On a beautiful January morning, we met in the extremely cold shadow of Linky Down, Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve. With numbers bolstered by the Sonning Common Green Gym and other local enthusiasts we amassed a group of around 20 individuals who were keen to get stuck in.
Our challenge: to refresh the 428m of fencing surrounding the Lena Ward plots that keep deer, rabbits and marauding humans out!
We started the morning with a short talk from Dr Tim King, explaining the history and science of the Lena Ward plots. Established in 1969 by (now) retired English Nature scientist Lena Ward, the plots investigate how the treatment of the chalk grassland prior to vegetation development affects the subsequent development of scrub. The more species-rich the scrub, the better.
Tim highlighted the sheer level of dedication undertaken by Lena Ward when cataloguing every tree and seedling that subsequently developed on the rotavated, burnt or untreated chalk grassland plots. Indeed as Tim put it, this dedication went as far as cataloguing all the seed that could be identified in the bird poo collected from the fence posts!
Tim himself has now taken the mantle and recently re-catalogued every tree within the plots, recording its species, diameter at breast height and position. Now we know the birth year of 80% of the trees and shrubs in the plots! It was Tim who applied to the Ecological Continuity Trust (ECT) for funds to undertake the upgrade works, as the ECT provides grants to secure long-term field experiments such as this one.
We then set-to the task, clearing the brambles projecting through the fences and chopping and sawing at escaped branches and out growth to a height of 1.3 m. Once cleared, rabbit-proof fencing was attached to the old fence and new chestnut paling was dug into the ground.
After a very active morning, wielding a heavy pair of loppers, I was thrilled to discover that a tea break is a familiar part of the routine. Sonning Common Green Gym even provided homemade cake!
Following a brief break we returned to the job. Whilst we were making fantastic headway it soon became clear that many more hours were needed than daylight afforded to complete the task! There have subsequently been many more trips to the plots, with the project finally completed in July.
It was fantastic being out in the fresh air, scurrying up and down a 20 degree hill removing all the cleared vegetation. It was also great, if not a little disconcerting to see participants twice my age undertaking the same task, but with more exuberance! Clear evidence that working a desk-based 9-5 isn’t best for one’s fitness levels…
At the end of a hard day’s physical labour, it was gratifying to know that our collective efforts alongside funding provided by the Ecological Continuity Trust had secured this long-term field experiment for another 25 years. It is even better to know that these plots continue to reveal the insights of scrub development, being one of only six of the sites in the UK investigating continuous vegetation development in detail over more than 25 years.
A special thanks goes to the Chilterns Conservation Board and Natural England for helping to fund the project and all the wiling volunteers including Sonning Common Green Gym and Oxford Conservation Volunteers. A nod also to Mick Venters of Natural England and Dr Tim King for their dedication to the plots and ensuring their preservation for another 25 years!
Do you know of a field experiment that needs some love? Find out if it is eligible for one of our grants here….