CNCV: Dairy House Farm

Yesterday I was out with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers on a task at a new location for the group. We spent the day at Dairy House Farm, near Winsford; a farm under the higher level stewardship scheme, which as well as breeding livestock also has a farm school.


We spent the day clearing the regrowth of an old hedge line. It had orginally been removed to reduce cover for predators which had been taking the chicks of declining numbers of waders breeding in the wet meadows.

A nice bit of wheelbarrowing

After doing some work this morning, I turned up late for today’s Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers’ task at Sound Common. Working for Cheshire East Council, we spent the day removing birch saplings and clearing brambles. Some of us also moved the soil left over from the machines which had scraped off the surface of the heathland, revealing bare earth on which the heather can regenerate – I love a bit of wheelbarrowing!

CNCV: The first practical task of the year

It seems ages since I was last out with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV); in fact, it was the Christmas task when I last attended a task.  Today, I was out with them at Wybunbury Moss, clearing trees from a wet pasture and burning the resulting brash. We also set about removing a fence that split the pasture in half.

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This task also signalled the end of the winter season for CNCV as it was the last time we could have a fire before the bird breeding season starts.  This is a sad day as far as I’m concerned – having a fire is one of life’s great pleasures!

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There were signs that Storm Doris had been passed as there were a number of trees felled trees dotted around the nature reserve.  It was still quite blustery and the cycle out to the task this morning was tougher than usual but the journey back when much quicker with the wind behind me!

Just before I left, there was a large mixed flock of starlings, redwings and fieldfares making a racket in nearby trees.  Perhaps winter hasn’t finished with us just yet.

A problematic fire

Today, I had another day out with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers on a task at Wybunbury Moss.  We continued with the job of removing trees and spent the day cutting down birch saplings and burning them at the edge of open Moss.

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The task was made more difficult by the problems we had getting the fire started.  We had a good base of old tree trunks and some cardboard boxes to keep the bottom of the fire dry while getting going.  With firelighters, kindling and a bag full of my shopping receipts, the fire started straightaway but we couldn’t get it roaring.  The brash from cutting down the saplings burned far too quickly and left only light ash, so we cut down a couple of medium-sized birch to give the fire some more substantial wood to go at but none of this would catch properly while the fire burned straight through the light brash.  The conditions seemed quite good for a fire – it has stopped raining and there was a light breeze to feed the fire with air – but we couldn’t work out why the fire wouldn’t roar as usual.  It was only when we got stuck into some larger saplings that the mix of brash and thicker trunks, after at least a couple of hours of trying, that the fire started to burn well.  It seems that each autumn we have to re-learn the techniques of building a good fire all over again.

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It was quite a gloomy and moody day for most of the task; we still have a month to go to the shortest day but it seemed like we were already there.  However, the day was brightened by two skeins of pink-footed geese flying over the Moss, probably on their way east to Norfolk for the winter.

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Doing something constructive…

I was out with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers today and rather than cutting down trees and setting fire to them, something we do often over the autumn and winter, we were planting them instead.  Much of our work to manage sites for nature involves destructive activities so it made a nice change to actually do something more obviously constructive.

Waking to snow on the ground, I reluctantly headed out. We spent the day outside in the cold but sheltered woodland around Brereton Heath Local Nature Reserve, near Congleton.   Working with Cheshire East Council Rangers, the group were helping to improve the woodland by planting understory trees including hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn.  When they have grown into thickets beneath the taller trees, it’s hoped that they will provide nesting habitats for summer migrants such as whitethroats and spotted flycatchers.

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CNCV: Christmas Task

Today was the Christmas Task for the local conservation group I volunteer with and like last time out we spent the day at Wybunbury Moss National Nature Reserve.

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Today’s task was to make good use of the burning platform that we built from logs a fortnight ago.  Natural England has been working at the site over recent weeks and our task was to burn the brash left behind by the tree removal operations.

It wasn’t all work and at lunch, with the fire having burnt through most of the brash, it was time to get stuck into the Christmas food.  Soup, potatoes and mince pies were followed some time later by the sausages I cooked over the hot embers of the fire.

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To finish off the day we had (non-alcoholic) mulled wine and chestnuts roasted over the last of the fire’s heat – proper Christmas food – and all consumed under a rare clear and bright blue sky.

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Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers: Wybunbury Moss

I spent today with CNCV working for Natural England at Wybunbury Moss National Nature Reserve.  Whilst I often go for a walk on the footpaths and permissive path around the outside of the Moss, today was a rare opportunity to spend time out on the Moss itself.

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Natural England employed us to thin the woodland cover on the edge of the Moss, taking out birch trees and using the large logs to build a fire platform.  Natural England has been much of the woodland thinning itself, so our task in two weeks time will be spent trying to burn as much of the brash as the fire will take.  Our next outing will also be our Christmas task – everyone chips in with some festive food and we use the fire to heat it, while keeping ourselves warm too.

Whilst today’s task wasn’t particularly cold to begin with, the driving rain in the morning soaked us and by mid-afternoon everyone was starting to feel the chill – an early finish was certainly welcome!

Working on the Moss itself is a real privilege as there is no public access to  the site due to the dangerous nature of the ground. Under as little as a metre of moss and peat, lies a lake which is up to 12 metres deep – walking across the Moss, the surface moves and ripples.  If it wasn’t for the odd house or two visible from then centre of the Moss, you could easily think you were standing in the middle of a wilderness area – it’s quite a special place.

Two visits to Bagmere

Last Sunday I went to Bagmere with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV) to work for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. We got on with our usual task of fighting back the encroachment of tree saplings onto the fenland landscape and burning what we cut.  Unfortunately, the wood has to be burnt on site due to inaccessibility for vehicles and the distance from the road.  However, it’s no hardship for most of us and some (well me, actually) always look forward to the colder months when we can have a big fire – there’s no better way to finish a task than sitting around a fire in the last of the day’s sun, as the flames die down and the last of its heat keeps you warm – marvellous!

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I returned to Bagmere on yesterday to start my winter bird surveys for the season.  Like the breeding bird surveys I do for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, I visit the Trust’s Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves to record bird species.  Unlike the surveys in spring and early summer, the winter versions are simpler as I only note the number of individual birds of each species I see.

Walking around the reserve on Saturday was lovely, the sun had broken through the early morning fog and a bright blue sky emerged.  I spent just less than an hour walking from one end of the reserve to the other and recorded 22 species altogether.  I didn’t find anything unusual but it was good to start the surveys with a reasonably good list.

Unfortunately, as with the four breeding bird survey visits between March and June and last of the previous winter bird surveys in January, I didn’t record willow tits, a red-listed species.  This means that I haven’t recorded them at all so far this year across all the survey visits and several tasks with CNCV.  The Wildlife Trust installed some nest boxes for them in the early spring, in the area of the reserve where I had last recorded them and I spent some extra time in that area to see if they were around.  It would be a depressing finding if they have disappeared – this is only the second full year of surveys I have done at the reserve, with my surveys being the first ever undertaken at the site.

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Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers

I don’t normally blog about the local volunteering I do with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers – not sure why – but I think it’s about time I started.

I’ve been volunteering with the group for four years, heading out into the South Cheshire countryside every other Sunday to do practical tasks for a number of different organisations.

Our tasks are varied and focused on helping to conserve or enhance particular habitats and environments. We often undertake similar tasks over several Sundays to enable us to complete larger jobs. Our tasks tend to follow the seasons with our cycle of chopping, burning, invasive species removal and meadow raking being very familiar to long serving volunteers. We also do some more obviously constructive tasks such as the bench installing and path building we did last weekend.

Over the course of each year we generally do tasks for Cheshire East Council Ranger Service, Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Natural England, although for a past couple of years we’ve also done some tasks for a private landowner.

The group doesn’t have an official motto but ‘Conservation & Conversation’ works pretty well – although something related to fire or biscuits could be just as apt!

The group moved into the 21st Century a couple of years ago with the launch of our own Facebook page and Twitter feed through which we keep follower up to date with our latest tasks.

As we move into the latter part of the year, my favourite kind of tasks start again – cutting down trees and setting fire to them!  It may sound counter-intuitive to do this in the name of conservation but it is vital in helping to preserve some of the rarest habitats we have.  Whilst I’m a believer in letting nature have its way, I also understand that if we did so without any management at all, we would end up losing some habitats that are now few and far between in the UK.  That we have to do this at all is more than just a shame and entirely the fault of humans.  Sometimes we need to take what would normally be odd action to help undo the harm we have done – if we don’t do something, some habitats may be lost forever.

Anyway, for me, there’s no better way to spend a chilly Sunday afternoon outside than chucking a few logs on a fire and spending a few hours poking it.

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