Monday, 20 March 2017

The Gwent High Sheriffs' Community Fund Presentation

We were recently shortlisted from hundreds of applications for the Gwent High Sheriff' Community Award. On Saturday morning, we had 2 minutes to convince the panel and largely the other applicants that we were deserving of £4000 to undertake some more work on the LNR. We had a meeting to discuss what we would do based upon feedback from the grant managers, Community Foundation in Wales (CFIW), who judged our project to be a lower priority with questionable links to the aims of the fund (It is good to have these checks). Luckily for us, this feedback allowed us to focus our presentation. When I read it out at 7am on the day, this was 4.5 minutes long, which we deemed would be frowned upon. So butchered it down to 2 minutes, if we made no errors. The nice thing about a 2 minute presentation is you can rehearse it a few times and change things very quickly. we practised at 9 am and by 9.05 am we were happy.
We arrived at the venue early and found we were towards the end of the first half of the presentations, so had to be patient. The early presentations were very good and set the scene for the day. Those butterflies started up just before the group before us and we were gobsmacked by them. The group did a mini-performance of Les Miserables, which didn't help us much. However, we gathered our wits, checked our trouser flies, and flung ourselves into it like seasoned pro's and Brian even put a bit of Marlon Brando into his performance, like he promised. Anyway, we were delighted when they read out our names as being one of those chosen for funding. There was around £70k up for grabs and all the projects added up to £90k, so sadly quite a few groups did miss out.
So firstly we'd like to thank Steve Williams, our ecologist from TCBC who approved our project in the first place and secondly to Cllrs. Thomas, Cross and Cameron who wrote letters of support which were needed in order for us to submit in the first place.

There are several parts to this work, the main part is creating 200 metres of path which join up all of the gates on the entrances on Henllys Way to the new path created in 2013. This will then continue down to the edge of the meadow mirroring the path on the orchard side of the main meadow.
We want to turn the path as it is (left) to something which will resemble its sister on the opposite side of the meadow (right)
The big problem with the path on the left isn't just the difficulty of walking through the clayey mud, it is getting wider and wider as people naturally avoid the worst parts. This is increasing erosion and decreasing our areas margin vegetation. Moreover, alternative routes are being used now, which are creating new channelling points for water. Hopefully once the hard work has been completed, this would be a thing of the past. These hard paths aren't invasive to the LNR, but preserve it and improve access for all.
The next part is to construct steps down the grasscrete slope where we had to move the 25 tonnes of limestone recently (too many blog entries so just type "gabions" into the blog's search engine). This will be a very challenging and interesting project. There is also a very small boardwalk to be built at the bottom of the steps we built with TCBC Ranger Jon several years ago.
Steps2be on the left and boardwalk2be on the right (over the bog)
all these improvements are shown here:
Red are the paths2be, light blue is the steps2be and green is the boardwalk2be. Yellow shows the existing harder paths
Progress was started at 6am on Sunday morning with the calculations for the steps2be. At 7.30am I didn't believe the angles, so triple checked the double checking, just to make sure (Cheers again Graham).
Measuring the slope of the grasscrete hill, by 2 different methods
Measuring the length of the slope and the dimensions of the steps
One of the important things I've missed out is who is doing the work. There will be a mixture of our group and a call out for more volunteers, but the largest part will be done with local young people. Some of these will be from the upper echelons of the local primary school who love a bit of digging and shovelling. However, some will be with new contacts made recently with Cwmbran High School and Monmouthshire and Torfaen Youth Offenders. The main part of our presentation was about the affect that doing these works has on local young people and how they develop a sense of ownership and pride and this builds community support and decreases anti-social behaviour on the site. We used the analogy of a woodcrete bird box which was bought for us in 2013. It is lovely, well made, lasts for a very long time, but there is no ownership, interest or pride involved with this (only the birds like them). However, our handmade bird boxes which built and camouflage painted by local school children have an emotional investment which is invaluable, while the birds seem to like these ones too.
We'll keep you posted with updates and events.

SpringClean and a pizza celebration to end a great day

Some time ago when Big Lottery Fund Wales offered community groups the chance to get up to £2000 towards a celebration, we thought what's the catch? The answer was none. We've never really celebrated the work which we've done on the LNR, but we thought well why not. Not long after submitting an application we found out we were successful.

The largest part of the grant was a branded gazebo, a portable pizza oven and £600 on food, drinks and associated sundries. Our 3 m x 3 m, Pro-50 gazebo from Gala tents arrived ages ago, but stayed away in its case for a long time, until we put it up just before the event. Even then, on the day was the first time we put one of the side panels up. Unlike our cheapo Draper gazebo which broke at the Henllys fete 2 years ago (at its first outing), this one is very, very sturdy, easy to put up and take down and will hopefully last us many years.
The oven was the longest wait. When we first thought we'd like a pizza oven which we wanted a portable on and there were a few options. Most of them were around 70-100 kg which wasn't quite portable enough for us and they take an hour to warm up. Then there were some cheaper ones like the Uuni II which Lakeland sells. The Uuni looked good, but it only ran on wood pellets, which we thought was a limitation for us. By chance, we came across Roccbox who were a croudfunded company and we really liked how it looked, its size, weight and how it comes with a wood burning and gas burning attachment. As it was croudfunded, it took a long time for our batch to made and send to us (4 months), but it was totally worth the wait. we had a "few" trial sessions before our celebration event and it warms up in 20 minutes (compared to an hour or so for a traditional pizza oven, its compact size means it uses less fuel and as it gets so hot (500 degrees C) it cooks pizzas in 1.5 - 2 minutes.
The big advantage of the Roccbox is that we can have a quick turnaround if we have a big group. We knew we would do this as we wanted to celebrate the difference which Henllys CIW and 1st Henllys Cubs and Beavers have made to us and to the LNR in general. The £600 (minus some extra safety gear and tools) should keep us in pizza for the rest of the year. One of the things we wrote about in the application was using wood which we harvest from the LNR to fuel the oven, so that should be quite exciting too.

So while the #SpringCleanCymru #TorfaenSpringClean litterpick was taking place Tricia (our food safety hygiene ninja) and Nic started getting all the prep area set up and I joined them after about 45 minutes of litterpicking and making sure everyone was OK. After about 1.5 hours people started coming back to the car park with all the bags of rubbish. We encouraged everyone to wash their hands in Henllys Rangers FC changing room and to gel rub sanitise them afterwards and that is when the fun started with the food and drink.

Our very first pizza as part of the Celebration event
It was the first time we'd ever hung around after an event to do anything like this really and it gave everyone a good opportunity to have a chat to one another.
Those gabion pins and tape came in handy to secure the hot zone
Tricia, Bri and Nic were superstars with rolling out the dough from Greenmeadow Community Farm and getting the toppings ready... 
The production line and committee: Nic, Brian and Tricia. This was at the end of the event when we could let our hair (and aprons) down
...and the pizzas went in and came out the Roccbox as quickly as advertised. The feedback from everyone over the pizzas was amazing including "best pizza ever" by 3 different people.

and the committee all managed to get theirs after everyone else finished.
Just like a brochure! Not Welsh cakes made by Brian's wife.
It was one of the hardest events we have ever run, but it was also one of the most rewarding. We are unbelievably grateful to Big Lottery Fund Wales for the opportunity to do something like this. It made us all feel really good about what we have done on the LNR over the years and the support we have for this locally.

Importantly for us as a group, it was our last ever event with Tricia, our friend and secretary, but what an exit eh Tricia? We will truly miss you.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

#SpringCleanCymru #TorfaenSpringClean - Biggest non school event since we started

As a Community Group we focus on Henllys Local Nature Reserve. However, from time to time, we join in with larger national events such as Clean Coasts Week and Be Tidy. We like to do this as it demonstrates we are part of a much bigger picture with lots of other groups and individuals across Wales, the UK and the world. #SpringCleanCymru / #TorfaenSpringClean was something very similar. It was all a part of a UK-wide campaign by Keep Britain Tidy, but in Wales it had a much more Welsh-pride themed campaign managed by Keep Wales Tidy. Parallel to that Torfaen County Borough Council ran their own campaign Torfaen Spring Clean which supported groups within the borough alongside their own deep cleanse. Both have been really brilliant with some lovely stories.

We advertised our event alongside our BLF celebration event which followed immediately afterwards with free pizza, but we also had excellent coverage from both TCBC and KWT. We got set up nice and early and were totally blown away by the numbers of people who turned up to help. Altogether we had 25 people take part in our Spring Clean and we think around 23 full bags were collected. This was the biggest turnout we'd had at any event which didn't include the school, cubs or beavers.

Some late arrivals, didn't make it into our picture!!
Nearly all of the litter was from around the main culvert, some of this is from Llys Gwrydd as we can see where it is has been dumped down the hill behind houses into the stream, but lots of if also comes from being washed down smaller culverts further upstream coming straight from the roads.

When the culvert blocks after storms, the water levels rise here to a very high level. It then drops all that plastic (and some much heavier items) as well as Himalayan balsam seeds over all this area.
Sadly, most of this plastic bottles and drink cans and the same things are happening all across the world. It is estimated that 80% of all marine litter enters the sea from human activities on land. We can only imagine that it will not be too long before there is a Deposit Return Scheme in Wales where everybody pays more for drinks and you get money back when you return the empty containers. If people still drop their cans and bottles on the floor, more fool them, and we'll soon pay for our group insurance when we pick it up after them. We imagine that if behaviour change occurred overnight with 5p on a single use carrier bag in Wales, then 5-10p on every can or bottle of drink will do the same and there will be even less litter blighting our land and oceans.

The 25 people who turned up were a great cross section of local users of the LNR and is really pleasing for us as a small community group that so many people really care about our little green space. It is very pleasing for us when we hear so many positive comments about the LNR. We were pleased to see and catch up with our friend Cllr. Collete Thomas who generously gave us a £100 cheque which will either pay for our insurance, or we'll put it to something else on the LNR. We also had several Henllys Community Councillors, who also really enjoy getting stuck in.

Evie is a true conservation hero on the LNR, her dormouse boxes have blue tits and wood mice nesting in them and now she's out litterpicking with us. Maybe a little bit of positive support from her parents too ;-)
We were overjoyed to get a contact with Cwmbran High School through the Chair of Coed Eva Primary School, Peter Friswell. Peter has been a long-time supporter of our work, as well as a one of the wheelbarrow heroes. We've been trying for years to work with CHS (Fairwater High School when we first started trying) and we are really hopeful that we can do some great things together.

We were also lucky enough to finally meet up with Monmouthshire and Torfaen Youth Offenders. We've been like passing ships in the night for over a year now and they are really keen to work with us. We've been hesitant in the past to work with any community payback scheme as we wanted people to genuinely want to get involved with what we were doing and were concerned that we didn't want our work associated with punishment or someone else's responsibility. We were also worried that it would add another excuse to those people think it is OK to litter as either 1. it keeps people in a job. or 2. you should get the criminals to pick it up. We think that looking after your local area is not a punishment, but the right thing to do and littering is simply the wrong thing to do. Convincing such people to change their behaviour is very difficult, but it is exactly the reason why we focus our work with local primary schools as we want to break that behavioural cycle. Now we have so many LNR users and local people on our side, we are confident that we can incorporate what the Youth Offenders can do with us for our mutual benefit. We also think that by them doing something more constructive than litter picking, they'll feel like they have done something useful and contributed positively to society (We've got some nice projects in the pipeline subject to funding).

We finally have to thank TCBC for collecting all of the litter and fly tipping. We can't do this without their support. We also had to borrow extra litterpicking equipment from Keep Wales Tidy, so thank you to Thom Board and Gareth Davies for that.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

All we need is just a litle patience

Sometimes this volunteering and conservation work takes a while for positive changes to be seen. Back in 2011 we started building up a small group of volunteers and in 2012 we started working more closely with Henllys CIW School. One of the simplest things we could do to engage and benefit wildlife was to build habitat boxes.

June 2011. Beau, who is now in high school shows off one of our very first dormouse boxes
November 2012. Henllys CIW Ecoclub are building and camouflage painting bat and dormouse boxes
December 2012. They are back installing these boxes which they made with us
Like many of our projects, we often do these activities for people and wildlife and we often hope it is of benefit. We inspected these boxes annually and the best thing we ever saw was a massive black spider and we quickly closed the lid.
April 2016. Local resident Evie and friends helped to paint more dormouse boxes with crayons
Within one month, one of Evie's boxes contained nesting blue tits, which was amazing as the hole points towards the trunk of the tree.
May 2016. Nesting blue tits are in dormouse box #1 only a month after installation
However, in May 2016, none of the other boxes contained any life apart from woodlice, worms, slugs and spiders. However, earlier today these boxes were all inspected and three of the dormouse boxes contained signs of mouse nests, with one of them containing gnawed hazel nuts.
Mar 2017. Dormouse boxes from 2011, 2012 and 2016 all have evidence of mouse activity and nests
There is a way of determining what creatures chewed upon them, but it is a skill which I have struggled with. After sending them to TCBC's ecologist Steve Williams, he quickly decided they were probably wood mice, which makes sense as I had previously photographed a wood mouse on one of the bird feeders in my garden. Importantly, these have only been occupied from May 2016. I'm sure those children, whom many are in high school now would be pleased to know that their efforts have indeed been fruitful and probably been a host to baby wood mice. It is a very warming thought.

Mixed Messages on Dog Fouling, this is why we think they are a bad idea.

Some time ago while wandering through Forestry Commission managed land in England I came across a sign saying if your dog poos on a path, just flick it in a bush. This made me instantly think of all the hard work we do as volunteers as well as with pupils from Henllys Church in Wales and the cubs and beavers from 1st Henllys Scouts in bushes and around trees on Henllys Local Nature Reserve. Last year, when we were planting cowslip, primroses and snakes head fritillary plugs and bulbs for part of our #NaturalBuzz project, a Year 2 pupil put his hand into some fresh dog poo which was under some leaves.
Luckily he was wearing gloves, and aside from how gross it was, if he put it anywhere near his eyes, it could have been extremely dangerous.

We are a little worried that there is now a call from an MP from St. Albans to make this flicking of poo acceptable. The article can be read here:

While we applaud Anne for raising the issue and abhor dog poo bags hanging from trees as much as her (feel free to  read our twitter feed), we feel mixed messages on dog fouling do not work as irresponsible dog owners will use them as excuses to get away with not doing anything "There were leaves on the cack" or maybe "I did flick it, but it must have rolled back". Not picking up after your dog is an offence, which is rarely enforced, as is littering. Are we going to say that if you do litter, flick it into a bush and it'll be OK? This could easily be a glass bottle which poses a health risk especially if smashed. What about drug taking, could "flick your used syringe needles under some leaves" also be acceptable? There are other people who also work in these bushes e.g. the local Ranger and his volunteers. It is also a health hazard for them. When tackling Himalayan balsam late on last summer, I narrowly missed brushcutting through 2 dog poo bags, but Thom Board from Keep Wales Tidy was not so lucky "fling it here, fling it there". We are acutely aware that the health risks associated with flung dog poo bags are worse than flicked poo, but you don't know when we would be doing this work, so why take the risk?

There has to be a responsibility from dog owners to pick up after your dog. It would only take one serious incident on our Local Nature Reserve and the 1000 volunteer hours we do each year across the 7 hectares of land we look after could stop. If you have got this far in this article, you may tell that we also disagree with the Forestry Commission's stance on this matter. Maybe they should flick some dog poo under their own desks and see how acceptable they find this.

We think a #bagitbinit approach has to be the only acceptable method of dealing with dog poo and policy and direction needs to be clear from the top down as it already is from our side.