Battling the birch

John Beech – Land Management Adviser

Species rich grasslands are one of the key habitats that we’re working to conserve and enhance across the North York Moors.

Grasslands that are high in biodiversity interest are one of this area’s rarest habitats. A lot of these sites are now isolated, so once a site can be brought up to a good condition we’re looking for opportunities to buffer and expand the site and how best to link it up to other grassland sites in order to enable a re-propagating more sustainable future.

Grasslands have been compared with tropical rainforest in terms of the numbers of species and the importance of habitat to biodiversity. But over 90% of the traditional hay meadows (one type of species rich grassland) in the UK have gone under the plough or been ‘improved’ with inputs since the 1940s. Their importance to wildlife such as pollinators which mean the habitat is an ecosystem in itself is now being grasped and our initiative is only one among many being progressed across the UK.

As part of our ongoing habitat connectivity programme, National Park staff and volunteers are currently concentrating efforts in the south west corner of the North York Moors which has a particularly rich reserve of fragmented species rich grasslands peppering the area. Ensuring these sites are well managed, properly resourced and cared for into the future is a major part of our work in the Land Management Team.

Contact was initially made with landowners in the area and then followed up with an assessment of each grassland and proposals suggested to enhance the condition of the particular meadow or rough grassland habitat sites. One of the recurring issues arising from a lack of management is encroachment by scrub and bracken which can be detrimental.

This is an example of a site near Oldstead which recently required a task force and so National Park Volunteers were called in, organised and supervised by the National Park’s Volunteer Services Team. The task was taking out some of the birch scrub that was taking over and out competing the wet grassland/heathland habitat on the site. Rather than suddenly removing the scrub, the birch stems were cut and piled into concentrated habitat heaps to provide some shelter for wildlife over the winter before slowly rotting away. During that time the long lengths of timber providing wet, damp conditions just under the bark of the cut trees is ideal for invertebrates, so provides a food source for other wildlife inhabitants of the wet grassland/heathland site.

NYMNP Volunteer Task clearing scrub - copyright NYMNPA

NYMNP Volunteer Task clearing scrub - copyright NYMNPAAlthough this type of volunteering can look and sound like hard work, it can also be great fun to take part. At the end of the day you can see the results of your labour and you know it’s good for your natural environment as well as being good for you – you’ve had plenty of fresh air and it can actually improve your health!

Linking Landscapes latest

Alex Cripps – Conservation Graduate Trainee

We’re always looking to make our grant budgets go as far as possible, and for our Linking Landscapes habitat connectivity programme this involves using a mix of delivery mechanisms to undertake the necessary habitat management on the ground. So working alongside land managers that means making use of local contractors, apprentice teams, and volunteers.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAVolunteers from the Rosedale community were hard at work at the end of August with the annual management of the Rosedale churchyard mini-meadow. The conservation site in the churchyard of St Mary and St Laurence in Rosedale Abbey was initially established in 2011. Since then it has developed into a wonderful mini-meadow, with beautiful pockets of wild flowers buzzing with pollinator insects such as bees, butterflies and moths, which in turn support many birds. The site is also providing a home for small mammals and slow worms.

Once a year the mini-meadow needs a helping hand – after the flowers have all died back and set their seed, the excess vegetation needs to be cut and raked off the site to ensure unnecessary nutrients do not build-up. It may seem strange not to want a build-up of nutrients however wild flowers favour poor nutrient-rich soils. Additional local seeds from established meadows nearby were also scattered at the end of the day to encourage even more flowers such yellow rattle, red clover, stitchwort and knapweed to establish and grow.

Keep up-to-date with Rosedale news and events – such as next year’s volunteer day – on their community blog.

Hand cutting - Rosedale Churchyard conservation areaSANYO DIGITAL CAMERABird's Foot Trefoil

Near Oldstead, National Park volunteer teams have been getting stuck in to revitalising an important habitat mosaic area. The Conservation Volunteers spent a whole day pulling up Himalayan balsam (non-native invasive plant species) which was covering a small wooded site and stifling the ground flora. As usual, continued balsam bashing will be required over the next few years in order to have a lasting impact, but it was a good start. The MAD volunteers – MAD means Making a Difference – then braved a thundery wet day
to pull creeping thistle (invasive plant species) from a nearby pasture field. This field contains a diverse mix of habitats comprising calcareous, neutral and acidic grassland;
mire communities and rush pasture; and areas of woody blackthorn scrub and hazel MADs volunteers with giant thistle!coppice. The site is grazed by Exmoor ponies who are great at conservation grazing but they needed a helping hand to deal with these particular thistles which are detrimental to this particular site. This sort of management which needs repeat commitment is picked up in Land Management Agreements between the National Park Authority and the land manager. The Agreements last five years – it’s an EU/NPA State Aid notification requirement (click here if you’re especially interested) – and five years of repeat annual control of invasives and pernicious weeds will make an impact on the ground and enable better quality habitats to survive and flourish.

MAD Volunteers - thistle pulling MAD Volunteers - thistle pulling The MAD Volunteers

We have a Land Management Agreement with the land manager of a site near to Scawton. This particular farm includes a wild flower area where the species include orchids. Often on a farm such sites would be grazed by stock and this would keep the vegetation in check and open up the dense matt of vegetation by the act of trampling. However in this case the area isn’t suitable for grazing because the Cleveland Way National Trail runs through it. So to avoid the site vegetation becoming tall and rank our Conservation Volunteers strimmed back the dead vegetation after all the flowers had set seed and then raked off the debris. This was the first year this task was carried out so it will be really interesting to see how the site responds over the next few years. The site was one of those surveyed earlier in the year by our new Grassland Volunteers in order to establish a baseline species list. This monitoring will be carried out each year, along with the management, and will hopefully demonstrate an increase in abundance of the existing species, and maybe one or two new species as well.

Conservation Volunteers  at workConservation Volunteer - strimmingConservation Volunteer raking off the cut vegetation

 

 

Conservation VolunteerCommon spotted orchidsExmoor ponies can be very effective conservation gaziers

 

 

 

Betony & Common Spotted Orchid  Common Spotted OrchidSelf-Heal & Yellow Rattle

 

 

Ami Walker – Lead Land Management Adviser

The first year of the ‘Linking Landscapes – Grassland Volunteers’ worked really well. Each of the initial Volunteers adopted sites where they will carry out an annual botanical survey. In all –

  • 9 volunteers surveyed 14 sites, a total of 35 hectares of grassland.
  • 140 quadrats were surveyed and 159 different plant species were recorded.

One of the measures for determining if grassland is actually species rich is that it must have at least 15 different species per 1m2 quadrat. 7 of these sites already have these characteristics, and 1 site had 25 species recorded in just one quadrat. Our ultimate aim is to see an increase in the number of plant species at each site, year on year. The results from the Volunteers are essential to identify if this is happening.

Linking Landscapes - Grassland Volunteers, practice surveying at Sutton Bank in the summer

As usual, a big thank you to all our volunteers!

Battle of Byland: have a look at this…

Following on from our last post – if you’ve got access to Google Chrome or something similar, you can click on the image below to see a really interesting model from the Roulston Scar investigations (2013) constructed by Professor Powlesland of the Landscape Research Centre.

Capture

Battle of Byland: building up the evidence

Graham Lee – Senior Archaeological Conservation Officer

Sutton Bank areaThis story of mounting evidence starts in 1996 when a survey was commissioned of the east end of a boundary earthwork known as the Casten Dyke North, to the east of the Hambleton Inn at the top of Sutton Bank. Long thought to be prehistoric, probably Iron Age, in date, the Casten Dyke North runs from the escarpment edge above Sutton Bank (north east) into the head of Flassen Gill, a classic cross-ridge type boundary well known for dividing up areas of prehistoric landscape.

The survey results show that the line of the dyke at the eastern end appears to be marked by two shallow ditches and a relatively gentle north-facing break of slope, cut by numerous later hollow-ways. However, running into the steep sides of Flassen Gill itself, is recorded a much more prominent ditch c.4m wide and about 1m deep, flanked by a pair of banks. This latter earthwork boundary, some 100m in length, appears too sharply defined to be prehistoric in origin – it seems much more likely to be historic in date. Defensively, if defence was its purpose, this eastern end of the dyke appears to be facing north, but why had it been added to the line of the earlier boundary?

It was subsequently recorded that the ditch of the main section of the Casten Dyke North (between the escarpment edge and the Hambleton Inn) is also noticeably steep-sided (c.3.5m wide and c.1m deep – with a bank to the north c.6m wide and 1m high – and with a shallow counter-scarp bank to the south). This suggests it was recut in the historic period. The position of the banks and ditch suggest that this south-western half of the dyke faces south.

This raises the question of what could be the reason for adding to or reinforcing this (presumed) prehistoric boundary during the historic period?

The main historic event recorded in this vicinity is the Battle of Byland between the English and Scottish forces on 14 October 1322. Local historian, John McDonnell summarised that Edward II‘s English forces, pursued by the Scottish army, took up a defensive position ‘on a nearby hilltop’, awaiting reinforcements while King Edward rested at the closeby Byland or Rievaulx Abbey. This English force was then routed when the Scots found a way onto the escarpment behind the English, the suggested route still being known today as Scotch Corner.

Could the opposing armies have used existing but presumably modified prehistoric defences to secure their positions, before the English force was eventually routed by a surprise Scottish attack from the rear from the area of Oldstead Bank/Scotch Corner?

The next piece of the puzzle was defined in 2001 by an English Heritage survey of Roulston Scar hillfort, which included part of the Casten Dyke South. This latter earthwork boundary runs from Boar’s Gill in the west to Hell Hole in the east, defining the northern side of a steep-sided promontory of land, c. 28ha in area and with a perimeter of over 2km. The boundary is a flat-topped bank up to 0.9m high with a steep-sided ditch to the north, c.6m wide and up to 1.1m deep. Long thought to be prehistoric in origin, the survey of the adjacent Roulston Scar hillfort recorded the form of the Casten Dyke South as relatively crisp in appearance, suggestive of an origin of historic date, and very similar to the Casten Dyke North – but in this case facing to the north.

Then, in autumn 2013 there was a small-scale research excavation of the defences of 2013 Roulston Scar hillfort excavations
Roulston Scar hillfort. The excavation was looking for environmental and other dating evidence to help identify a putative relationship with the small nearby promontory fort at Boltby Scar, 4km to the north, where excavations had taken place between 2009 and 2012. The trench across the defences of the Roulston Scar hillfort, carried out by the Landscape Research Centre, indicated that the latest phase of activity represented was a linear trench cut into and along the back of the Iron Age (prehistoric) rampart with associated postholes, probably representing some form of palisade.

Unfortunately, no dating evidence was secured from the trench or postholes but the position of the trench cut (high up at the back of the rampart), the sharpness of remains, and the increased organic nature of the fills, again suggest a short period of use and an historic rather than prehistoric date.

2013 Roulston Scar hillfort excavations2013 Roulston Scar hillfort excavations2013 Roulston Scar hillfort excavations

Further work is clearly required to attempt to secure additional dating evidence from all the potential parts of this battlefield landscape but, at present, we have:

  • the northern rampart of Roulston Scar hillfort, reinforced with a sizeable palisade;
  • the Casten Dyke South, perhaps specifically constructed for this encounter;,
  • both these features with their defensive faces to the north, protecting two promontories of land respectively 24 and 28 hectares in extent;
  • and facing south across a gap of between 880 to 1300 metres we have the Casten Dyke North.

Annotated version of map from English Heritage Archaeological Investigations Report AI/11/2001 An Iron Age promontory fort at Roulston Scar, North Yorkshire by Alastair Oswald & Trevor Pearson

Are these the respective positions of the English and Scottish armies in October 1322, before a part of the Scottish army managed to outflank and rout the English forces?

Only further research will be able to tell.

A corner of the National Park

Gallery

This gallery contains 33 photos.

As part of the roll out of our new Connectivity Programme, the team spent a very hot day practising on one particular target area and working through the process together to share ideas and learn lessons. The target area (polygon … Continue reading