Managing an Urban National Nature Reserve - Community Involvement
By Ian Beech, Senior Warden
Wren’s Nest National Nature Reserve is 100 acres of Urban Geological and Ecological importance situated in the north of Dudley and surrounded by housing estates. The site is made up of an uplifted Limestone hill dating back some 428 million years to the Silurian period. The site is council owned and managed by three wardens, a Friends group and committed volunteers.
The site was unkempt and used for fly tipping, criminal activity, off road motorcycles, shooting, firewood and the local children used it as their playground.
Walking through the site it is clear to see evidence of fallen large beech and ash trees which have been burnt once they reached ground level; these charred remains are a common sight in many urban woods.
Community involvement is one of the processes that has been used to help improve the site, for example children from local schools taking part in tree planting sessions and in the process learning about the biology and structure of the trees they plant. These sessions have built relations with teachers and the local children and as a result of these education days we have seen return visits of children bringing family members to see how 'their tree' is getting on. This has given them a feeling of ownership, that they have been able to have an input and ultimately pride in their local area. Not only that, but the children often end up educating family members in the importance of these trees.
Fly tipping and litter has always been a big problem on urban reserves and I know that rural areas suffer as well. Even if everything else looks amazing people notice litter and this is one of the easiest ways to give visitors a negative impression and reduce their enjoyment of their visit to the site. The same goes for graffiti; we deal with these issues ASAP and find this works well in reducing recurrence.
Despite our efforts we clean up between 12 to 16 tons of litter every year; personally it makes me furious that the minority think it is acceptable to drop litter.
We work closely with a team of Enforcement Officers employed by Dudley Council. Any fly tipping or large litter dump found is inspected, photographed and logged before removal. The Enforcement team investigate and usually get a prosecution. We have put a lot of time and effort into reducing fly tipping. With areas used more frequently we modify the access making it difficult and more visible to passing traffic or houses which deters the dumping; in some cases we've used mobile CCTV as well. Working with local schools we have looked at recycling rubbish and litter, a good tactic that I use quite often is to drop litter on purpose in front of school groups to see what reaction I get, creating an opportunity for them to tell me off and correct me and if they don't - then I have an excellent example to use!
One of my first jobs when I started on site was to introduce myself to the local Police and Fire crews. I recommend all rangers and site wardens whether urban or rural do this, it helps build a working relationship before you actually need either service. We work with the local fire brigade running familiarisation sessions which is a huge help if we have any problems on site and has saved us a lot of time and money repairing gates and chains cut by crews needing access. Some of the more important access points now have fire brigade locks to create easy access for the crews; unfortunately from our point of view the locks are quite flimsy quality so we fabricate a lock box to stop unwanted tampering. The relationship works so well that the fire service now carry out training courses on site for recovering injured people on slopes using stretchers and ropes. This has made me realise how difficult it could be to remove a member of staff with perhaps a chainsaw injury or broken leg, so I created an in case of emergency (ICE) pack for the site looking at access points post codes of gates and helicopter landing areas. Many of the services use postcodes but other services use OS grid references, so the ICE maps have all the details marked making it easier to be located in an accident situation. I also added important contact numbers for the site and local hospital details.
The wardens are more often than not out on site and as a result we often miss local police officers using the site to access the surrounding housing estates. To keep in touch and up to date I came up with the idea of putting a site map in the office window. If we are having problems in an area, we mark the map and as the police pass by the area they will have a look. This means whatever shift patterns day or night they have up to date information about problems on the site. This encourages officers to pass by the warden’s base to check the map which is a massive help to us with a higher more visible police presence
You may notice that I have not mentioned ecology, conservation, woodland and grassland management and all the other wonderful parts of the job (and the reason I chose this career). All of the subjects listed happen as well, but many of the issues in the article take priority.
Urban sites are challenging it’s true, but all site and land management is challenging and has its problems along with its merits. Community involvement and education are key to reducing problems but some days it still feels like you are fighting a losing battle. However, it's only a minority who cause us problems and we have more good local people really appreciating the effort and work put into the site. The more people use the site the fewer problems occur, long may it continue.