Of all the conservation tasks undertaken by the volunteers , working on the chalk hills to remove scrub and gather grass cuttings appears to be the most popular – probably because there is a bonfire involved!
There is now a new weapon available in the armoury to fight invasive hawthorn scrub, and provide justifiable satisfaction to volunteers – the Tree Popper.
No vegetation is more maligned than scrub, and it is often underrated as a bird habitat. Scrub clearance might encourage the appearance of butterflies and wild flowers but it is detrimental to some birds, so a balance needs to be struck. The essential features of scrub are that it is composed of woody shrubs or small trees, and that it is a transitional stage between the open land and woodland. Only rarely in our region does scrub form a relatively stable vegetation – the mature thickets around the Beacon fall into this category.
On the open hillside, leaving the stump and roots of the hawthorn to regrow after cutting is not a good result – the stumps and roots are a nagging nuisance and need to be removed. Enter the tree or root popper which is big business in the USA but relatively new to the UK. Clamp and engage the stump with the metal hand-held popper and lever it out roots & all – job done. Some say it is very addictive – once you pop you can’t stop!
This is also good news for grazing cattle which suffer damaged feet when stepping on stumps – the tenant farmer regularly called out the vet to tend to torn trotters. Now this is where the irony comes in – there are now no cattle on the hills. Despite being immensely popular and photogenic, this visitor attraction has been banished from the hills following concerns by the PC brigade about possible public safety. The rural scene has been diminished by their removal after years of quiet grazing on the rough grasses in areas unsuited for machine cutting. Their footprints would break up the sward which allowed the delicate wild flowers to take hold. The original Belted Galloways were lost to TB some two years ago – they were very docile – to be replaced by young Lincoln Reds which turned out to be timid and easily frightened. Will the cattle ever return? – it’s very unlikely.
Popping should now make work on the hills even more rewarding for the volunteers.