Volunteering: Chalk Grassland Management, Fontmell Down Reserve, Dorset

On Wednesday 18th January, a team of six volunteers from Vp braved the snow and winds in Dorset to help manage the rare chalk grasslands.

Attendees: John Turner (Regional Service Manger – Torrent Trackside), Sarah Burroughs (Depot Manager – Groundforce), Michelle Saunders (Hire Administrator – Groundforce), Robert Bolland (Driver/Technician – Groundforce), Robert Stephens (Fitter – Brandon Hire Station) and Gareth Fisher (Branch Manager – Brandon Hire Station).

John Turner, Regional Service Manager – Torrent Trackside, reports:

“At 9:30 the sky was quite clear, but by 9:50, the snow was coming down fast and the wind was bitter. All layered up, donning hats and gloves, we strolled to the hillside site of Fontmell Down overlooking Blackmore Vale. The snow didn’t last too long and before we knew it the snow and frost had melted away and the cloud cover was retreating behind the hills. After the H&S briefing and some background as to what lurks on and in the rich chalk grasslands, we all chose our weapon of destruction and cracked straight on with chopping down gorse and other scrubby vegetation.

In the background Emily and Ben were starting a small fire and within minutes the flames were 8ft high and the dry gorse was burning ferociously. The team were in full swing and moral was high, the layers didn’t last long as the sweat was starting to show. It was soon time for tea and biscuit and a well-deserved 10 minute breather, Ben pushed the boat out and impressed us with Tesco’s Finest range AND Foxes biscuits.

JT and GF then took control of the fire and started to build it up nicely with a few run away burning gorse we had to chase down the hillside including a water bottle and a bag at other times. RS, RB, MS and SB continued to tear down the gorse and scrub and an alarming rate and we kept feeding the fire.

Lunch was taken and out came the lunchboxes and flasks. The binoculars were doing the rounds and birds, butterflies and animal noises were the topics of conversation. We then continued in our roles until around 1435hrs when we burnt off the last pile of scrub and gorse, did a tool sweep and centralised our bags.

We cleared in the region of 75sq/m of gorse and other scrubby vegetation, it was a great day, hard work and very pleasing knowing our contribution had helped.”

Gareth Fisher, Branch Manager – Brandon Hire Station, shared, “I think I speak for everyone when I say we would happily put our names forward again.”

Sarah Burroughs, Depot Manager – Groundforce, added, “It was a real privilege to be included in the day, working with such a great team. There was a real buzz all the way home. I know I speak for Rob and Shelley also.”

Camille Douch, Fundraising and Development Officer at the Dorset Wildlife Trust, expressed her appreciation saying “A huge thanks to the team for volunteering their time to help Emily and Ben. The team were highly motivated and helped complete work that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Their hard work had a positive impact on our local environment.”

Why were the team managing gorse?

Like all things, balance is essential for long term prosperity. Gorse scrub establishes itself relatively easily on grassland. The dense prickly vegetation provides food and a home for small mammals and many birds such as the stonechat, linnet and yellowhammer. The dense vegetation can be crucial for some warblers too in winter and harsh weather. For insects, it is a valuable source of nectar in early spring and early winter, and is the only home for one type of rare moth.

However, commonly there is absence of grazers such as goats or bison (read about the latter’s reintroduction Vp supports here). Without persistent grazing, gorse can encroach on and take over grasslands. In the 20th Century, grassland declined in the UK by 97%, mostly due to inappropriate or an absence of management (which is why Vp supported a grassland project with Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust in 2021). Conversely, with proper management, these grasslands can thrive and support up to 45 plant species per square meter such as rare orchids in turn providing a home for 35 types of butterfly such as the Adonis Blue.

Burning gorse also helps regeneration and new growth as fire encourages its seed germination. Side note: gorse may also play a role in alternative plant protein in the future!

If you would like to learn more about the conservation value of these grasslands, you can read about it here.


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