Week 20 – The Cobbler x5

Returning to work this week took us to The Cobbler to begin work on our second main path site of the course. On Monday we headed up the hill with Gordon White, COAT’s Technical Projects Officer. He had selected a site on the mountain to survey and spec for us which would include at least 8 sections of stone pitching, giving us all a chance to gain some more building experience. As you can see from the photographs, the weather was….changeable! But good for us to experience the reality of working in the Scottish hills.

Our site is 148 metres in total and includes 24 metres of stone pitching, 5 water bars, 6 anchor bars, ditching, landscaping and surfacing. It begins from the burn and climbs up towards the pitching that has recently been completed by Matt McConway and his team at Upland Access Ltd.

We had use of a power barrow for the week so have mainly been harvesting stone from the river for each section of the path before we begin building. It has been my first experience using the winch. It makes life a lot easier rather than trying to wrestle with a stone the size of a very, very large bear! We began some building towards the end of the week and on Friday, Rory, Simon and I were gifted with the task of driving the barrow back down the mountain. That was an experience!

You can imagine my response to Fraser when he asked if Laika and I fancied walking the Glen Loin loop from the Succoth forestry gate this weekend! My tired legs are taking a day off and next week Rory and I are spending the week with Becky and Ami at RSPB Loch Lomond for our second work experience opportunity.

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Week 18/19 – August Break with Ball Throwing, Bike Riding and Boot Stomping

I thought I would do a quick photo round up of my August break before returning to work on Monday 29th when we will be heading to our next work site back up The Cobbler.

Before beginning my holiday properly I spent the first three days doing some volunteering with LLATTNP and The Woodland Trust. On Monday I was out with Kevin McCulloch from SNH sailing up the mouth of the Endrick river doing some Himalayan Balsam pulling. Tuesday took me back to RSPB Loch Lomond to help Becky and her work party with an array of tasks around the reserve and on Wednesday I headed up to Glen Finglas to spend some time at the Gateway Centre.

After an enjoyable day spent at the Edinburgh Fringe taking in some comedy and culture I had a few days in the Trossachs trying  to tire Laika (unsuccessfully) at Lemahamish, near Gartmore and around Loch Ard with his favourite cousin.

The following week, we drove up to Carrbridge for the real holiday. The weather was fantastic and it was amazing comparing the landscape to Loch Lomond. One thing that sprung out at me is the lack of bracken that grows there, and this therefore allows the heather to provide an amazing carpet of purple across the hills and woodland floor. We managed to forage some chanterelles for breakfast, take in a lot of fantastic walks around Boat of Garten and Grantown On Spey, go on a fun canoe trip and my Shand Cycles ‘Stoater’ (which was given to me last Christmas, as I keep reminding Fraser) is finally finished and I had great fun doing some road riding around playing about in Glencharnoch woods!

The break was topped off with a trip to West Lothian on Sunday to take part in the Linlithgow Classic Car Club’s annual event with Dad. He was driving his Austin Healey 3000, which was voted 2nd overall in the drivers choice of about 200 cars and I got to have my first outing driving the MGBGT V8 that Mum recently acquired. (my guilty pleasure of petrol head has been revealed!) And a great end to a lovely two weeks off.

Week 17 – Dry Stane Dyke Repairs

IMG_5586Ahead of our two week August holiday, we have been based up at Glen Fruin working on Luss Estates again. It was a chance for us to put our dry stane walling skills learnt by Gordon Kydd five weeks ago into practice. Ian from Luss Estates took us up to an extremely old, deteriorated wall which in parts had completely collapsed. As there was more modern fencing around the fields, it was really just a good chance for us to practice techniques and highlight some of the worse sections of wall that we could rebuild and improve.

Again, we worked in pairs, each taking on a side of the wall and filling the centre cavity of the wall with hearting to stabalise it. We only had stone salvaged from the original wall and what we could find buried in the ground or by the river, but once we got in the zone, we did manage to repair quite a large length of the wall, and other than missing some large cope stones, we all thought it looked pretty good.

Ross and I took on a few section. The first, a small gap repair. We even had a friendly mascot!

Section 1

Section 2

Ryan and Rory continued on from our second section and also repaired another large stretch damaged by a large tree.

And Simon, Jake and Kieran took on the largest stretch, completely dismantling the existing wall and starting from scratch.

I’m not going to lie, the weather has been absolutely horrible! But really chuffed we still managed to make such a big difference to the wall and we all agreed, Gordon is an excellent teacher as we kept reminding ourselves of all his advice. ‘Always have plenty of hearting’ and ‘Watch your batter’. Meaning always pack in loads of stone whilst building and make sure the front face of the wall is sitting good and flat.

I have written a previous blog during week 12 with more details of stone wall construction if you want more info. I’m now going to enjoy my two weeks off. I’m spending week one doing some volunteer days with SNH, RSPB and Woodland Trust before heading up to Carrbridge for a bit of a walking/cycling holiday. Got to get my practice in as we’ll be heading up the Cobbler on our first day back! They’re so kind to us!

Week 16 – Peat Bog Restoration and Path Specification

 

Blanket bog is only found in a few cool and wet parts of the world. Mosses and other plants break down over time to create a layer of peat which forms a habitat that dominates the landscape of upland Scotland. The peatlands host an assortment of wildlife, including iconic moorland breeding birds such as the hen harrier, golden plover and red grouse and plants such as heather, butterwort, bog asphodel and of course sphagnum moss.

There is however, a more fundamental attribute to peat that makes it essential in the landscape. The sphagnum moss which drives peat formation holds significant amounts of water and releases it very slowly. This means it filters towards the lowlands over a long period of time, so provides a degree of natural water regulation preventing downstream flooding.

The peat formed also plays a crucial role in slowing the effects of climate change. Organic matter barely decomposes in cool, waterlogged conditions, which means that the carbon stored in the generations of plants and animals that make up the peat is locked away. That’s many millions of tonnes of carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has embarked on work to restore peatland habitats at Goatfell, Ben Lawers and Ben Lomond. Surveys revealed damage to natural drainage systems and erosion caused by past agricultural practices. In the 1940’s, deep drainage ditches were dug throughout the bogs as it was thought if the peat bogs could be dried out, the land would provide suitable conditions for crop growing. It was never a success but has now left large ditch scars across the landscape which now require attention.

We spent this week on Ben Lomond with Alasdair Eckersall, property manager and senior ranger with the National Trust for Scotland. He took us to see these ditches, some of which must have been at least 6 feet deep. He showed us areas where the restoration had already begun and how it was having a positive effect.

The idea was to remove the dark, oxygenated peat from the ditch surface to reach the milk chocolate coloured peat below. A large square hole was then dug down below the drain level which would be filled up with large building blocks of good peat to form a dam. The dam will form a solid wall in the drain, unable to be penetrated by water. The excess water backed up by the dam will then overflow into a side ditch and this will allow water to collect in a reservoir and slowly lap over the sides, gradually water-logging the surrounding landscape.

We built these dams approximately every 4m down the ditch line. It almost reminded me of a canal lock like Neptune’s Staircase, and the dams immediately began to work, filling up the reservoirs. The darker peat is unable to block water flow as it has been aerated so becomes waste material which can be transferred into these reservoirs along with any sphagnum moss to encourage future growth.

The mountain bog restoration work is just one of the nature conservation projects which form part of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park’s five flagship ‘Wild Challenges’.  They also include improving woodland habitats, increasing the number of red squirrels and black grouse, and the removal of non-native invasive species.

I have attached a link to some SNH peatland action videos for some more information if anyone is interested  – http://www.snh.gov.uk/climate-change/taking-action/carbon-management/peatland-action/peatland-action-videos/

We also had the chance to practice some of our site specification drawings and costings by carrying out surveys at The Harry Lauder Memorial walk in Argyll, the Beinn Dubh hill path, the Callander Crags and Duncryne Hill (The Dumpling).

Our week was finished off with a visit to Craigmore, our first path site up at Aberfoyle. It was really cathartic returning to site over a month later to see the path with fresh eyes. We got to see the effects that water has had on the path now we have had all this rain and how successful all of our drainage features are. The vegetation growth and transplanted turfs are lush and green and  other than a few ‘tweeks’ here and there, we were all really pleased with how it’s looking. It has been really good for us as a team to see that all the hard work we put in has been worth it and have a sense of pride over our first project.

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Week 15 – NTS Work Placement at Ben Lawers NNR

The National Trust for Scotland cares for some of Scotland’s magnificent landscapes and over 400 miles of paths including Goat Fell, Ben Lawers, Ben Lomond, Mar Lodge Estate and Torridon as well as many others. 

The NTS Mountain Path Team are committed to conserving and maintaining the Trust’s network of mountain paths for future generations. By using light-touch techniques, and wherever possible building by hand using locally sourced material, they aim to ensure the paths are preserved by providing a long lasting solution to the problem of erosion, with a minimal visual impact.

Ben Lawers is Scotland’s tenth highest Munro and the highest mountain in Tayside. Stretching 1,214m (3,984ft) above Loch Tay, it gives it’s name to a whole National Nature Reserve. It encompasses nine mountains within the southern slopes of the Ben Lawers and Tarmachan ranges, seven of which are Munros. It is a hugely significant mountain range due to its unique arctic-alpine flora, of which many are rare and endangered species.

Simon and I spent the week working on the Beinn Ghlas path with Ben Farrington and Nan Morris. They form half of the NTS mountain path team who have existed since 2002. Seeing their approach to path maintenance has been really insightful. Rather than having to carry out large scale build works after severe erosion has occurred, they have a more consistent relationship with the mountains they manage. This firstly means they already know the paths well and are aware of areas which may be prone to damage from weather or feet and secondly, they return more regularly so can see what techniques have been successful and if not, why.

We started from the top and worked our way downhill as the week went on which was a nice treat. Knowing your walk in will be shorter every day is pretty nice! We were looking at areas where the path had been widened or the main path line had been slightly lost due to excessive braiding (where people avoid walking on the path and gradually create new lines, damaging the surrounding vegetation). It was very interesting having to think about the psychology of hill walking. It was a case of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and thinking where would my tired legs take me to get me up or down the hill. People will often be looking for the easiest, kindest on the knees option.

By using techniques of setting in large blocker stones and landscaping at the top and bottom of the braided sections, they become almost closed off to the eye and by smoothing down the larger cobble and adding some new surfacing onto the actual path line, you can control the way people will walk. This allows the vegetation to regenerate at the sides of the path (albeit slowly due to extreme weather on the mountain). We also reduced the drop on some large steps by setting in extra stones. Another small scale fix which makes a real difference and we cleared all drains as we worked our way down hill.

I have really enjoyed the week working with Nan and Ben. There is something to be said about spending time up a mountain with some like minded people. The wild weather becomes quite insignificant and the satisfaction of seeing progress and quick results from a hard days graft makes it all the more rewarding. The extreme change in weather is something i’m getting pretty used to!

If you are interested in seeing how the NTS Mountain Path Team are getting on, you can follow their continuing great work on their Facebook page, (link attached below).

https://www.facebook.com/MountainPathTeamNTS/

Week 14 – Access Paths Made Easy

This week has flown by working in the muggy heat at Luss Estates. Managing to just miss the rain and thunder storms on Wednesday, we spent four days stone pitching the approach path to Beinn Dubh in order to reduce the gradient and manage the drainage of the existing path.

The circuit of the hills above Glen Striddle makes for an excellent short hillwalk and the ascent up the grassy ridge rising from Luss is well worth it for the views over Loch Lomond and up towards the Arrochar Alps. It is a busy footpath with visitors climbing the hill or choosing to walk the Luss quarry path so it has been a good week for engaging with people and having the chance to explain a bit more about what we are doing. It is always nice to know our work is appreciated by both tourists and regular walkers. (I do occasionally have to stick up for myself when up we often hear, “you’re all doing a grand job boys”.)

So we began by removing the complex tangle of tree roots growing over the path and by firstly setting in a double anchor bar at the start of the path. This provided a small step up to the next level of gradient and allowed us to lay surfacing behind to reach the culvert pipe already in place. This culvert was free flowing so after making sure the drainage ditch had no blockages, we laid a cap stone over the end of the pipe to hide and protect it and began our stone pitching up hill.

As it was a small worksite, we took it in turns to have a go at the pitching and worked together to select the best stones. We also dug a drainage ditch to meet the already existing one and set in a water bar at the top of the path to direct water off to the left hand side. It’s great what we managed to achieve in four days and  I think we all felt a sense of ownership over the site and are really happy with the result.

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I have also made up some species lists from my time at RSPB last week. I don’t think i’ve managed to identify everything that we saw, but there’s certainly a good mix of birds, insects, fungi, plants and trees and I’m still trying to practice my birdsong identity skills!

Week 13 – Site Strolling, Species Surveying and Non-Native Suppression

This week I had the chance to spend 5 days at RSPB Loch Lomond working alongside Assistant Warden Becky Austin and her two live in volunteers Ami and Struan. Located on the southeast shores of Loch Lomond, the site has a fantastic mix of habitats including woodland and grassland, rich floodplains, swampy mires and fens, providing habitats for a amazing range of wildlife.

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There is an internationally important population of Greenland white-fronted geese which winter on the site and currently they are surveying for Spotted Crake which have a very specific breeding pattern. It can be very easy to miss their mating season and as their habitat is in the fen on the Aber Bog, they are extremely hard to find unless you hear them calling. They’re also hoping to increase the pied fly catcher numbers in the woodland which is an ongoing project and the reserve is home to the Scottish Dock, a plant that is found nowhere else in the UK.

The site forms part of the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve (NNR) and was acquired by the RSPB in April 2012. It is managed by the RSPB, SNH and LLTNP in a unique partnership and the RSPB are currently developing the site to make it an even better home for nature.

Our week began with a thorough tour around the reserve to experience the scale of the site and see the variety of habitats that are managed and why. We firstly headed towards the Aber Bog, a beautiful fen meadow home to an array of bird life, butterflies, moths, otters, and deer. It is currently covered in a blanket of Valerian and Meadowsweet and I couldn’t help but stop to look out across the horizon every time I was walking there.

Our plan here was to help bush whack back the vegetation on the bund paths around and through the fen. This allows the public to access the area, but also manages their route to control and reduce habitat disturbance.

Once through the fen, we arrived at Ring Wood. The Oak woodland is dominated by both sessile and pedunculate oak trees. Birch, holly, rowan and hazel are among the other trees found in this woodland habitat and a beech plantation surrounds. It provide a rich habitat for invertebrates, birds and mammals, along with an amazing array of fungi, mosses and lichens. Oak woodland of this age will often have been planted to be used for bark tanning but now are often protected with site designations due to the unique temperate Scottish rainforest habitat that exists.

We carried out woodland surveys across the reserve, looking at both tree species and canopy cover. As well as the oak woodland, alder, ash and willow are other dominant species we logged. On Tuesday we worked alongside Becky’s volunteer work party and some LLATTNP volunteers. Our tasks were to monitor the woodland trail for any dead wood that could potentially be dangerous, remove silver birch saplings from the orchid meadow and in Ring wood, we picked out some of the larger oak saplings which needed to be protected with tree guards. The beech, holly and oak all self seed quite successfully but unfortunately for the oak, it is the tastiest! As it’s an oak woodland, Becky wanted to try and help the saplings along the way. Hopefully in time, they will be able to set up a management plan to look at controlling the less flavoursome beech.

Throughout the week, we were quite consistently keeping an eye out for a few non-native species which grow around the reserve. Predominately Himalayan Balsam, Monkey Flower and Giant Hogweed. Luckily we didn’t find much. I think the guys last week might have done all the work! Good news for the reserve, and us.

We also carried out some Bracken pulling both on the reserve, and across the Loch at RSPB Inversnaid on the wettest day of the week! We did however get to go on a boat trip which we were all very excited about, and we visited the new RSPB visitor centre there (not yet open).

We spent the sunniest day of the week helping Ami and Struan with the butterfly survey. This follows a set route around the reserve each week and we logged ringlets, meadow browns, small pearl bordered fritillaries, large whites, green veined whites and a freshly emerged tortoise shell. We also saw hundreds of peacock caterpillars feeding on nettles across the Aber bog.

There is a weekly moth trap which is set up overnight and checked in the morning and the range of fungi growing in the woodland habitat is vast. My identification skills need work but I have definitely learned so much from having had a week on site. It has been great spending time with a knowledgable team and I am hoping to return in August for a second work experience opportunity.

If you haven’t yet visited the site, I really can’t recommend it enough. It is a charming and peaceful spot teaming with life.

The visitor hub is also now on site and is open on Saturday and Sunday 10am – 3pm until October 2016. There are guided walks at 11am and wellies are definitely necessary! The paths are still being created so it gets very muddy and uneven underfoot.