Thursday, 21 September 2017

Himalayan balsam, not so quick summary of our findings with data from 2014-17

As a young(ish), naïve(ish) volunteer in the early days of The Friends of Henllys Local Nature Reserve, I started looking at tackling Himalayan balsam.

Himalayan balsam 2009 (4 hours to clear) on the right in 2010 took 30 minutes to clear.
Many parts of England and Wales have this invasive non-native plant, not just along riverbanks where they take over, but also in woodlands, meadows and pond margins. These become dominant and outcompete almost all native vegetation in these areas, resulting in a huge loss of biodiversity.
I got into an interesting discussion with a couple of people who think this plant should be left alone and in 30 years it will die away leaving new opportunities for other plants. They also suggest that they are better suited to our changing climate. I strongly disagree with their ideas as a catastrophic loss of plant biodiversity would be lost in the process. From 2009, Himalayan balsam has encroached into every habitat on our Local Nature Reserve. All these habitats would be stripped of ground flora which would be replaced by a mono-culture. Mono-cultures are very risky things. go ask a forestry professional about the impacts of covering so much of the UK in larch in hindsight of the recent devastating disease. Resilience to change comes through diversity. You may get lucky by putting all your chips on Himalayan balsam on the Earth roulette, but I think it is better to spread the risk across almost all flora.

There are some great efforts to try and tackle this plant across the UK, but unless a more holistic approach is taken, you will never get rid of this plant. Realistically, this means starting at the head of water courses and working your way down. The photo above, did not remove Himalayan balsam forever, we've been picking this patch each year since 2010. In recent years, we have been going upstream of the Nature Reserve and tackling it there. This needs to happen everywhere in a coordinated way if there is any chance of success and to avoid wasted efforts of the past. For a larger watercourse, say the Taff, this means starting in Brecon and systematically moving your way down, or getting an awful lot of people to tackle it in a coordinated fashion. Will that work alone as a one off event? No. Himalayan balsam germinates as early as April and last year I found some in November. This means going back over the same sites over a full season of growth.

That leads to an important question of how many seasons would you need to do this for?

In 2013, thanks to a Welsh Government-funded Tidy Towns project awarded to Torfaen County Borough Council on the back of our volunteering work, large new areas of Henllys Local Nature Reserve became accessible. On top of this we were also getting some of the other areas where Himalayan was already being treated more under control. In one new patch in 2014, we found an area which was completely dominated by Himalayan balsam. You couldn't see more than 30 cm into this area. We tackled this and removed all of the balsam. In both 2015 and 2016, there was no visible difference to the density and abundance of Himalayan balsam before we again removed all of it. In 2017, however, the density was hugely reduced.

From this we think it takes 3 years to see a significant decrease in the seed bank. Seeds have a natural viability in the soil and after that they will rot. I imagine that work in this area needs to be followed up for the next 2 years. So 5 years of work altogether. So to do this on a larger scale would need an enormous resource of funding for 5 years to deliver.

The table below shows the effort our group has put into (and adjacent to) the LNR to clear Himalayan balsam over the last 4 seasons. We still have around 10 hours to clear what is left on the LNR in 2017, but we tackled the same area which we did in 2016. This backs up what we have been seeing this year.

Year Vol. Hours No. of events
2014 181 21
2015 212.5 8
2016 238.5 23
2017 62.75 20

If we started in 2009, how come we are still spending so much time on it in 2017? Early on, we didn't get to tackle the whole Local Nature Reserve and that was before we considered the possibility of  seeding of our cleared areas from upstream. This will also be true of any other watercourse. I have seen tributary banks rammed full of Himalayan balsam, a Welsh Water sewage treatment plant in Cilfynydd totally overgrown with Himalayan balsam. I imagine lots of feeder streams are also in privately owned land and all of it needs to be sorted out in order to properly tackle this plant.

The costs do to this properly would be enormous. I can see why many people put their head into the sand (or soil) and say they can't/wont deal with it, and by general inaction by authorities the situation is going to get much worse. For us, I'm very pleased we haven't had our head in the sand and continue to be so proactive and make those inroads.

One thing is for sure, it'll be very interesting to revisit and comment on this article in 8 years time.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Improving access to green spaces and tackling inactivity - response to British Heart Foundation Report

The Physical Inactivity and Sedentary Behaviour Report was published on 3rd April 2017 from the British Heart Foundation and summarised on the BBC Website. In it, it claims 1 million Welsh adults (42% of the adult population) are inactive and the estimated healthcare cost of this is over £1 billion.  
What can be done about this?  Wildlife Trust Wales have suggested, following the BHF report, that "We need more green spaces".
I have to partially disagree with that as Wales is full of green spaces. Populations within the SE Wales Valleys are built around vast areas of green spaces. Moreover, Natural Resources Wales states that there are 20,750 miles of Rights of Way across Wales and 1/5th of Wales is open access land; that is plenty of green space.
One problem is that many of our green spaces are under-funded, under-resourced, under-supported and all the problems which spiral along with that.
Some lessons could be learned from the relative new kid on the block (Parkrun). Parkrun has been a revelation and has 10,000s of people running across the UK each Saturday morning. The group mentality of Parkrun brings people together in a shared experience and critically includes the couch to 5k scheme, which encourages and signposts people with lower fitness and confidence up to full Parkruns. We need green spaces with good access and signage to encourage people to use these spaces. To get to my local Gwent Wildlife Trust site at Henllys bog I need the same equipment I'd need if I was going up the Brecon Beacons in changeable weather. The paths are ill defined, often overgrown in summer and totally boggy for the other 360 days of the year. These issues aren't Wales' Local Authorities' fault. They have been suffering cutbacks for years and years and sadly often only responding to complaints from the public. I'm not talking about improving access to every mile of footpath and bridleway across Wales, I'm suggesting focussing on those which are closer to areas where people live and there have been some good strides to do this in our borough, but it is largely grant-funded.
The work we have just started here on the LNR with the Gwent High Sheriff's Community Fund path project is tackling just that. Nothing says your not welcome here like the access in the picture below on the left. Furthermore, you spend so long with the struggle, you forget to enjoy the benefits of why you came here in the first place and the your hall is full of mud and you're in trouble. This is not going to get people from couch to green space.
The other angle we use which appears to encourage increased activity is to invite the local schools to come out and we deliver real functional practical outdoor activities. We've seen decreased anti-social behaviour and we've seen more adults walking on the LNR with children following these events. We've recently seen lots of small children showing off their cards at the entrance to the LNR, often with grandparents. Hopefully, they've also seen their snake's head fritillaries, snowdrops and primroses which they planted in October 2016 in flower this year. Getting children to take part in outdoor work not only gets them more interested in green spaces at a young age, but they also have more respect for their environment, more appreciation and more ownership. Best of all, they are also having fun.
The final part to do is to support community groups and groups of volunteers to undertake practical improvements to green spaces (like we and many others do). There is less money for staff and less money for contractors, but with the right framework in place more volunteer groups can be supported. Volunteering makes a huge positive mentally and physically difference to an individual, they develop a Parkrun-like collectiveness and the wider public get improved green spaces. If you play this well Wales, there is a pool of around 1 million of them waiting to be tapped into and a health bill of over £1 billion and rising if you do nothing.

New paths - we dig it

"The right path is often the hardest to follow, but the hard path is also the one that leads to the greatest growth."

Well that is the inspirational mantra for the path-laying part of our Gwent High Sheriff's Community Fund project which started on Friday 24th March 2017.

The plan is to create 200 metres of path which is shown in orange. This links up all the entrances on Henllys Way offering easier access routes at the southern end of the LNR. The problem with those areas currently is that they are very boggy and the path is getting wider and wider with more habitat being lost as people try and use slightly firmer ground. This is natural behaviour even in wellies as the ground is extremely slippery. These pathways will eliminate this problem.
The paths are being copied from the work carried out in 2013 (yellow lines) by contractors, except it is all being dug out and laid by hand, by volunteers.
Essentially, the ground is dug up by 80 cm wide and at least 10cm deep. We measured the old paths at around 1 inch depth, but in parts these are wearing out, so we're going a little deeper. As we've been digging it out, we've been carefully laying out the spoil on the uphill side of the path to allow water to freely run off the path. Before we lay the path we will dig in some drainage pipes where necessary. We've been actively tweeting after each session and you can find these by following us on @HenllysLNR .
Here are some of the pictures so far:


In the last 2 pictures we volunteered for around 7 hours altogether and my Fitbit blaze reckoned that I had burned 5300 calories over that 24 hours which is the most I've ever burned in a day in 2 years of Fitbit history (2900 calories more than a sedentary day in the office). Doing good for the LNR and doing exercise at the same time, what is there not to like about that?

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.