Previous News Items
Past News Items and working party updates can be viewed by clicking HERE.
Dates For Your Diaries, a number of events throughout the coming year.
Previous news items / working party updates can be viewed by clicking HERE
The Duchess of Northumberland helped to celebrate the very best in community and voluntary environmental work across the county at a special LOVE Northumberland awards ceremony held at Alnwick castle on Thursday 12 July.
Twenty-two groups, organisations, schools and individuals were honoured with winner, runner-up or highly commended awards across eight categories.
Representatives of all short listed entries were invited to attend the event at The Alnwick Garden, which was hosted by BBC TV presenter Carol Malia.
The annual awards were developed by Northumberland County Council through its LOVE Northumberland campaign, with the aim of promoting the work of the council and its many partner organisations, community groups and volunteers who all help to preserve and enhance the environment in the county.
Councillor Jeff Watson, civic head of Northumberland County Council, welcomed everyone to the awards evening, saying: “All of the short listed entries should be very proud of all of their work, and I sincerely hope that they enjoy this event, in the inspiring setting of The Alnwick Garden. The LOVE Northumberland awards are all about celebrating what individuals and groups do, largely in a voluntary capacity, to keep their local areas green and clean right across Northumberland. I have been extremely impressed by the quality and breadth of the work highlighted through the awards - and thank them all, on behalf of the residents and visitors who benefit.”
Each winning entry received a £250 prize, each runner-up £100 and highly commended finalists £50, with the money to go towards their project or other work within the local community. Outstanding individuals also received a voucher and a glass trophy.
Friends of Holywell Dene were entered in the Best Coast or Countryside Project category, which was open to entries where the project or activities take place in more sparsely populated or rural areas of Northumberland. FoHD had won this category when they last entered the competition in 2013, but unfortunately on this occasion we were pipped at the post by Beadnell in Bloom. Also highly commended were St. Oswald’s Way Steering Group, St, Oswald’s Way Volunteer Rangers and Newbiggin Maritime Centre.
Three members of the Working Party attended the ceremony, and were delighted when Carol Malia mentioned in her description of the work we carried out that she could personally vouch for it’s quality as she often walked her dog in Holywell Dene, - praise indeed!
The work party numbered eight today, and the work was split between path verge strimming and Himalayan balsam bashing. It was another hot, sweaty day, but fortunately Holywell Dene is well shaded.
A group of four volunteers strimmed the area from the Hartley Lane car park up to the stone bridge, including the meadow area opposite the Hartley pond. One of the strimmers was used to clear the path which leads down and under the Seaton Sluice road bridge, at the north end of the estuary. Most or all of the footpaths in the Dene are now free of tall encroaching weeds.
Two other groups of two continued the Himalayan balsam removal work of the previous two task days. This was a case of donning waders, walking along the river-bed and searching for these rogue plants on the river banks. One of these groups inspected from just below the stepping stones (near Hartley West Farm) down almost to the metal bridge at the head of the estuary.
Waders and boiler suits make for warm conditions! The hazards of balsam-bashing don’t end there: there are some deep pools in places; one of us got water in his waders – but pressed on for 45 minutes to the end of the morning’s work!
This first group probably pulled up more than 100 plants: a small clump at the top of the meadow (upstream of the stone bridge) and a scatter nearby, another clump in the river near the Hartley pond, and another one roughly half-way between the Hartley Lane carpark and the estuary. All three of these colonies are known to us from last year. It looks as if all these clusters have been prevented from seeding this year – success!
Photograph A. Himalayan balsam flowers
Photograph B. Himalayan balsam seed pods
The third group, of two people, finished off the paddock area near where the Seaton Burn is joined by a small stream from the old Seghill Nature Reserve. Some of the balsam plants here were popping and spraying seed around, but most of the seed-heads were removed, bagged up and taken away.
Photograph C. Another balsam bites the dust!
This took longer that we thought but nevertheless we finished early, so one of us went off with a couple of bags of seed heads to dispose of, and the other checked out a site near Newburgh Avenue and pulled another 19 plants, all little ones. It hasn't seeded there this year.
we often spot frogs in the vegetation when strimming and today was no exception (but no reported fatalities)
dippers and grey wagtails are being spotted in various places
kingfisher numbers are still badly down on last year
sparrow-hawks have bred successfully in the Dene this year
We will no doubt be back next week for another (hopefully cooler) session of improvement work in Holywell Dene.
The work party of seven volunteers were given a variety of tasks this morning: strimming, logjam removal and balsam-bashing. The weather was dull, damp and cool, and it was rather muddy underfoot.
The party met up at Crowhall Farm and had to brave the rather sullen-looking cows in the field to get there from their parked cars. They were then divided into three groups: two went to Holywell to strim path verges, three went to the oxbow pond to start logjam removal, and two donned waders and went up to the tunnel to check for Himalayan balsam on the river banks.
The strimming operations today were: (1) along the path from the gas pumping station on Wallridge Drive down to the burn, (2) around the seat at Dale Top and (3) the path from wagonways down to the area used by BMX riders. The strimming party then went up the path towards Holywell road bridge and dug two drainage gullies across the path to try and stop rainwater running down the path and forming a pool in a depression.
The second group, of three, cleared various blockages in the burn in the area opposite the pond we call the oxbow lake. The winch was employed for some of the bigger logs. This group found a small number of Himalayan balsam plants while they were working, which were removed.
The third group, of two volunteers, inspected for Himalayan balsam along the river banks from just upstream of the tunnel under the old railway embankment to the site of the old ford just downstream of the lower wooden footbridge. They found only 15 balsam plants, which is good. They were mostly at sites where there clusters grew last year. We think we have prevented the weed from seeding this year – apart from one plant which managed to spray some seed upstream of the waterfall – and apart from the extensive infestation in the Seghill area.
Wildlife was keeping its head down today. We saw grey wagtails in a couple of places, showing vivid yellow underparts and wagging their tails whilst perched on stones in the river. For the small birds the breeding season is over, and it is now the moulting season – a quiet time, when feeding is easy and fat reserves can be built up for the forthcoming migration season.
Photograph A. A grey wagtail (male) in typical habitat
We will be back for more next week.
A work party of nine volunteers converged on a site near North Gosforth this morning for an off-site adventure (balsam-bashing near Weetslade Country Park) on a dull, warm, humid day with the (tall) vegetation wet from overnight rain.
There is an extensive stand of that pernicious riverside weed Himalayan balsam on private land to the immediate north-west of the Country Park. We had the permission of the farmer who owns/works the land to enter the area and make an attempt at keeping the balsam from spreading to the Seaton Burn, which would imperil Holywell Dene.
We all parked in the new housing estate, Five Mile Park, just to the west of Weetslade. We then donned waders (some of us) and proceeded down the path towards the reserve. Weetslade Country Park is a nature reserve and public amenity based on a reclaimed coal mine waste tip; it is owned by the Land Trust and managed by Northumberland Wildlife Trust.
We now divided into three groups of three, one to trace the line of the small burn that runs south-north to the west of the Country Park, one to work up the Seaton Burn itself trying to find the side-burn outlet, and one to tackle the main infestation head-on.
The outlet into the Seaton Burn was never discovered, and it looks as if the water just seeps through the reedbed into it, although there is a metal pipeline which we think acts as a culvert draining excess water from one of the ponds (the second most southerly one) on the Country Park.
Photograph A. Jungle by Seaton Burn (and culvert pipe)
As the morning went on we converged on the main infestation in the reedbed. We pulled up huge numbers of balsam plants, but still only made a dent in the overall population. (The technique is to pull each plant up, preferably by the root, crumple it up and place the remains on dryish ground so that it will not root in again.)
Photograph B. Himalayan balsam infestation
At the end of the day, I think we got a variety of impressions, good and bad. Here are some of mine, which I think would be shared by most of those present.
A very daunting task indeed, and it feels odd to be working as a Friend of Holywell Dene in a place that isn’t Holywell Dene.
The terrain is rough: very tall reeds and other vegetation, willow jungle in places, and wet underfoot.
The balsam hasn't reached the Seaton Burn yet – good!
There isn't any balsam on the Country Park as such, thanks to the efforts of Northumberland Wildlife Trust – good!
The infestation is far worse than we had hoped and can hardly be cleared by hand – bad!
If Holywell Dene ever got as badly infested with Himalayan balsam as this area, it would be a disaster – it just completely takes over.
In short, we need a Plan B, but that’s a matter for reflection and discussion in coming months.
In the meantime, we will probably be back to standard Holywell Dene activities next week.
Oh, by the way, this was a classic day for volunteer-dunking. I think all of us ended up in the drink at one point or another, if only by stumbling into one of the small channels hidden under the vegetation of the reedbed. One of us went one better though, and managed to get leg-deep in the silt of the Seaton Burn at a place where it looked as if it was very shallow but was in fact the exact opposite. Not having waders on, he had to go home for an early bath after extricating himself with the aid of a branch sawn from a nearby tree. The challenges we volunteers have to face!
A nine-volunteer work party resumed the Great 2018 Strim today, with a focus on the downstream meadow, but with some balsam bashing on the side for added excitement. The sky was predominantly overcast and it was a warm day, but with wet vegetation after recent rain.
The party split into two groups. The main group, of seven people, started work on mowing the meadow upstream of the stone bridge on the Hartley West Farm access road. This needs to be cut every year to discourage scrub and to prepare it for the spring when the wild daffodils will come up.
By removing vegetation we are removing nutrients, which is actually a good thing to do if you want to encourage a variety of delicate flowering plants as against the rank weeds that tend to predominate on this very fertile tract of river silt. We do the cut after the flowering plants have seeded, to encourage a good growth of flowers next spring.
We had three strimmers – they are actually metal-bladed brush-cutters – in operation today, although one of them broke down about mid-session. The other four people wielded rakes. The meadow was cut generally in swathes at right angles to the river. The cut material was then raked up and placed along the river bank where it will rot down. Actually, the raking is the most energy-intensive part of the work.
Photograph A. Meadow before
Photograph B. Mowing operations
Photograph C. Meadow after
The main wildlife interest of the day was amphibians, including large numbers of “baby toads” that were hiding among the lush vegetation. Some adults were spotted as well. Here are some pictures of them. This is obviously ideal habitat for them: dense, moist vegetation on a river bank.
Photograph D. Toads galore
The other group of just two people put waders and/or wellies on and did a sweep of the river from the upstream end of the meadow down to the estuary: hunting for stray Himalayan balsam plants that had been missed in earlier sweeps. This invasive alien plant has to be removed before it seeds at all costs. It seems to have been set back by the drought in the first half of the summer, but is making up for lost time now: new plants are popping up like mushrooms.
A scatter of balsam plants was found on the river banks along the length that was inspected, but the big hotspot was found at a known location upstream of the metal bridge at the head of the estuary. Here scores of plants had to be removed, from both banks of the river.
The two groups joined up late in the morning to swap stories of toads and balsam, before we returned to our homes for a shower and a meal.
A good-size work party of eleven volunteers assembled near Hartley West Farm for a morning of strimming. The weather was dull, warm and damp, and the vegetation was very wet from recent rain.
We continued from where we left off last week, and the meadow area upstream of the Hartley Farm stone bridge has now been completely mown, on both sides of the path – all ready for the native daffodils to come up next spring. It’s amazing what you can do with four people strimming and five people raking. The cut grass and weeds were piled along the river bank and along the eastward fence line.
This job is not without its difficulties. Today, the problem was the recent rain, which had flattened the vegetation and made it wet, heavy and soggy. Nettles are a problem for the rakers – have you ever tried picking up a pile of cut vegetation containing nettles without getting your wrists stung? The problem is that your sleeves ride up and expose your wrists!
Photograph A. Meadow – job done.
You will have noticed that there are oaks and hazels growing in the northern end of the meadow. These were planted by Friends of Holywell Dene years ago, and they are growing well (despite the attentions of badgers). The hazels are the smaller, multi-stemmed ones. They should be producing hazel nuts at this time of year, but small rodents have a habit of climbing up and eating them. See if you can spot any, next time you are through that way – either nuts or rodents. The hazel bushes will need coppicing next spring – cutting them low, causing them to regrow vigorously (and not compete too much with the oaks).
The mowing of the meadow was finished about two-thirds of the way through the task, so we moved on to the straight section of river upstream of the stepping stones. The north bank was heavily grown with tall annual plants and was in need of a strim. New trees have been planted here in the past, in a line parallel with the path. As they have not yet grown tall enough to rise above the annual weeds, we search them out and mark them with bamboo canes, so that the strimmer operators can avoid accidentally strimming them!
Photograph B. Strimming and raking.
A frog was spotted hopping about in the wet vegetation.
The mystery bird-of-prey puzzle appears to have been resolved (see earlier reports). The attached photo was taken by a keen photographer in the Dene, and confirms the view that at least one buzzard is using the Dene as its home.
The trees are laden with berries at this time of the year: rowan and guelder rose trees are particularly laden.
Photograph C. Buzzard in Dene.
Here’s a challenge: see how many types of berry you can spot when walking in the Dene. You’ll need to be quick: the birds will get them before long!
A nine-volunteer work party turned out at the metal gate on the Hartley West Farm road again for another session of strimming. There had been rain overnight, which was not ideal because it made the vegetation heavy to cut and rake up. The weather started dull and chilly, but improved to become bright, breezy and warm later in the morning.
Both verge-strimming and area-strimming were undertaken today. As usual, the area-strimming was focussed on clearing around the small trees we have been planting in recent years. Four of us were strimming and five were raking. We like the cut vegetation to be cleared into piles for tidiness, although I think we just do it for the exercise!
The squad was split into two groups initially. One group started at the Hartley Lane carpark and strimmed down the path towards the estuary, although not the whole way. The second group started at the point upstream of the meadow where we left off last week and proceeded upstream. They were joined by the first group once they had finished the task initially allotted to them.
Photograph A. Path before
Photograph B. Path after
We were joined for our first tea/coffee break (we only have two, by the way) by the Friends’ chairlady and her ever-eager dog, Poppy – who was looking a bit deflated by a shortage of treats. As usual the conversation ranged over many topics.
The work continued, and we strimmed the flat area we call the “new mill”, then worked our way up the slope to the footpath we call “M1” – the path along the top of the north side of the Dene westward from Hartley West Farm. We got almost as far as the “Silver Hill” seat.
Photograph C. Strimming flat area
Not much wildlife to report today – it tends to run a mile when the noisy strimmers start up – so here’s a strimmer’s and raker’s guide to path-side weeds instead:
Brambles – nature’s answer to barbed wire; nice berries though.
Nettles – usually easy work for strimmers, but nasty for rakers as they sting wrists when handling piles of vegetation.
Thistles (various species) – all prickly so, again, unpleasant for rakers.
Cow parsley – their tall cane-like stems often don’t fall right; hard to rake as well.
Hogweed – ditto.
Goosegrass (“sticky Willie”) – tangly; often chokes the strimmer head, so a nuisance.
Bindweed – tangles everything up, so another nuisance, for both strimmers and rakers!
Grass – not always easy to cut because it flops before the strimmer blade, so often the best technique is to strim to the left to lay it down, then strim to the right to actually cut it.
Bracken – can be heavy-going to strim, especially late in the year, but satisfying.
Bushes (e.g. hawthorn, elder) – tend to grow out over path, so have to be strimmed back; this means raising the strimmer head, which breaks the strimmer’s rhythm.
Meadow cranesbill – we strim round them (because blue flowers that attract insects), so a bit of a nuisance.
If you want something to watch out for in the Dene, see how many oak trees you can spot that have acorns on. At least one of the trees we passed today was laden with them. It looks as if it has been a good year for acorns. We didn’t have time to check out other trees though.
A work party of ten met up at Holywell today to remove a fallen tree from the river. Some strimming and Himalayan balsam removal were also on the agenda. It was a windy day and chilly, but the early cloud was soon chased away by a warming sun. The ground remains amazingly dry for the time of year.
A contingent of two strimmers and two rakers were given the job of clearing the footpath verges around the north-bank path from Dale Top to Concord House.
Meanwhile the main team of six volunteers started work on clearing the tree out of the river. This big beech tree had crashed down in the recent storm and its branches were in the river, causing a logjam of twigs, branches and litter washed down from upstream. For reference, the location is about halfway between the Concord House footbridge and the foot of the path that descends from the gas pumping station at the and of Wallridge Drive, just downstream of the even bigger tree that came down several years ago.
The chainsaw was used to lop branches off, whilst two volunteers in waders hauled the smaller branches out of the burn and others carried them to be dumped in piles well away from the water. For the larger branches, the winch was brought into play. One end was secured around the base of a big tree and the other was attached to each of the branches in turn which were then laboriously hand-winched out of the river.
Photograph A. Chainsaw in action
Photograph B. Fetching branches out of river
Photograph C. Using winch to remove branches
While this was going on, the strimming team, having completed their work, rejoined the others to help with the tree clearance work, although two of them were despatched to pull out some Himalayan balsam plants (invasive weeds) that had been spotted on the river bank downstream. Fourteen small plants, thankfully not yet seeding, were removed. A later scan of the burn upstream of the fallen tree uncovered another four plants, which were also pulled out.
The woodland scene was looking beautiful today in the subdued autumn sun, but the wildlife seems very quiet at this time – although a nuthatch was calling nearby during our tea/coffee break.
By the way, as a result of a recent meeting with local councillors there is going to be a balsam bash (or several) in the Seghill area next year – all part of our project to try and stop the dreaded Himalayan balsam from taking over the banks of the Seaton Burn.
The work party this morning consisted of only eight volunteers, others being absent for a variety of reasons. The morning was ideal for task work: bright and breezy (although the wind was not felt down in the Dene). The vegetation was very wet, however. The main theme of the day was strimming, but with a side-order of tree clearance.
Three of us met up near the Holywell road bridge to tackle a large ash tree which had been blown down by strong winds onto the path on the south side of the burn west of the road bridge. The chainsaw was used to remove the branches, which were then dragged out of the way. The tree, by the way, looks to have had a wasps’ nest in it, and there was still a cloud of the insects around it this morning.
Photograph A. Fallen tree
Photograph B. After clearance
The other five of us met on Hartley Lane near Crowhall Farm and (avoiding the menacing-looking bull in the field) proceeded to mow the meadow alongside the upstream wooden footbridge. Three strimmers were in use by three of the volunteers, while the other two were employed raking up the cut vegetation. The first group of three soon finished their tree work and joined the rest at the meadow around 9:15. A fourth strimmer was now in use.
Photograph C. Meadow being mowed
Photograph D. Meadow after mowing
The meadow (the “upstream meadow” to distinguish it from the one near the stone bridge) has been planted with oaks and other trees, which are still quite small and need to be protected by their plastic guards. They are struggling a bit, being shaded by the tall trees above on the south slope, and some of them have mildew. There are signs of deer damage as well. A bright spot, however, is that one of them is a service tree (Sorbus torminalis) and it is flourishing, despite being somewhat north of its usual range.
In the early days of Friends of Holywell Dene, an attempt was made to set up the meadow as a wildflower meadow, but apparently this didn’t work out, presumably because of the shade problem. So, trees were planted instead, with preference given to oaks to help redress the oak deficit of Holywell Dene below the old railway embankment.
Anyway, we had plenty of time on our hands after finishing off the meadow, so we started on the path verges, both upstream and downstream of the upper footbridge. We progressed down to the lower footbridge (and somewhat beyond) and then strimmed up the ramp path to Silver Hill and worked around that area.
Wildlife was tending to hide from us today, because of the strimmer noise, but we spotted the following.
a frog hopping about on the path
three speckled wood butterflies on the ramp path and a dragonfly (species unknown)
a coal tit was calling and the shrill call of a goldcrest was heard (probably!) while we were having a tea break
The trees still have their leaves, but there are few flowers at this time of year and it feels as if Holywell Dene is slowly running down after the season of growth and flourishing. The woods seem very calm and peaceful on a day like this – once the noisy strimmers are switched off.
The last work party task (18th September) had to be called off because of rain, by the way.