Volunteers bring the sun back to woodland

17 February 2017 5:15PM

THE Spetchells is a hive of industry, although the buffish mining bees that bring it alive when nature springs back into life are lying low this chilly month.

Christened ‘buffish’ thanks to their creamy-yellow colour, the Andrena nigroaenea are solitary little things, more often than not eschewing communal living in favour of digging their own nest-holes in the ground.

But no, the busy sound of beings at work this winter is emanating from the taskforce of volunteers who appear, as if by magic, bang on the point of 9.30am each Thursday, come rain, shine or, as it was last week, hailstones.

To a man and woman, they are there for one reason only. To help renovate the Prudhoe woodland that is home not only to the buffish mining bees, but a myriad of Green-veined Whites, Orange Tip and Tortoiseshell butterflies, sand martins and goodness knows how many other birds, and a flotilla of wild flowers.

Laura Waugh, project officer with Groundwork, the national organisation that provides training and jobs while reconnecting people with their environment, is co-ordinating the team’s programme of works.

“The history of this site is interesting in that it resulted from the waste heaps, mostly chalk, produced by the old ICI factory,” she said. “And because it’s soft chalk, the mining bees really like it here.

“The thing is, the trees are beginning to encroach on the top of the mounds where much of the wildlife is, so we want to remedy that.”

The trees aren’t being killed off, simply coppiced in that most environmentally-friendly of approaches. That will be enough, though, to let more sun through to warm up the chalk, something the bees and wildlife in general appreciate. It will allow ground-level vegetation to flourish.

In the complicated network of partnerships that tend to make up public enterprises nowadays, this project, one of 14 entitled Land of Oak & Iron running nationwide, comes under the umbrella of the Heritage Lottery-funded Landscape Partnership.

Kath Marshall-Ivens, a community engagement officer with Land of Oak & Iron, said: “The title reflects the natural heritage we have here. Derwent means ‘valley thick with oaks’ and our project area is the Derwent Valley, extending across to Prudhoe.

“The soil is particularly rich in minerals and ores and there’s a high proportion of woodland up here compared to the rest of the country.

“It’s those natural resources that attracted industry into the area in the first place and without them, we probably wouldn’t have seen the level of industrial activity there has been and, therefore, the pattern of settlement that followed.”

The pre-existing Prudhoe Woodland Conservation Group is the backbone of this Land of Oak & Iron project team, bolstered by a new influx of volunteers, some of whom come in from Newcastle and Derwentside.

Fifteen to 20 can turn out at a time, ready to wield handsaws and chainsaws and push tree tops into a branch logger. Some do general tasks beginners can easily turn their hand to, others have the training and certificates necessary to take on the big-jawed, crunching machinery.

Two such people are Bill Oakes and Jennifer Molyneux. Among the handful of barter volunteers, who get to take away some of the wood in return for the input of their professional skills, they have chainsaws and a wood chipper with them today.

They have their own patch of woodland at Coalburns, between Greenside and Chopwell, and are dab hands at green woodwork, basketry – you name it. In the Spetchells, they are busy coppicing hazel trees.

Jennifer said: “This is an amazing project, and I didn’t even know this place was here until we heard about Land of Oak & Iron.

“The first time we came in, it was a boiling day and bees were just everywhere, buzzing round our knees. They weren’t bothered at all that we were here, they just carried on regardless.”

Coppicing is an important element of the woodland management plan that is reshaping the Spetchells, and something that will ultimately improve its biodiversity.

Sustainability will follow in its wake, too, in that hazels will be ready for cutting at different times from now on, say in three-year intervals.

The woodland is also becoming the source of a plethora of products, from wooden planks, fencing stakes and hurdles to that newest arrival on the green scene – biochar.

Barter volunteers Vicki Chuter and Mark Shipperlee, who run Northumbria Biochar out of Brunton Banktop Farm at Wall, are half a mile up the track, complete with a branch logger spewing little chunks of wood into orange, meshed bags.

The mesh would let the air circulate, drying out the wood in the process, said Vicki. “Biochar is like charcoal, but made in a clean way and made specifically to go into the soil – it’s a soil improver.”

It is also a form of carbon capture in that the char is mainly carbon. Indeed, the process of producing Biochar ‘fixes’ 50 per cent of the carbon the trees had previously absorbed as carbon dioxide and returns it to the earth.

“It’s helping to mitigate climate change as a result,” said Vicki.

Whatever the volunteers’ background experience, there is always something they can be doing on this project.

Prudhoe resident Christopher Langley, for example, helps keep the team fuelled with tea and biscuits, boiling the water in a kelly kettle as he talks. He’s been volunteering for a year now.

“I do go out and cut down trees as well,” he said, adding that it was the social side of the project that first drew him into the woods.

“There’s some good chats go on here – it’s always fun. You meet some interesting people, that’s for sure!”

Meanwhile, Peter Binns and his son Andrew, from West Wylam, are a case in point when it comes to demonstrating the acquisition of new skills. They have both been put through chainsaw training, Groundwork paying for Peter’s course and Prudhoe East Youth Centre paying for Andrew’s.

That is all part and parcel of the legacy the Land of Oak & Iron projects are designed to leave behind – a community of volunteers well able to carry on themselves once the four-year tranche of funding and the paid staff have gone.

Peter said: “As long as Andrew was putting something back into the community, the east centre was happy to pay for him.

“And that is why we are here. We used to like to walk through the woods, but it was very dark and dank, so when we heard they were going to open it up – make it brighter and put in footpaths and steps – we thought we’d come along.

“The work we are doing will be here to be enjoyed by my grandkids hopefully, and that gives you a sense of ownership.”

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