Sowing the seeds of success; my second day volunteering at Eycott Hill

Area for heath restoration work at Eycott Hill © Ben Wolstencroft

If you haven’t read my last blog post, you won’t know how wild and wintry the weather was at Eycott Hill last time, when I had the chance to try my hand at dry stone walling. What a difference a week makes!

When I arrived, the snow that had blanketed the ground had disappeared and thankfully, the skin-biting, face-numbing wind of last week had gone.

There was a good turnout of volunteers again. I found I wasn’t the oldest, nor the youngest, and both men and women came out to work side by side.

We all gathered together and Stephen, the Reserve Manager, told us that the day’s task was to involve plug planting heather, bilberry and crowberry plants, and sowing a mixture of old and young heather seeds.

Volunteer with heath plug plants at Eycott Hill © Ben Wolstencroft

Volunteer with heath plug plants at Eycott Hill © Ben Wolstencroft

Once we’d emptied the van of tools, plants and seeds, we started to make our way to the far side of Eycott Hill. If you haven’t been before, it’s a lovely reserve for a stroll and it plays host to a wonderful array of ground nesting birds in the warmer months. A waymarked route takes you up to the summit of Eycott Hill, which affords spectacular views.

The reserve is pretty big too at 216 hectares, and we were working over on the far side, past the summit. The further we walked, the more it became apparent that wearing full thermals and multiple layers of clothing on what was now a balmy, spring-like day was a mistake.

When we finally arrived, I peeled off my now sopping outer layers (sorry for the visuals) and picked up a trowel, a tool I’d get to know very well over the course of the day.

Stephen explained how they had tried to establish large numbers of plants in the same area a year previously, however they hadn’t taken very well. Our job was to beef up their chance of success, by spacing out hundreds of plug plants across a large section of hillside that had recently been mechanically scraped of its top surface.

After grabbing a handful of plants each, we all spread out and got to work. I started with some very healthy looking bilberry plants, setting off to find patches of earth that looked suitable to receive them. I found the ground quality varied hugely, even over a small area. Some patches were too wet and boggy, some contained thick clay, and others were riddled with stones. 

Every so often though, I’d dig my trowel in and up would come rich, brown soil, along with the odd earthworm. Perfect conditions to ensure the best possible survival chances for the young plants that will hopefully grow to help the reserve thrive

Lunch with a view at Eycott Hill © Ben Wolstencroft

Lunch with a view at Eycott Hill © Ben Wolstencroft

After digging and planting for a couple of hours, lunchtime was called and we all downed tools and dug out our food and brews. The diversity of people enabled some wonderful conversations to take place, in between mouthfuls of food and slurps of tea and coffee.

I’ve learnt over the past two weeks that volunteering with Cumbria Wildlife Trust isn’t all hard work, although luckily it does feature highly. I say luckily because it stopped me from freezing last week and it’s allowed me to find muscles I never knew I had!

After the post-lunch biscuits were shared out and our energy levels were replenished, we got back to work, this time spreading heather seed over all the bare patches of earth that surrounded us.

We worked in pairs, firstly scouring a patch of ground with our trowels, then taking handfuls of seeds and sprinkling them around, before finally bedding them in using our feet. The bottom of my wellies proved perfect for the task, and I had so much fun, stomping and squishing my way around the place.

The enthusiasm of the volunteers meant that we covered a vast area with surprising speed. We had two types of heather seed, of which one was older than the other. We sowed one type per strip of ground for the main part, then one of mixed seed. The GPS location of each seed type was recorded, which should enable their success rates to be compared at a later date.

Before I knew it, the fun was all over. We were out of seed and out of plug plants but all still full of energy, which was good as we still had to pack up and walk back across the reserve.

As we left, I took a minute to soak in the scenery that surrounded me. The low winter sun was setting, its bright pink and orange hues illuminating the banks of hazy clouds that stretched off into the distance. The expanse of green rolling hills were punctuated with patches of dense evergreen forest, set against a backdrop of the northern mountain range of the Lake District.

You know what, this volunteering lark is turning out to be a lot more enjoyable than I’d ever envisioned it would be.

I can’t wait to see what I get up to next week!

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.