Monday, 2 December 2013

A Rabble of Rangers

‘You came and looked and loved the view, long known and loved by me.  Green Sussex fading into blue, with one grey glimpse of sea’.

Last week myself and the team had the chance to go back to an old site of mine.  Before I came to Mottisfont I worked for the National Trust up in Haslemere at a place called Swan Barn Farm and the ranger team here cover several sites one of which includes Black Down.  Black Down is a large and beautiful heathland site on the Surrey/Sussex border that was the subject of the above quoted poetry by Lord Tennyson who lived nearby.  The elegant lines describe it well as, on a clear day the view from Black Down is superb, being the second highest point in the South East of England (Leith Hill, another former worksite of mine, is the highest - I obviously like high places) and the night sky there is unrivalled with starry constellations stretching from horizon to horizon in a huge sparkling arc of splendour.
The slopes of Black Down in summer (hope you don't mind Dave, i borrowed your picture off the website!)

Black Down has had major work done in years past to clear fell the large pine plantations that had grown up on it and restore it to the important heathland site it is today.  Adders, grass snakes, sand lizards, Black Darter dragonfly, nightjar and many more rare and fascinating species inhabit the site and I was very lucky to have the chance to work there and fully indulge in my love of lowland heathland, my favourite habitat above any other.  Walking over a summer heathland on a hot day with splashes of purple heather dotted across the landscape and the coconut scent of the yellow gorse flower drifting past has got to be one of my favourite places to be and, like the reptiles that frequent it, I would happily bask the day away in a heather patch.

The reason I got to take my colleagues back to see my old haunts was one of ‘what goes around comes around’.  Dave Elliott, Head Ranger of Black Down had very kindly let us borrow their old forage harvester for a few months over winter so that we could use it on the bracken in the New Forest as well as Stockbridge Down.  This has made a huge difference to the bracken control in the forest with hectares of bracken now being foraged harvested in order to allow the heathland and grassland species underneath a chance to grow through.  In return for this favour, Dave requested that we come up to Black Down and do some felling and clearing of Pine and Birch as is the usual winter task for a heathland site.  He also had a few other favours to call in with other NT teams so the result was a brilliant 2 day scrub bash of NT rangers and volunteers from all corners of the South – Isle of Wight, Woolbeding, Slindon, Saddlescombe, Mottisfont and New Forest, Hindhead, Ludshott and more – all were summoned and it resulted in a workforce of around 100 people, nearly all chainsaw trained, who set about the clearing work and did an absolutely sterling job.

Everywhere you looked you saw an orange helmeted line of people steadily working their way up the slope through the falling ranks of pine, birch and gorse.  A bonfire took care of the cut scrub – and the inevitable items of clothing that got too close – with the tractor being employed to drag large brash piles to the fire.

Orange helmets poking up like toadstools!
Lunch was served to a hungry rabble of rangers in the form of Black Down beef burgers from their own herd of Belted Galloway cattle that they use for conservation grazing and meat.  As it turned out, the burgers being served came from the calf that I helped deliver back in April 2011 – I brought him into this world, seemed only fitting I should eat him out of it (RIP George, a mighty fine Steer).
A big thank-you to the Black Down team for inviting and hosting us, it was good to be back in a place I loved so much – and I promise you’ll get your forager back in one piece!

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