Clear skies, wall repairs and fencing restorations; volunteering at Eycott Hill

Volunteering top wiring at Eycott Hill © Ben Wolstencroft

The 26th January was a beautiful day at Eycott Hill. The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I was surrounded by a whole bunch of friendly, motivated people, all keen to get stuck into the day’s tasks.

We were split up into a few small teams before being assigned a job to do. The two main things that needed doing were dry stone walling and top wiring.

Now if you’ve read my previous blogs, you’ll know that I tried my hand at dry stone walling a couple of weeks ago when the reserve was blanketed in snow. Because of this, I was thrilled when another volunteer and I were asked to do top wiring instead, as I love having some variation of tasks each week.

Now if you’re like me and not from a farming background, you may well be wondering what on Earth top wiring involves. Thankfully, Stephen the Reserve Manager explained it to me step by step. Basically, top wiring is wire fencing that sits atop low walls, such as the dry stone walls we had been rebuilding, in order to stop livestock from jumping over the wall. It comes in big rolls which are lightweight but a bit fiddly to roll out, and it’s a job best done in pairs. 

Fellow volunteer Claire and I got to work, untangling and rolling out top wiring along the length of a section of dry stone wall. It stretched for quite a distance, requiring three rolls of wiring to be firstly unravelled, and then joined together.

Joining them requires dexterity, hand strength and thick gloves, as the heavy-gauge wiring used is lethal, at least it is for office-types like myself whose soft hands aren’t used to manual labour!

Thankfully gloves, eye protection and a host of tools were supplied, which made the task easier and ensured we didn’t injure ourselves. I found the task quite rewarding, wrapping a piece of wire from one section around the adjoining section, before twisting it over again and again in order to join it securely.

We were interrupted at one point by a member of the dry stone walling team, who brought a hibernating newt over that had been found deep inside the wall. It didn’t seem disturbed by being temporarily relocated into a warm hand, and after speaking with Stephen, it was decided that the newt should be built back into the wall, very carefully.

After that exciting interlude, we got back on with joining all three sections of top wiring together. Once we’d finished, we went to join Stephen who was attempting to tension another section that had been joined together in the last work party. He was deep in thought, wrestling with a strange, complicated looking tool called a monkey strainer. It’s called this because it has ‘arms’ that grab onto a section of chain, moving along it one link at a time as the tool is ratcheted back and forth, like a monkey climbing a tree branch by branch. By attaching a piece of wiring to another opening in the tool, it enables the user to apply tension to the wiring, stretching it out straight. At least, that’s the aim anyway.

So, how many people do you think it took to complete the task? Two? Three?

Stephen Owen and volunteers top wiring at Eycott Hill © Ben Wolstencroft

Stephen Owen and volunteers top wiring at Eycott Hill © Ben Wolstencroft

How about four volunteers and Stephen!

It was a good team effort though, and after the fencing was sufficiently tensioned and safely pinned to the nearest fence post, we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Now although there’s five pieces of wire running along a section of fencing, only the top and bottom pieces are strong enough to handle being tensioned. So after doing the bottom piece, we swapped to the top one, but unfortunately it must have had a weak spot in it, as it snapped after a couple of movements of the monkey strainer. It didn’t ping out with any force, but I was still thankful that I was wearing eye protection!

After breaking the fence, we decided to break for lunch too as the time was getting on and the wind had picked up somewhat, although all around me the hills were still bathed in gorgeous sunshine.

We all huddled behind a wall, and I found a moss-covered tree branch to sit on, which was extremely comfortable. The biscuits and brews were broken out and the chatting and joking ensued, lasting for a fair old while.

That’s one of the things I love about volunteering with the Trust. The sheer diversity of people who come down make for such fabulous, interesting conversation, and the work allows for chatting whilst you’re getting stuck in, so it’s a win-win really.

After lunch, I joined a group of people moving fence posts from one location to another part of the reserve, crossing a small beck and encountering a whole herd of friendly cows en-route. I’m not ashamed to say that the cows did slow down the rate of our work a tad, as we stopped to speak to them and take the odd photograph with them. 

Once we’d got ‘moo’-ving again, we managed to get a fair number of posts shifted, trudging happily back and forth across the wide-open fields, surrounded by mountains and patches of woodland as far as the eye could see.

Our surroundings were peaceful and calm however carrying the posts was heavy work. As 3pm approached and it became time to call it a day, a part of me was glad, namely my arms, which were beginning to tire.

After clearing up and loading the van back up, I headed home, feeling glad to have been able to give a little back to nature and society, whilst gaining a little joy at being around so many inspirational people and wonderful landscapes.

The splendid chocolate chip biscuits and coffee were just the icing on the cake!

Ben Wolstencroft
Wildlife Media student, University of Cumbria

National Lottery Heritage Fund

Work at Eycott Hill Nature Reserve is possible thanks to National Lottery Players, and support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.