Monday, October 18, 2021

Southmoor RDA, Saturday 16th October 2021

This week's blog post was written by volunteer Eleanor Dangerfield. 

This Saturday our session was at the Riding for the Disabled stables at Southmoor. Our previous work party here was in the Summer, when our task had been to clear a ditch between two fields. Now, we needed to continue the clearing so the water would be able to drain away.     

Ten of us set off for the ditch, which now had a small amount of water at the bottom. We were also joined by a few volunteers from the centre. Some jumped into the ditch and set to work clearing the nettles, brambles and other vegetation with slashers and scythes while the others raked it into piles along the side, to be collected and taken away by the trailer. It was amazing how much piled up. The trailer would be kept busy long after we had gone.

There was a treat in store for our break as a car driven by an RDA volunteer arrived with a table, a hot water urn, coffee, tea, soft drinks and home made cakes. We were also delighted to have a visit from Green Gymmer Janet, who is also an RDA volunteer.

Then it was back to work, but we had time to admire some beautiful horses and ponies. By 12.30 nearly all the ditch had been cleared and we could see that the water was draining away. It had certainly been a worthwhile morning, doing a useful task for this charity, which gives enjoyment and confidence to so many young, disabled people.

Adrian's mushroom haul (photo by Adrian)

A ditch full of volunteers (photo by Michele)

Ditch-dwellers (photo by Michele)

Treats galore (photo by Michele)

Ditchlings (photo by Adrian) 

Cosy pony (photo by Michele)

Look at those whiskers! (photo by Michele)

From dry beginnings...(photo by Adrian)

To free flowing water! (photo by Adrian)

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Dry Sandford Pit, Saturday 9th of October 2021

This week, the Abingdon Green Gym Team were at one of the most beautiful sites that we frequent: Dry Sandford Pit. Unlike last week, this Saturday's session was blessedly dry, but it still definitely felt autumnal as we all met in the small carpark shrouded in mist. This keen blogger had walked to the meeting across several other nature reserves to get here (see the spooky photos below), which are now showing the beginnings of their autumn colours of brown, yellow, orange, and red. 

Eleanor D. was today's session leader, and she gave us a quick briefing about the day's tasks. The first was to clear the track into the site of overgrowth so that a trailer could navigate down it to take the cattle away. 'Cattle?' I hear you cry, 'what do cattle have to do with a nature reserve?' Well, my dear readers, quite a lot. In the summer, Dry Sandford Pit is home to some little Dexter cattle. 'Little' is not a pejorative here, Dexters are the smallest European cattle breed. As a helpful sign on the site explains, cattle pull up their food with their long tongues, rather than snuffling it up like pigs, or tightly grazing it like sheep. By doing this they help keep down rampant reeds and scrub (which are plentiful), and allow space for a greater diversity of plants to flourish, which in turn help promote a greater diversity of insect and mammal species. While the cattle do an excellent job in the summer, they get taken back to their winter homes in the autumn, a job well done. I did try to get some pictures of them, but they were clearly too cosy in their reed beds. 

Adrian and James then set off to accomplish this task, with Adrian sawing down branches and James cutting them up in to smaller bunches so they could be securely stacked either side of the track. Jim also set off, scythe in hand, to see if any overgrown grass needed a visit from the Happy Reaper (as opposed to the grim one). 

The rest of the team embarked on the mammoth task of cutting back and uprooting sycamore saplings which had taken root, removing dying buddleia, and halting the growth of overreaching brambles. This was tricky work as sycamore saplings tend to shoot up in every which way, and the bramble tendrils seemed endless. Cuttings were then piled up in discreet nature piles, which keeps the Pit looking smart whilst giving critters a place to comfortably hibernate in. 

Eleanor D. then took me to an old tree (referred to affectionately as 'the creepy tree') which was hosting a range of mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. I'm afraid my mushroom knowledge takes me no further than knowing my birch polypore from my parasol, so any suggestions for identification are welcome in the comments (pictures below!) 

At breaktime I offered up a plum and almond cake, which was made using plums from Rosie's garden that she kindly shared a couple of weekends back. Discussion, as ever, was wide ranging, and included a consideration of 'should we keep calling renowned artists Old Masters?' and 'why do we never hear of female Old Masters?' Never underestimate the intellectual scope of a Green Gym session.  

After break, this Green Gymmer was feeling a bit worse for wear and headed back home, but not without securing two bottles or apple juice made by Oxford Carbon Cutters (which Eleanor D. and Graham are a part of) using apples from the community and recycled glass bottles. I can safely say it is some of the best apple juice I have ever had! Sally has very kindly sent across some more photos of the day's session, which show the cutting-back continued, and that by the end of the day's work the blue sky was set. 

The foggy walk in from Hitchcopse Pit

A foggy fortress

James posing

Adrian consumed by hedge

The team hard at work (think of all those aching backs!)

Roger dragging off a fresh sycamore kill

Mystery mushroom #1

Mystery mushroom #2

Breaktime means cake time 

Oxford Carbon Cutters apple juice. Critics rate it 10/10!

A bonus toad I saw on the walk home

Balletic sycamore disposal (photo courtesy of Sally)

The fog clears to blue skies!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Boundary House Fen, Saturday 2nd October 2021

It was a very rainy Saturday for our Green Gymmers this week as we set off for Boundary House Fen, but the weather (and indeed the fen itself) was no match for our wellies, raincoats, and waterproof trousers! After the team had assembled we were given a quick briefing by the day's noble leader, Sally, and the capable Rod D'Ayla, guardian of this patch of fen. Rod explained that he had been doing some reed cutting and was starting to dig some new ditches to divert the water where it is most needed - a task which has no end. Our job, then, was to rake up the cut reeds and transport them to where they were needed to plug some deeper sections of water. Two able scythers, Jim and Adrian, were also on hand to continue the reed cutting efforts. 

While it was very wet, everyone did an excellent job of pulling together rake, bag, and drag the reeds into the right place. We were also joined by Judy Webb, who was collecting fungi samples for an event at Harcourt Arboretum. Even though it has been too dry and hot for many mushrooms and toadstools to really get going yet, Judy's eagle-eye quickly spotted them and she ended up with a lovely basketful of fungi to show-and-tell. 

 At break time, Eleanor and Graham told us all about the apple juice they had been making from donated apples from the local community and recycled bottled. Demand for these was high, so they're going to come back next week armed with bottles to sell us. Judy and Sally had also brought along some plantlings which some of the Green Gym team had offered to grow on. These were from two plants - cotton grass and maiden pink - both of which are extremely rare, and which need replanting to various sites across Oxfordshire. 

 After break it was back to work and it was, if anything, even wetter than when we started. Judy also began pulling up some of the dead biennial marsh lousewort. This plant is an excellent 'ecosystem engineer': it is a parasitic plant which latches on to sedges and rushes and stunts their growth, allowing for other species to establish and grow and, in Judy's words, 'control the ecological balance in meadow plant communities' (you can read all about this in a piece by Judy here: These cut marsh lousewort were being stored in a drag bag and then would be spread out when their seeds could germinate, as Judy had found that they didn't have much luck when left to their own devices at this time of year. 

 At the end of the day we all gathered underneath a big tree to check we hadn't left any equipment to the sucking influence of the fen, and to bid one another goodbye. Hot drinks, a bath, and a big lunch for each of us, I think.

Boundary House Fen, with freshly cut reeds

Team briefing

Filling drag bags whilst supporting a variety of wet weather gear

Weather fit for snails

Team work across the fen

Girls just wanna have f...ull drag bags of reeds

A knotgrass moth caterpillar?


Judy's fungi haul!

A particularly fine specimen

Scything masters at work
This photo does not show you Adrian's rescue of me as I got stuck in the mud

Marsh lousewort

The final push

Important discussions

The finished (for now) product

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Southern Town Park, Saturday 25th September

 This Saturday we returned to Southern Town Park in Abingdon for some litter picking, bramble cutting, and (most excitingly) maintenance of our wildflower patch. It was a busy day on Lambrick Way (our meeting place for the day's session) as there were seemingly hundreds of football games going on at once on the playing fields, but it was lovely to see so many people enjoying the outside and being active. We had a quick briefing from our commander-in-chief, Kevin, before heading down around the playing fields to find a suitable place to set up camp and begin the day's activities. 

Most of the team headed off to the wildflower patch to get going with nettle pulling and redistributing the now dry seedpods from the wildflowers. Whilst nettles do indeed provide a vital habitat for many creatures, there are plenty of them in this area, so we try to make sure that our variety of pollinators are not crowded out. Whilst the flowers were all over for this year, there were plenty of seeds to be spread and dead vegetation to be cleared and raked up in to nature piles, which we left around the perimeter of the wildflower area. Whilst we did not have the names of the plants to hand, Olivia used a handy app called 'Picture This' to identify them and ensure that we were not uprooting anything that we shouldn't have been. Through a little detective work (i.e. reading through previous blog posts and googling the seed packet) I can confirm that we have helped develop a patch consisting of betony, common knapweed, corn marigold, corn poppy, corn cockle, corn flower, cowslip, musk mallow, ox-eye daisy, red campion, self-heal, and yarrow (Olivia's app hit almost all of these, so well worth a look!)

Surprisingly (and excitingly) this wildflower patch has proved a favourite spot for amphibians, which were everywhere - and I mean everywhere! We spotted many common frogs and common toads (the former hops and has smoother skin, whilst the latter walks and is more warty), and even what we think was some kind of newt, who was a orangey-brown colour and very small. The volunteers were careful to either shepherd or very gently pick up the frogs and toads, and place them in the nature piles we established on the perimeter. They were all shapes and sizes, ranging from large adult frogs about the size of a hand-palm, to tiny specimens barely larger than a thumb-pad. Through some very unscientific research (scrolling back through these blogs) it looks like this wildflower patch might be directly encouraging these little dragons, as it offers them with the kind of shady undergrowth to keep them nice and moist, as well as providing them a ready supply of invertebrates. Eleanor B (hello!) will now register these amphibians to Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust ( so that this data can be referred to for conservation purposes. 

Upon returning for breaktime, we found that the litter picking team had managed to find a great array of bottles and packets along the pathways, although thankfully not as many as previous trips had yielded. The loppers had also done a good job of clearing the pathways of some over-reaching brambles, which we placed back over fences so that they could continue to be used by birds and small mammals as cover. As we had been so diligently productive, it was mutually decided that we would simply have a good catch-up for the rest of the session, and we all had a lovely hour sitting, chatting, and sampling a pumpkin spice cake which Eleanor B had made. Friendship is, of course, a vital part of what we do - whether that is between volunteers, or humans and amphibians.  

Our noble leader lays out the day's tasks

Its off to work we go...

Ursula's beautifully decorated sign standing the test of time! 

Clearing begins

Shaking out those seeds

A tale of seeds and snails

An adult common frog

Operation Rescue Amphibians

A speckled frog (missing: a speckled log) - photo by Michele K. 

A job well done

Tasty treats: a pumpkin spice loaf

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Cothill Fen, Saturday 18th of September

It was a day of two seasons at Cothill Fen this Saturday, with thick fog greeting our volunteers before it all burned off to a rather warm and sunny morning. Cothill Fen is popular among the volunteers and we were glad to be back, with many commenting on how much the fen has changed since volunteers from Natural England and Green Gym had started working on it. 

After a quick health and safety briefing from Eleanor D, the day's Session Leader, we followed Steph from Natural England down to our working site, where she explained to us today's tasks. The volunteers then split in to two groups: those raking and distributing the the reeds (which had already been cut by Natural England volunteers - team work!) along two causeways which needed some bolstering, and those helping to build 'fish-scale bunds' (fish-scale here referring to their shape, not their material). These bunds, Steph explained to us, help the fen in two ways. Firstly, they create new marginal habitats that are perfect for insects like dragonflies and damselflies, which the site is particularly attractive to, and secondly they act as natural filters, trapping pollutants which enter the water from local field run-off. Amazing! 

Our first session was then a flurry of hard work as volunteers raked, forked, and tight-roped along the causeways to shore them up, or undertook the difficult task of trying to hammer wooden poles in to the sticky underwater fen mud to secure the bunds. Our breaktime was a very welcome opportunity to rehydrate, and Eleanor D kindly offered around some beautifully emerald greengage fruits! 

After break it was back to work, but not before a quick walk with Judy Webb (Oxfordshire ecologist extraordinaire)who kindly showed us two plants which the management of the fen was helping to support. The first was the Devil's-bit Scabious, whose purple pom-pom flowers are a firm favourite with bees and butterflies. This plant came with a folk-story, as Judy told us how the plant received its name: the devil bit off part of the plant's roots as he was so angered at its ability to cure human ailments (indeed, if you were to pull one up you would see its stunted roots)! Next, she showed us the beautiful white flowers of the Grass-Of-Parnassus, which is not actually a grass but is so-called for the delicate green stripes on its petals. Steph also spotted a stunning female Wasp Spider, whose stripy yellow and black body was distinctly Halloween-ish. 

We then went back to work for the final part session. This was a somewhat bitter-sweet morning for Abingdon Green Gym members as we said goodbye to a much-loved and long-serving member: Andrew (formerly of this blog!) Andrew will be much missed, but we made him promise to come back for the Christmas Meal, and wished him the best of luck with his partner Joanna his loyal hound Elly. Andrew has done a wonderful job running this blog, and if I fill only a small portion of his very large wellies, I will be very happy. 

- Eleanor B

The Parsonage Moor welcoming committee!

A foggy briefing of the volunteers by Steph

Sail away, sail away, sail away...

Reflections in the fen

Circus skills along the causeway

Team Bunds hard at work (photo courtesy of Margaret N.)

Here you can really see the curve of the bunds (photo courtesy of Margaret N.)

Glorious Greengage!

Judy and the nature classroom

Devil's-bit Scabious


A female Wasp Spider - look at those stripes!

Coordinating details (fashion is, indeed, our passion)

Our glorious (Session) Leader!

Team work is the dream work! 

Obligatory triumphant Graham!

Saying goodbye and marvalising Andrew!