Thirty years ago a fierce storm swept across the South East of England that would change the way that we care for our woods and forests for ever. Millions of trees would be uprooted in a matter of hours and the landscape changed beyond recognition.
Ten years ago, when I was working in the National Trust press office, I spent months pulling together the story for the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of what happened on that fateful night to places such as Churchill’s home at Chartwell and the wonderful Slindon in Sussex. As night became day on the 16 October 1987 the full extent of the devastation became apparent. Once familiar places were changed beyond recognition. Its estimated that 15 million trees came down that night.
At Toys Hill, the highest point in Kent, more than 90 per cent of its trees had fallen. Most of the trees that had survived were the ancient trees, their roots deep enough to survive the power of the winds. It now looked like a lunar landscape and slowly but surely over the years nature began to re-emerge. Toys Hill became the perfect site for an experiment in natural regeneration; something that we take for granted now, but more of a new way of managing the countryside back in the late 1980s.
Talking to the Trust’s rangers, gardeners and forestry experts you got a real sense of the transformational experience of this night for them. Their love of the places that they cared for and the trees that they looked after shone through. It was a night that would change the way that they work forever with the notion of deadwood, or fallen trees, becoming the currency of woodland management, and our relationship woods re-examined and re-imagined.
Mike Calnan, Head of Parks and Gardens in 2007 at the National Trust, had the vision, twenty years earlier, to get up in a helicopter to capture the devastation across the countryside of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. It was a bleak picture of trees that looked like dominoes that had tumbled over with ease. Twenty years on Mike took to the air again to see what had changed and it was fantastic to see the cover of trees back again showing the power of nature to overcome the odds.
It was amazing to listen to how an extreme weather event had changed the way that we think about the management of words so fundamentally. There was also a feeling that it revived our love, as a nation, for the trees that have played such an important part in our collective story, showing how much we really value them.
For the last 15 years Solsbury Hill has been part of my life. Looming large in the distance it can be seen from my garden every time I leave the house. Sometimes it can be shrouded in mist and other times it glows in the warmth of the evening sunshine. It’s a view that I never tire of and it always feels so reassuring when I look across to this site of a former hillfort.
Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day
Standing on the summit of Solsbury you see why it made such a great place to set up home. Over hundreds of years it was a hillfort and you can follow its outline as you walk around, with views across to the Westbury Whitehorse and the rolling Wiltshire countryside to the east and the city of Bath to the west. I’ll often hear the sound of the skylark, a dot in the cloudless sky, or if I’m lucky catch its ascent from ground level.
And now this much loved hillfort is part of a new atlas that for the first time captures all 4,147 hillforts dotted across the landscape of the U.K and Ireland. Over the last 5 years researchers based at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, on this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, have been working to collate a wealth of data about these amazing places. Citizen scientists have also been helping to collect information for this treasure chest of an online resource.
Curiosity driven research projects like this can only enrich our understanding of history and having all of this exciting data in one portable place will help people to digitally connect with those story of hillforts where they live.
The beauty of this research project is that it showcases the whole range of hillforts that can be found in the countryside like pearls on a necklace. It takes you beyond the really well-known and much visited sites and demonstrates how fundamental these places have been to the story of these islands over hundreds of years. Scrolling across the map you get a sense of the density of hillforts in some places, that you’d expect, and how they have played such an important part in our national story.
Each hillfort catalogued in this atlas will have its very own story. Clambering over a hillfort you get a deep sense of connection with the people that lived there transporting you back in time. You start to take in the landscape that our ancestors would have seen, imagining a very different view with woodland dominating the horizon. Hillforts were built with a focus on defence and as you enter one you can see the careful thought that went into the access points.
Hambledon Hill in Dorset, which is now owned by the National Trust, was one of the last occupied hillforts in the UK – with a group called the Clubmen living there during the English civil war in the 17th century. The size and complexity of this place is mind boggling. Now it’s lightly grazed by cattle and home to countless wild flowers and fluttering butterflies.
Though this atlas is all about the celebration of hillforts there are also many challenges for them. Any hillfort situated on the coast is at risk of vanishing into the sea as our coastline begins to slowly erode. And some have also suffered at the hands of the plough over many centuries. For me this atlas is a clarion call for us all to visit these atmospheric places rich in history and wildlife; and we also need to champion them and care for them, so that future generations can immerse themselves in history.
Across the UK there are conservation organisations, large and small, that depend on an army of volunteers to help look after special habitats and create the right environment for species to flourish.
More than ever the natural world needs us to do our bit. In just a couple of generations wildlife has started to really struggle. Barely a week goes by without a new report about the challenges facing nature in the UK and across the globe.
Getting involved in supporting a wildlife organisation by giving up some of your time is a great way to make a real difference. Armies of volunteers are helping to create the space for nature and also helping us to understand what is happening and why.
Working at the National Trust for more than a decade I got a real insight into the important role that volunteers made. From a postman who had catalogued the number of birds at Malham Tarn in Yorkshire for over forty years to people getting involved in surveying a precious coastal site in Dorset.
Groups of volunteers from companies coming in to help with improving habitats and helping to survey the land is a brilliant way to make a real difference.
If regular volunteering can prove a bit tricky in terms of time commitments there are loads of great citizen science surveys – including the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch, the Woodland Trusts’s nature’s calendar and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count. These really matter in terms of helping wildlife experts understand changes that are happening across the UK.
Volunteering is a wonderful way of giving back to your community and doing your bit to keep our green spaces special.
Posted in countryside, Nature, Volunteering, wildlife
Tagged Butterfly Conservation, National Trust, Nature, RSPB, Volunteering, wildlife, Wildlife Trust, Woodland Trust
Millions of us will be tuning into Winterwatch this week as our TV screens are filled with natural winter treats. There is always a slight misconception that nature shuts down during the shorter days and as the temperature hovers around freezing. Yet there is still plenty to see and do; and its a great time to get planning as we move towards Spring. So in true list style here are five things to keep you occupied on the nature front.
- Visit a local nature reserve. You’re never that far from a natural wonder, where-ever you live. Organisations such as the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust have some great places to explore and the winter time is no exception. You’ll see them in a raw state as they start to come alive with the turning of the wild clocks to warmer days. Repeat the visit during the different season and you will develop a special connection.
- Read a nature book. In the last decade writing about nature has boomed. And there is a treasure chest of classics that have been re-issued by publishers such as Little Toller. So pop to a local bookshop, library or browse online and pick a book or some poetry to transport you into the magic of nature.
- Get volunteering. Green places, such as City Farms, need people to help out. Spending some time helping to make these wonderful places beacons for wildlife is really rewarding and you can get to know some great local charities. There is always plenty to do what-ever the time of year. Or you can taker part in survey’s such as the RSPB Big Garden Watch at the end of January. Many conservation organisations run similar citizen science projects throughout the year.
- Watch the birdies. We all know about the wonder that is the Dawn Chorus; a sound that captures the heart and lifts the soul. But the winter can be a fab time to tune into local songbirds, whether the Dawn or Dusk Chorus. And with few leaves on the trees you can actually see them too.
- Go for a wander. If you take the time to look you can find nature in many surprising places. Take the time to go for a wander, either from where you live or in to the local countryside. There are plenty of great walking books or plot a route on an OS Map or online. As you walk look, listen and absorb. You’ll spot things that you would have never thought would be there and you’ll get so much out of it.
So if you love Winterwatch (and the BBC Watches more generally) use it as a way to get up off of the sofa and out into the outdoors. You won’t regret it.
Posted in birdsong, City Farms, conservation, countryside, dawn chorus, dusk chorus, families, green space, National Trust, Nature, nature books, nature writing, RSPB, urban nature, wild time, Wildlife, Wildlife Walks
Tagged BBC Springwatch, BBC Winterwatch, National Trust, natural history, RSPB, wildlife, Wildlife Trust, winter
Seeing all of the posters promoting the new ‘Swallows and Amazons’ film made me think how much the ability of children to roam free will have changed since the book was published in 1930.
Kids need their nature time and once they get a taste for it they are hooked
Barely a week goes by without new stats being published about kids spending less time outdoors than ever before and the impact that this will have on their well-being and the skills needed for life. If Arthur Ransome were alive today would his equivalent book be all about a group of kids marooned in their bedroom playing minecraft for weeks on end with little or no connection with the outside world.
You could argue that Ransome’s vision of a ideal summer spent mucking about on an island in a beautiful lake in Cumbria is a Utopian vision that never really existed. However, reams of research shows that children’s connection with the natural world and spent time outdoors has diminished drastically in the last couple of generations.
I spent alot of time outdoors when growing up. Every time I went out to play my Mum would ask me to make sure that I was home by tea time. I disappeared off into the countryside and had amazing adventures with my friends. This was only in the 1980s and yet it feels very different today. There are a plethora of barriers that have led to children becoming almost invisible playing outdoors or in local parks.
And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Why shouldn’t every child have a right to the kinds of experience that the children in Swallows and Amazons had, where ever they live in the UK, and that millions of Britons had when they were growing up? I don’t want to be part of the last really free-range generation.
The brilliant thing is that once kids get a sniff of the outdoors they’re hooked. Children have that deeply natural sense of adventure and thirst for learning (something that seems to be educated out of many people). The boom of the Forest School movement and the rise of campaign’s by charities such as the National Trust and Wildlife Trust is making a difference. Places on den-building days or adventure courses will often sell-out as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.
I know from my two children that they love nothing better than wandering through a wood, playing in a stream or hunting for crabs in a rock pool. We need to unleash that inner wild child in every kid and let them discover the simple joy of being outside.
Posted in 50 things, children, Den building, education, families, family, Forest Schools, kids and nature, natural childhood, natural play, outdoor play, Project Wild Thing, Wildlife, wildlife trusts
Tagged children and outdoors, Forest Schools, kids and nature, National Trust, natural play, Swallows and Amazons, Wildlife Trusts
If you were a time lord and could travel back in time to say the 1950s the British countryside would be awash with a mosaic of meadows. They were a staple of the farming system which was full of wild life.
In the last six decades things have changed pretty drastically. Haymeadows have declined by around 90%; a common yet sad stat for many of our fragile habitats. The green revolution in farming (ie more intensive farming) and other changes in land use created the perfect conditions for a slow long decline.
And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a gradual, very British, revolution taking place. Conservation organisations like the National Trust, Plantlife and the Wildlife Trusts (supported by lottery funding and public support), are at the forefront of introducing a change in the way that land is managed to re-introduce haymeadows. They clearly see the value of a habitat that creates a place for wildflowers and insects to flourish.
Visiting a haymeadow in the summer when its just about to peak is a wonderful experience. The plethora of grasses gently sway in the summer breeze, wildflowers add a splash of colour like a Monet painting and butterflies bask in the sunshine. Its one of those experiences that just captivates you.
A local meadow in Bath, helping to create rich habitats for local wildlife
This slow change in the way that we see the land has also arrived in our towns and cities. At a time of challenging budgets for local authorities creating a network of meadows makes financial sense and enriches the local green spaces. In Bath over the last couple of years mini-meadow projects have been popping up across the city.
These wild places are great for people living in urban areas to reconnect with the natural world. Often small patches of green, they add a vibrancy, and a sense of why nature is so important as a tonic for our busy screen based lives.
At Bath City Farm, thanks to funding from Natural England, a haymeadow is being re-created on a steep sided hill. When you wander around the nature trail, you will in June, come across a field full of buttercups and with this new meadow project the diversity of flowers will only grow.
Meadows can have a slightly romantic feel to them; those sun-kissed days full of dappled light and the lush warm colours. And yet they provide a really important place for nature to call home. Its time that the Great British Meadow revival really took hold so that they once again become a common sight across our wonderful landscapes.
Posted in Bath, Butterflies, City Farms, conservation, green spaces, Meadows, National Trust, Nature, urban nature, Wildlife, wildlife trusts
Tagged butterflies, haymeadows, Meadows, National Trust, Nature, Plantlife, wildlife, Wildlife Trusts
There is something very sad about seeing a beach littered with pink plastic bottles. Last week Poldhu beach in West Cornwall became the latest victim of stuff floating around in our seas. Yes this might have come from a container that disappeared over the side of a ship but it’s symbolic of our often casual attitude the oceans.
After an overnight high tide last week National Trust staff and volunteers were met with hundreds more pink detergent bottles washed up at Poldhu and Gunwalloe in West Cornwall. Over a thousand were cleared from Poldhu beach this morning, and the local opinion is that numbers are increasing not tailing off. The pink bottles are now also being found in Mount’s Bay, to the west of Poldhu.
Marine waste is a big issue. Our seas are full of the stuff. And the impact can be felt in terms of how our beaches look and the wildlife that calls the seaside that we all love home. Think of the last time that you were at the coast and some of the disregarded rubbish strewn along a beach. I remember being on a beautiful beach in south Pembrokeshire which was full of disregarded fishing nets; not a great experience for families and potentially lethal for seabirds.
A few years back the Head Ranger on the Farne Islands tweeted a picture of a seabird that he’d found tangled in a balloon. For this bird it would get a second chance but for many others they don’t. The picture quite rightly provoked a lot of concern about what is happening along our coastline.
Teams of coastal Rangers and volunteers help to keep our beaches clean. Their tireless efforts mean that we can enjoy beaches free of litter and sometimes potentially nasty surprises. The beach cleans that happen on a regular basis are a good indicator of the sheer volume of rubbish and the scale of the problem.
We can all do our bit to make sure that our waste footprint along the coast is zero (if there are no bins just take it home and don’t casually chuck your rubbish somewhere that people might not see it). And there needs to be more of an effort by Government to make sure that marine litter is reduced and that shipping and boats think about how they deal with their rubbish.
It really is rubbish to find a favourite beach or a spectacular stretch of coastline blighted by litter. Loads of people are keeping our coast special by helping to clear it up and we need to make sure that we’re not adding to the problem.
Posted in British coast, coast, coastline, conservation, Cornwall, Environment, National Trust, Nature, seabirds, Uncategorized
Tagged Coast, Cornwall, marine litter, National Trust, Nature, rubbish, wildlife