Last week saw me finally roll up my sleeves and get out working on one of the farms! Essential 'paperwork' had kept me chained to the desk for too long, so it was with great relief that I trundled up to Axnoller Farm for a day of river conservation.
I joined the Dorset Midweek Conservation Volunteer group, and Mervyn Newman lead Adviser for Natural England's Axe Invasive project in a day of removing a non-native plant from the source of the river Axe. Last year Mervyn brought a group to the farm to carry out this vital work, and Steve's farm staff got involved in the day too, the legacy of that work was that a job which took several days last year, only took a matter of hours this time around!
Himalayan balsam is an attractive looking plant, and is easy to see why it was collected by plant hunters and brought back to the UK. Unfortunately it has no associated herbivores in this country and with nothing eating it, it is left to spread unchecked along rivers and streams. It is a pernicious weed and eradication of it will take many years of effort. The problem is that thick stands of balsam effectively choke the riverbank, shading out native plants and making the river habitat less suitable for rare animals such as the water vole.
The Axe is such an important river, running for most of its length in unspoilt natural channels, being allowed to meander and drift its way towards Seaton, and the amazing Axe Estuary Wetlands. We farm the source of the river here at the Donkey Sanctuary's Axnoller Farm, so whatever we do here, ends up flowing downstream to the Estuary. And today that means we're committed to removing the balsam from the source, to provide an opportunity to eradicate it completely from the river at some point in the future.
The task itself was very pleasant, the thick stems pulling out of the wet ground very easily. However, the balsam was growing in tall stands of nettle and bramble, so I soon wished I had worn long sleeves and thicker trousers, as my arms got repeatedly stabbed, gouged and stung.
Aching arms aside, the sight of no balsam growing along our stretch of the river, made for a very satisfying day, and I look forward to returning to Axnoller over the coming weeks to pull up any odd plant which might have avoided our attentions last week. However, I think I'll dress up for the repeat visits!