the trees in the meadow area on the north bank of the Seaton Burn upstream of the bridge. It was a rather dull and day, so OK for task work, and although there were some spots of drizzle the conditions underfoot were moist but not wet.


The trees in this part of the Dene are mainly oaks and hazels, which we planted some years ago. The oaks are designed to address the oak imbalance in the Dene – there almost no mature oaks anywhere downstream of the tunnel under the disused railway line from Monkseaton to New Hartley. The hazels are designed to be an under-storey beneath the oaks, although in practice they have over-shadowed the more recently planted oaks. One good reason for strimming this area is to enable us to find these newer oaks, in their protective tubes, and open them up to the light so that they can develop better.


We had five strimmers on the go today, and hence could get a lot of work done. We worked from the upstream of the area down towards the bridge. Progress was good, despite the height of the vegetation: hogweed, grasses, etc at least four feet high. The cut material was raked up and placed by the riverside or at the top of the sloping ground below the farm road. This keeps the piled material clear of the daffodils that will come up next spring.


Photograph A. Strimming and raking

Photograph B. End result


By the end of the session, we had reached the stile close to the stone bridge. The part of the meadow area without trees – the true meadow – is as yet uncut, and is overgrown with rank weeds and grass. I wonder what we will be doing next week?


Wildlife interest? Well, most of it runs or flies away as soon as we start up the noisy strimmers, but here are some lesser highlights:

An indignant dunnock (small grey-brown bird) flitting about among the oaks.

A frog, captured and released away from the strimmers (see photo).

A clump of about a dozen Himalayan balsam plants (see photo) by the riverside. Although attractive, these are in fact an invasive alien weed with a bad habit of taking over swathes of landscape if not controlled, so we pulled them out, crumpled them and dumped them in a dry place to rot down.

A good crop of hazel nuts is developing on the hazel trees (see photo).


Photograph C. Our mascot (released unharmed but indignant)

Photograph D. Himalayan balsam

Photograph E. Hazel nuts


The strimming season continues. Watch this space for further instalments.


15-Aug-17

A work party of nine met at 8:30 today at the familiar venue of the metal gate on the Hartley West Farm road for another strimming session. The weather was sunny but a little on the hot-and-clammy side. The ground and vegetation were wet from recent rain.


The plan today was to get five strimmers going and clear the verges of the paths starting at the picnic area (formerly the site of the new mill settlement) and try and get as far up the Dene as possible. All paths on the north side of that part of the reserve were tackled: along the top and bottom of the Dene and ramp-paths linking the two. We managed to get past the stile upstream of the lower wooden footbridge on the lower path, and well beyond the top of the ramp-path on the upper path. Not a bad day’s work, bearing in mind the setbacks.


Setback number 1 was wet vegetation; trimming wet grass is a bit like churning seaweed – it won’t cut cleanly, and requires more exertion to get a decent cut. Setback number 2 was wasps: we disturbed two wasps’ nests, and wasps don’t like being disturbed! One of us got stung 4 or 5 times. Another two people got multiple stings. The anti-histamine spray in the first aid kit brought some relief. We never have a wasp-free strimming season, unfortunately.


Photograph A. Strimming (without ear protectors – not good!)

Photograph B. Job done!


Wildlife interest:

While we were having our second rehydration break (needed on a hot and humid day) a shrill whistle was heard, and the call “kingfisher” went up. Several of us saw the blue flash as it sped down the burn near the stepping stones.

Other than that, not much to report, unless you count wasps as interesting wildlife! We weren’t in the mood to identify the exact species of wasp, I regret to say – lack of biological dedication, I know!


At the end of the morning, as noon approached, we all congregated at the meadow area up from the Hartley West Farm bridge and started the annual labour of cutting the meadow (now that the meadow plants have been given a good chance to set seed for next year). There was nowhere near enough time to get that job completed, so no doubt we will be resuming that some time soon.

22-Aug-17

A work party consisting of 8 volunteers arrived at Dene Cottage to tackle a fallen tree that was blocking the pathway – which made a pleasant change to the strimming of the last few months! The weather was dry but overcast.


After a quick clearing of any branches that could be reached from the pathway, the bigger branches were cut by the flashing blade also known as Peter with his chain saw.


Photograph A. The problem: fallen tree

Photograph B. Starting to cut it up


There were was no place to rig a winch around a tree so a ground winch had to be rigged up (see photo) this helped in the removal of the heavy branches that were in the burn. They were cut into manageable lengths and then removed to the wooded area beside the fallen tree and placed there to make a habitat for small insects and animals.


Photograph C. How to anchor a winch when there’s no tree-trunk available

Photograph D. Clearing away branches


After a break for a well deserved cuppa, two winches had to be rigged up above the remaining tree stump, which was resting on both the bank and pathway, to keep it safe while as much of the stump was cut away as necessary to clear the pathway and make it safe for the public to enjoy the Dene.


Photograph E. Finishing off


We were too busy to note any interesting flora or animals, although you may notice from the photos that a lot of Michaelmas daisies are in flower all over the estuary.

29-Aug-17

After last weeks respite from our regular summer occupation of strimming, normal service was resumed today when a team of seven volunteers met at the Hartley West Farm gate. The task ahead was to complete the clearing of the Old Hartley meadow which was begun briefly at the end of the morning two weeks ago. The weather was perfect, mild but cloudy, which meant we were not bothered by swarms of flies which descend immediately on days when we are all hot and bothered.

At the start the bank of the burn was checked for Himalayan balsam and two small clumps were found and removed. The rest of the morning went smoothly so there’s nothing untoward or out of the ordinary to report which makes summer strimming days difficult to write up with any kind of variety.

The workers on raking duty had a busy time watching for and removing a number of amphibians and a couple of field voles who seemed to think it was great fun playing chicken by running in circles within a few feet of the strimmer. Judging by the number of holes in the meadow the field vole population is thriving.

At tea break we had our regular visit from the FoHD committee’s chairperson and her champion pooch. Her lovely biscuits were not required this week as one of the group had brought shortbread to celebrate his birthday. It was remarked that it didn’t seem possible that it is five years since he brought cakes and pointed party hats to celebrate his ‘big special birthday’. However it was also pointed out that at our ages every birthday is a special one.

On that note I will sign off for this week and look forward to more of the same in seven days.

26-Sep-17

On a true autumn morning of heavy mist and the occasional sighting of a watery sun, nine volunteers met at an area of the dene the current working party has not worked in before. We were at what I believe is known locally as the Seghill Stone Bridge (apologies to any locals who know it as something different). We had been asked by the Coastal Warden for Northumberland County council to dismantle a large blockage in the river a few yards downstream from the bridge. We set off with wheelbarrows full of winches, saws of various types and sizes and a good supply of black bags for the removal of copious amounts of rubbish river blockages usually contain. It proved to be a relatively short walk and on arrival there were many comments on what an attractive area it is. Waders and wellingtons were the footwear of the day and soon everyone was hard at work dismantling tangles of branches and small logs that had become fast around large tree trunks wedged across from bank to bank. By our first tea break we had made excellent progress and only the large trunks remained in place. These were cut into manageable pieces by our ‘chainsaw expert’, winched out of the water and positioned on the bank, hopefully high up enough for them not to get washed back in when the water rises. The amount of rubbish amongst the blockage was remarkably little and barely half filled one bag.

During our break we had discussed the size of the sycamores in the area and how they cut out a great deal of light so, whilst the winching was going on, 2 of the team set about removing the lower branches that were growing over and adjacent to the bridge. The improvement was commented on positively by several passing dog walkers.

On the opposite side of the bridge from the first blockage a number of large dead tree branches were in the water. These were cut up and removed, resulting in one team member having several inches of water in his wellingtons and another, attacked by a whipping branch, suffered a cut face. Isn’t it strange how small cuts bleed so much?

Before we packed up for the day, a check was made for any other problem areas and - would you believe it, another blockage was discovered a little further downstream. This proved to be considerably larger than the one we were asked to clear. It was decided that we were obviously going to have to do something about it at some point so we might as well make a start. Many of the small branches and rubbish were shifted and a gap was cleared for the water to go round at the normal level. What was left was substantial both in the size and amount of it and will have to be tackled at another time.  In this area a slight mishap occurred when a chunk of wood was thrown up the bank. The volunteer fell forward at speed and narrowly avoided ending up with upper torso in the water by extending their arms out in front. Luckily nothing broken, just very muddy knees and a bit of hurt pride. Having fallen face down towards the water with feet trapped in tree roots they were untangled and hauled unceremoniously up the bank, like a large landed trout!

Balsam hunting took place at the end of the morning. Not expecting to find any, it was disappointing to discover about a dozen small to medium sized plants within a few feet of where we were working. These were removed and bagged but unfortunately some of them had already set seed and exploded as they were approached. So that’s another area we will have to keep a check on next year.

We made our way back to the vehicles to strip off muddy gear and empty our wellies, knowing we had had a successful and fulfilling morning.

19-Sep-17

A work party of 7 met up at the gas pumping station at the end of Wallridge Drive in Holywell today, to complete some area-strimming and clear a blockage of the river caused by a big fallen tree.


Two groups of two went to finish the strimming of the Dale Top path, while the other three went to tackle the blockage.


Photograph A. Path before strimming

Photograph B. Path after strimming


After booting up into waders, two brave souls immersed themselves in the burn, which came as a rude wake-up call until the body got used to the temperature! One volunteer soon found out that his waders had two holes, one in each leg.


The blockage consisted of branches and twigs that had been washed downstream and got stuck against a long-fallen beech tree. Clearing this blockage took till mid-morning.


Photograph C. River blockage before work

Photograph D. Work in progress

Photograph E. River blockage after work


A well-deserved hot drink and a gold biscuit bar followed, delivered by the lady chair of Friends of Holywell Dene and her dog, to celebrate our being given a Gold award in the Conservation Projects category (Northumbria, 2017) by the Britain in Bloom organisation (Royal Horticultural Society).


The party of three then went upstream to clear some more branches from the burn. With one hour to go and all jobs completed the whole group met up to clear ivy on some of the trees.


We were too busy to do much wildlife-watching, but the more observant of the party spotted a couple types of butterflies: a speckled wood and a painted lady.

12-Sep-17

After last week’s session was cancelled due to inclement weather, otherwise known as ‘summer’ ten volunteers, champing at the bit, met at Crow Hall Farm for what will probably be a final mornings strimming for this year.

The group split into two at the start with seven workers beginning the joyous task of strimming the meadow adjacent to the bird feeder bridge. The remaining three went to remove a tree branch which had fallen into the water across the waterfall. It was not a particularly huge branch so was cut up with a standard bow saw and disposed of on the bank and left for the wildlife to do their thing. It was a relatively speedy task and they soon re-joined the rest of the group. Work in the meadow was completed without the sacrifice of any trees and shrubs planted there in recent years and it’s good to report most of them are doing really well. We have three surviving service trees, unusual in this area, one of which is growing at a rate of knots, whilst the other two are still with us but seem to be struggling a little.

After clearing the meadow we moved onto the north bank and strimmed up and down- stream from the bridge. Blocked gullies were noted for working on in the next few weeks.

At this point nine of the group re-crossed the burn and strimming the odd patch as they went made their way back to their vehicles.

The tenth worker set off home through the dene intending to pull out the small clump of Himalayan balsam spotted on their way to work. It was inaccessible from the bank it was growing on but luckily the water level was very low so only a short paddle was necessary. Whilst removing the clump two others were spotted and removed, it was thought that that was that. However the journey home continued over the stone bridge, across the stile and along the burn behind the pond at Old Hartley where several very large clumps were found. Whilst scaling the fence part of a boiler suit was left behind but the balsam was removed, bagged and disposed of.

Another member of the working party has been fighting an on-going battle with the balsam for quite a while and earlier this week he spent almost 4 hours working upstream from Concord House and in the vicinity of the Holywell road bridge. He estimates that the number of plants he has found and removed this year is in excess of 660. Last year it was around 190 so you can appreciate we have a battle on our hands if we are to keep on top of this invasive plant and prevent it taking over. We would appreciate any sightings being reported to us. The flowers are all shades of pink through to white and obviously pictures for easy identification can be found easily on-line. It is crucial to remove the plants before they start to disperse their seed which they are already doing so please keep your eyes peeled.