Juliet Tries… extreme gardening with the National Trust

This is a travel & outdoors adventures blog… but I don’t seem to do a lot of outdoors adventures recently.

However, in January I spent a day volunteering with the National Trust, specifically with the volunteer rangers on Brownsea Island.

Now, Brownsea Island is a bit special. It’s local but it’s also where Scouting and therefore Guiding began, back in 1907. 1906? BP, otherwise Lord Robert Baden-Powell, held an experimental camp for boys here to test his scouting theories before forming the Scouts. The girls saw what fun it all was and started Girl Scouts before approaching BP at a Scout rally in 1909 and asking for “something for the girls”. He refused, eventually handed the job to his sister, Agnes, and then his wife, Olave, and mostly credits the existence of the Girl Guides to “they started themselves”.

The National Trust owns a big chunk of Brownsea Island. The Dorset Wildlife Trust owns another chunk, which is a nature reserve and entry is subject to a fee. Bearing in mind you already have to pay for the ferry and then separately for National Trust entry onto the island, I’ve never spent the extra money to roam this bit. Scouting and Girlguiding each have a certain amount of responsibility for Brownsea too, although I’m pretty sure it’s not any legal ownership or claim. For us local Guides, this takes the form of older Guides and Senior Section being offered a service day. For the older Guides, this counts towards the service element of their Baden-Powell Award, the highest award in Guides. For Senior Section, it can count towards their Community Action or Out of Doors Octants of the Look Wider scheme or the service part of just about any award available.

The service day always happens in winter when the island is closed to normal visitors. The rangers are there year-round – well, on and off. They don’t live there – but we join them once or twice a year.

So this year we got the boat over from Sandbanks at 9.30. It was cold and damp and breezy. Probably not the sort of day when you really want to sail over to an island and do some conservation work outside all day. And yet probably exactly the sort of day we needed. There were only ten or so Girlguiding volunteers with twenty-odd rangers and the boat we take is not the tourist ferry. It looks like the sort of boat you float in the bath and we were crammed in. No fear of falling over on rough waters, we were too tightly packed for that.

It only takes five minutes to cross over and then it’s a hike up to the warden’s cottage on the south side. Just up the path is South Shore Lodge, which is open for hire to Scouts, Guides, youth groups and assorted others, although not really to the general public, and then a bit further up is the commemorative Scout stone, the modern campsite and the historical campsite. We stopped at Rose Cottage. Because no one lives there, it had to be unlocked and the electricity and water switched on before everyone could have a cup of tea or coffee, which is essential to prepare for a day of hard work.

While we were at Rose Cottage, the rangers explained our job for the day. We were going up to the area of heathland in the middle of the solid part of Brownsea – a good part of the north coast is lagoon and wetland. Lowland heath is quite rare, although we have a lot of it in Dorset, and this particular patch was beginning to sprout pine trees. Now, pines are important and precious, especially as a source of food for red squirrels, which are a minority species in the UK. I’ve done pine conservation work on different parts of the island on previous service days but today we were doing heath conservation work. We had to remove all the young pine trees in order to prevent rare heathland from turning into yet another patch of woodland. This sort of work is definitely better done in winter because there are no tourists around. Tourists take exception to healthy young pine trees being removed. I take exception. I know it’s conservation, I know it’s for the good of the heath but I feel like a murderer with every one I take down.

We were given gardening gloves – well, we scoured a box for a matching pair that nearly fitted our hands – and tools consisted of loppers and bow saws. I’d offered this service day to all my Rangers and only one had taken me up – Pixie, who is a Ranger, a qualified Guide leader and a grown adult. Neither of us are much good at using the saws but we took one anyway and headed out onto the heath in search of trees to destroy.

Some of them are so small you can snip them down easily with the loppers. Some of them are small enough that with enough pig-headedness, you can take them down with the loppers. The rangers tell you that they’ll cut anything up to about twice as thick as your thumb. They’ll take down a good juvenile tree if you’re determined enough. Also, I can apply physics. Don’t bother squeezing with your hands. Your arms aren’t long enough. Put one side of the loppers against your leg or your hip and then you can haul at the other side with both hands. Pixie and I tried using the loppers together on bigger things but it just didn’t work.

Occasionally we had to resort to the saw. You’re not going to take down a ten-foot high young tree with loppers, no matter how determined and logical you are. But like I said, we’re bad with saws. To our credit, the rangers did say on the boat on the way home that the saws are not very good. We could saw through to about the depth of the saw’s blade, which is maybe half an inch. Then we just had to use it like a file and mostly we tried to chew our way halfway through the tree and then push or kick it down and sever the last bit of bark at the back with the loppers. Later in the day, as we worked further west and found bigger and bigger trees, we resorted to taking off the branches and leaving the trunks for the rangers, with their bigger and better saws and superior saw skills.

Taking the trees down is one thing. But then you’ve got to dispose of the remains which the rangers do with fire. Fire is a big deal on Brownsea. The entire island is a tinderbox of heathland and pine forest and the fire brigade and their specialist machinery is very much land-based, not harbour-based. Fires on Brownsea are dealt with mainly by ensuring they don’t get started in the first place. But the rangers know what they’re doing and if volunteers who don’t even know how to use a saw want to cringe at the sight of a roaring – literally roaring – fire underneath a pine tree on the edge of  forest, then they can. And testament to the rangers, the fires remained in control.

But before you can burn trees, you’ve got to get them off the heathland and over to the fire and I’m sure you can appreciate how heavy trees are. What you might not appreciate is how many trees these thirty-odd people cut down over a day. One of the rangers estimated on the boat home that although we’d had two absolutely roaring fires going all day, we had more left to burn than we’d already burned.

I’m quite good at dragging trees. As an enthusiastic caver as a student (and one who did not learn good climbing technique), I developed a surprising amount of upper body strength and I’ve discovered that I’ve still got quite a lot of it. Propping a ten-foot young tree on your shoulder, with one smallish branch hooked over it is like a carthorse pulling a wagon. I’ve then got a hand free for a smaller bit of tree and an entire arm free for a second tree. You have to take corner quite wide when you’re dragging a ten-foot tree. I hauled a lot of wood between the heath and the fire. One of the rangers caught me, was duly impressed by the tree over my shoulder and said “Someone should take your photo!” But no one was really carrying cameras, so that moment goes unrecorded.

Cutting and dragging trees is hot work. I’d gone in “camp uniform” – that is, my old Senior Section rugby shirt and an old-style Senior Section jacket I inherited that was obsolete before I even started. It’s so comfortable, it fits so nicely and it has huge pockets. It’s also supremely ugly but it’s so lovely and perfect for camp and Brownsea service days. The rugby shirt is great because it has long sleeves. I started in my waterproof jacket, county fleece and these two Senior Section layers and within two minutes, I was down to just two layer. I’m pretty sure I took off the Senior Section jacket at one point.

We all know that pine is a favourite fragrance of the air freshener and scents industry. We can probably all take a guess that pine-scented smells nothing like pine. I confirm that freshly cut pine smells amazing and also nothing like the air fresheners. In fact, now I know I took off my jacket at one point because I vividly remember putting it back on and smelling the pine balsam it was soaked in. Unfortunately, by the end of the day it smelled less of pine and more of unaccustomed hard work so it’s had to be washed.

Of course, you get sweaty and then you stop for lunch on a bench outside Rose Cottage and then you discover that you’re sweaty and damp and it’s January and the cold sets in very quickly. I piled the layers back on and huddled up and wished I’d brought the emergency shelter I had for Christmas and the only way to really warm up again is to finish eating and get back to the trees.

The rangers were very pleased with the work done. Quote the one who seemed to be in charge “Our job today was to get rid of the pine trees and can you see any pine trees?” Yes, there were still plenty left at the west end because they were too big and we ran out of time but we did a good job of clearing them.

On Sunday I spent most of the day in bed. That’s partly because it had been a busy week and a bit without enough sleep and partly because spending a day tearing down trees is hard work. On the other hand, I wrote three blogs and rediscovered my caving biceps, which is nice. There’s muscle there and it got a good workout. If I could go and do that semi-regularly, there’d be no need to ever even think about gyms.

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