Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Cider drinkers

October 16 2014

The annual outing for the Wye Valley AONB volunteers saw a welcome return to Broome Farm in Ross on Wye. Ross cider which is owned by Mike Johnson is a real inspiration in the cider community. His business model is based on community participation. The farm has been the home of the Johnson family for over 70 years.  The 65 acres have been put to many uses during this time including a dairy herd, crops of potatoes and soft fruit, sheep and more recently alpacas.

In 1974 the first of the commercial orchards contracted to Bulmers, the Hereford cider makers, was planted.  This enterprise has grown in recent years and today is the main farming activity occupying 40 acres.

Throughout this time a traditional farmhouse orchard of cider apple and perry pear trees has been maintained with a small amount of cider and perry made each year for consumption on the farm.  Since 1984 when the farmhouse was reopened after renovation the popularity of the cider and perry with both local customers and visitors alike has resulted each year in increasing quantities being pressed. All Broome Farm Cider and Perry is made from whole fruit juice – once pressed the juice is allowed to ferment with its own natural yeasts. 

Further orchards have also been planted to supply fruit for the growing production of Broome Farm Cider and Perry.  There are now over 70 varieties of cider apples and perry pears growing on the farm enabling the creation of individual blends of award winning cider and perry. 

The farm cellar is open every day for tastings and sales straight from the barrels and there is also a selection of bottled cider and perry available, both single varieties and blends.  


The volunteers picked and pressed apples and enjoyed a great lunch at the Yew Tree.


Thursday, 31 July 2014

“Come up here if you don’t know how to peen” …

Andrea Gilpin from Caring for God's Acre

… so shouted out our guide for the day, Andrea Gilpin, of aptly named Caring for God’s Acre from the top of a Tintern graveyard one hot and sunny July day.


Andrea displays the range of blades
A small group of AONB volunteers was on a steep learning curve that day as we were introduced to scythes and scything and encouraged to mow as much of St Mary’s churchyard as we could. Few of us had touched a scythe before and we listened intently to tips on carrying, sharpening and even on how to stand in a group (scythes on ground in front of you, edge down). We learned that scythes have a snath (shaft) and a blade, and that a blade has a tip, heel, tang, beard, belly and knob. Oh, and that peening is a hammering technique which cold forges the blade to bring it back to a thin profile.


The churchyard was overgrown with long grass, bracken and many weeds, all of which covered ruined stones and metalwork. We couldn’t have had a much tougher introduction as we were scything in tight spaces on sloping land, constantly in danger of damaging the blade tip on hidden objects. Somehow, we made progress and it wasn’t too long before those who weren’t scything were carrying away our fresh hay on pitchforks. It was a curious scene: a country churchyard with no one in it apart from our group of scythers and forkers looking very much as it might have done in the Middle Ages.


Andrea was an excellent instructor and we all learned a good deal from the day. We even managed to mow some of the yard too!



The following Thursday saw AONB volunteers in action again, this time assisting the Gwent Wildlife Trust at its Pentwyn Farm site in Penallt, a few miles further up the valley. Our task was to spread green hay onto one of the farm’s larger fields in order to further diversify the plant species growing in the meadow there. Our green hay had been cut and baled that morning from a field near Wet Meadow, just to the north of Trellech, and sat in an ominously large pile on a trailer in the Pentwyn field. Luckily, the field had already been mown and scarified and the bales were deposited regularly around it, so our task was “merely” to spread the hay evenly all over it.


We had pitchforks and rakes at our disposal but, following a wide variety of individual experimentation, all but one of us soon dispensed with them and scattered the hay by hand, again giving a scene redolent of medieval times. The sun was hot and the Penallt mercury hit 26C for much of the time. Sarah’s sunscreen was much in demand (her insect repellent proving to be redundant) and her frequent calls for drinks breaks were both welcome and necessary as the work was not only hot but very dusty too. Seeds got everywhere, even to the extent of mysteriously filling pockets with several ounces at a time and many shower drainage systems were strangely challenged later on!


All in all, some 150 bales were scattered and we broke the back of the work needed to be done. Can’t wait to have a look next spring to see the results of our labours!


David May



Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Joan's Hill Farm

The first volunteer day for 2014 was a return visit to Joan’s Hill Farm, on the edge Haugh Woods, just outside Hereford.  This 46 acre nature reserve includes an old apple orchard which dates back to at least 1843.  Most of the old trees have died and the task was to build more wooden tree guards for new replacement apple trees. 

After the wettest winter on record, we were fortunate to be working on a pleasant spring-like day in early March.  Volunteers again arrived from up and down the Wye Valley, all looking forward to an active day with good company.

Joan’s Hill Farm is a 46 acre nature reserve managed by Plantlife, an organistion set up to conserve wildflowers and plants.  The orchard provides an important habitat for mistletoe and a large number of micro moths.  Management of the reserve includes hay cutting in late summer and cattle grazing in the autumn.  The tree guards are designed to protect the new young trees from the cattle, so they have to be robust and substantial.  Yasmin Lynes, a local volunteer at the reserve was on hand to offer a helping hand and some local knowledge.
Plantlife provided the timber and general design of the guards and then the teams set to with a selection of tools. General construction plan was
1 Measure and saw 12 side panels for the each tree guard
2 Dig 4 holes so the side panels fit – not so easy with a sub-layer of stony ground
3 Using a 1 or 2-person action, use a post rammer to sink the 4 posts into the 4 holes, trying to keep them as vertical as possible.
4 With the help of a spirit level, hammer the side panels horizontally to the frame
At a later stage the new apple trees are planted in the centre of the guards and netting added as extra protection.
After mastering our techniques a welcome lunch break gave us time to sit, chat and admire the views across the beautiful Herefordshire countryside in which we were working.  Time to discuss the forthcoming River Festival and events associated with that up and down the Wye Valley.  And after lunch still time to put up another couple of tree guards and for one team to help out clearing an area of meadow after a tree fall. 
Plantlife carefully manages the area to preserve the rich and ancient flora in this special habitat.  As some of the fields at Joan’s Hill Farm have escaped agricultural “improvement”, they are home to some of the classic flowers of old English hay meadows, including the green-winged orchid. Haugh Woods itself is designated a SSSI, and is one of the top 10 woods in the UK, due to the presence of a over 600 species of butterflies and moths.  Although we were working right at the top end of the Wye Valley AONB, the words of William Wordsworth written a few miles above Tintern during a tour in 1798, echoed all the way up the river
The day is come when I again repose….. and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts
Once again I see these hedgerows

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Christmas 'Stake Out' Team shot

The Christmas 'Stake Out'

Wye Valley AONB Volunteers spend a day with the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Hedge layers.

You wouldn’t think it was all that difficult to decide which end of a stick to sharpen would you?  The last volunteering day of 2013 saw us on the side of Howle Hill, south of Ross, preparing material for a crack team of Wye Valley hedge layers.   An area of ancient woodland on the side of an old marle pit area was available for our use - marle was once dug and used with lime from the Howle Hill area.


A well-laid hedge is a joy to behold; clearly contributing to the natural beauty of an area.  And that is irrespective of whether the hedge is laid in Welsh Border manner, or South of England, or any of about 10 recognized styles.  These all pertain to the angles and composition at which the stakes and growing material is laid, so I learned from Haydn.   He and his colleagues Jamie and John were there to instruct us in cutting and preparing the stakes and binders, used to support the living hedge. 


Armed with a variety of sharp tools, we attacked the area at the edge of the woods.  Here a good number of hazel trees had previously been ‘coppiced’. Since each coppiced ‘stool’ had upwards of a dozen branches, it took most of the morning to trim them all, and drag the branches off to a flat preparation area.  Hard work, so lunch was a very welcome break.


We had been well pre-briefed, so we all came loaded with cake of various sorts, and of course some nice mince pies.  Our hosts Bridget and Chris had a table under some cover, and there was a kettle boiling over an open fire for tea.


Then in the afternoon it was the time for which the men had come – time to get busy with sharp-edge weapons.  Mind you the ladies were pretty handy with the chopping too!!  Sarah and the pro team were careful to explain the safety precautions for using the hand-axe and the bill-hook – no wearing of gloves on the hand which is using the tool, and try to stay two full arm lengths apart (easier said than done).


Stakes need a stick of anything between about one and three inches thick, and 5’ 6” long please.  Doesn’t matter too much if there is a bend; that can be useful if there is a rock or some other obstruction.  Binders are longer and thinner, and ideally straight.  The bill hook is great for stripping the shoots off the side; the axes were mainly for sharpening the bottom ends of the stakes – and there the friendly disagreement in the pro camp was heard all day.  Should one sharpen the thin end or the thicker end?  “I was taught this by a national champion”; “We’ve always done it like that”.  I expect there will be letters to The Times after this blog post…..


By 3 o’clock we had run out of energy to do much more than attempt the remaining pies, but we had created some & apparently very useful piles of both stakes and binders.  I look forward to seeing lots more hedges!  Next outing tbc early in the new year, probably a new and again educational challenge – only with fewer Christmas goodies to eat with our tea.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Birch bashing on the Meend

 Staunton Meend

Wye Valley AONB Volunteers turned out in force on Thursday 28th November 2013 for a day of birch management at Staunton Meend, a 51 acre area of common land which is being restored to lowland heath. Over the last few centuries local inhabitants would have exercised their right to graze, gather firewood and game hunt.  Since these practices have fallen into decline the common land has become colonised with bracken, bramble and silver birch saplings. Our task was to remove as many silver birch as we could in the daylight hours given.  Luckily there were new recruits to swell our numbers, Sally and Richard.

Before we tackled this mountain of a task (for the birch saplings appeared to stretch as far as the eye could see!) John Flynn, leader of Staunton Meend restoration group, explained to us about the history of the Meend and previous work undertaken in the restoration work which he has led. The term 'Meend' is probably derived from the Old English Maene meaning 'held in common'.  In the past restoration work has involved bracken clearance, dry stone wall building and heather planting, a key species in the re-generation of the original heathland.

As we eyed the sea of birch saplings, happily thriving amongst the brown bracken, somebody asked why we were pulling them up, rather than encouraging the native tree species to flourish.  I thought this was a good question.  It was explained carefully that lowland heathland is a priority for nature conservation because it is a rare and threatened habitat. It has declined greatly in extent during the last two centuries – in England it is estimated that only one sixth of the heathland present in 1800 remains – and it still faces major pressures (JNCC 2013). The habitat is also home to numerous highly sensitive plants and animals ie reptiles (adders), birds  such as the nightjar. Many scarce and threatened invertebrates and plants are found on lowland heathland too. So the UK has a special obligation to conserve this habitat, given that it supports about 20% of the lowland heath in Europe and it is therefore a priority habitat under the UK biodiversity action plan.

We set to work.  The birch came in a range of sizes, from a pull-able 20cm to hefty trees requiring tree saws and lumbering. The common height was a meter, probably just a few years old yet the roots were tenacious and required two of us to extract them, one to dig whilst the other pulled. We were encouraged by the sight of small heather plants surviving amongst the trees and bracken encroachment. There were also gorse and bilberry plants too, all key plants of a thriving heathland.

Whilst we worked there were other animals at work in the restoration project too, Exmoor ponies who are hardy enough to graze the developing grassland throughout the year, helping to trample the bracken as they search for grass. Our labours were rewarded by extensive views from our vantage point of 250m above sea level of the Autumn colours over the Wye Valley, south towards the Severn estuary.  Over lunch our task master Sarah told us about a new AONB project which has attracted lottery funding whilst we munched our sandwiches, a project developed to enable people living with dementia, their carers of family and professional, to reconnect with the landscape.

All good work and we left for home with tired limbs, but  happy after a  friendly and rewarding atmosphere to work in.  Next  visit, Howle Hill in December.  Sarah also plans to have a day where we can get together and discuss our views on volunteering work in the AONB.  This is my second day working with the AONB and I love being outside, in beautiful countryside, trying to achieve something worthwhile.  I took some of the saplings home and next day, planted them in our wood near Usk and they nestle amongst the ash saplings.  Which has most chance of survival?

Gill Stott