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?