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A Day as a Ranger

Logo: South Somerset District Council

By Paul McNeill

As a ranger, I am often told (during the summer months at least) how lucky I am, normally whilst emptying a dog bin, which often amuses me as anyone else who has emptied a dog bin on a hot, sunny day will testify to - Dog poo and scented dog poo bags! Whose idea was that? Funny how no one communicates that in January when the dew-drop on my nose is frozen and I cannot feel the hammer across my thumb.

Sunrise from the Ham Hill Monument (South Somerset DC)
Sunrise from the Ham Hill Monument (South Somerset DC)

For the last 14 years I have ‘ranged’ at Ham Hill Country Park in Somerset, the largest Iron Age Hillfort in Britain at 88.1 hectares. More recently, like many working on countryside sites across the UK, I was redeployed to help with the current pandemic. For 12 weeks I made up food parcels for the elderly or vulnerable and it felt good to be doing something positive at such a difficult time.

I missed ‘my’ site though... Back for nearly two weeks now and despite missing the spring and all its bounty, it is a wondrous thing to be back working in the countryside. So I thought I would regale about my 1st day back…

Driving through the flat fields to my first ‘fix’ (South Somerset DC)
Driving through the flat fields to my first ‘fix’ (South Somerset DC)

Taking the Mule (our All-Terrain Vehicle) out for the early morning litter-pick, I notice that everything green here has grown to epic proportions boosted by the long hours of sunshine and the odd, heavy shower. Every morning, I have 6 car parks, a play area and a BBQ area to litter-pick as we have no litter bins on site. Two years ago we were generating over 8 tonnes of litter each year and took the brave decision to take away the bins, to encourage people to recycle, to stop sending rubbish to landfill.

Standing at one of the viewpoints, I look out towards the Bristol Channel and beyond. As long as I breathe, I will never tire of seeing Somerset from this hill. The Mendips, Quantocks, Blackdown hills and right out over the Somerset Levels too. It is easy to see why Neolithic man first settled here and I often wonder what the view looked like some 5,000 years ago. It is such a beautiful place, ethereal at times, especially when there is a thermal inversion and I cannot understand why some spoil it. Best not to think about it, just pick up the litter and move on.

After finishing the litter-run I’m back at the ranger centre to pick up all the tools I need for today’s job list. Today is fencing repairs as lockdown has not been kind; broken gates, fence posts, hand rails and a couple of snapped gate springs. As I move through the site to my first ‘fix’, I see rabbit, fox, deer and even a badger in a quieter part of site - Wildlife seems to have enjoyed lockdown more.

I had forgotten most about the noise. The noise of nature just going about its business is an awe-inspiring sensation that seems to vibrate down into my very core, settling even the most fragile of nerves. Digging an old gate post out that has snapped, I hear 3, maybe 4 male skylarks singing and what a song it is. I can also hear the laughing cry of a green woodpecker who has found more meadow ants to feast on and calls from great tits, chiffchaffs and robins alongside the edge of the meadow that joins the woodland. Above all of this I hear the crickets. We have speckled, dark and some Roesel’s bush crickets here and I wonder if all that chirping is just for my benefit?

Just pick up the litter and move on (South Somerset DC)
Just pick up the litter and move on (South Somerset DC)

Stopping to repair the next broken gate I’m reminded that insects make up about 80% of all living things. Today, they all seem to be here and, as if in proof, a wave of meadow browns and ringlets rise before me from stands of Yorkshire fog. As I drive further into site, pyramidal and bee orchids nod their heads – Is it the breeze or are they welcoming me back from my sojourn too?

There is a rhythm to working at a country park. An ebb and a flow but one which stays for a month or two and is not every 12 hours. Furlough, whilst tough on many, has seen the number of people visiting our country parks rocket and broken that rhythm. Usually, spring is the start of the cutting season as everything green starts to grow; footpaths have to be managed and bridleways too. Summer is always hard on the site as there are events to be run plus a considerable amount of visitor and site management to deal with.

Today, we have the usual twice or thrice daily dog walkers (our eyes and ears), the runners, the ramblers, the families meeting families, friend meeting friend, the bikers, the walkers and even the odd historian or ecologist to make the day interesting. It’s busy! Our site, Scheduled Ancient Monument number 100, is open to the public 24/7 and we get about 350,000 visitors a year. A mosaic of grassland and woodland habitat, the site is 158 hectares with two working quarries, one bungalow, 2.2 rangers and a pub!

I feel for all my colleagues working in parks or along our coastline, as every day is more like a day in mid-August and it has bought the problems of late summer with it. Litter, dog fouling, fires and petty vandalism; problems that virtually every public countryside site suffers from and we have been coming in early at 5am to ensure that our site is safe and clean for next day’s delivery of visitors.

Volunteer Wednesday with Paul fourth from the right taking a bow  (South Somerset DC)
Volunteer Wednesday with Paul fourth from the right taking a bow (South Somerset DC)

Today would normally be volunteer day. Volunteers, who are such a big piece of the countryside site jigsaw are absent and I really do miss our ‘volunteer Wednesdays’. The ranger’s office misses their warmth and their dirty teacups, the chatter of 20 people all speaking at once and the fight for that last chocolate biscuit. Their joking and banter too, even if it is generally aimed at the ranger on duty! They would normally be pulling ragwort in our hay meadows at this time of year; guess I need to add it to my job list…

My Job list! Tractor cut the overgrown paths, strim around the furniture, fix all the broken bits, continue with the dry stone walling, the tree safety survey, anti-bac the ranger centre, update the Facebook page, check the sheep and cattle, repair the rampart paths and I won’t even mention the office work! There is so much to do…

It’s now 5pm and after putting the mule away I walk back to the ranger centre, recognising that coronavirus has changed the way we all work and will no doubt continue to do so. All of us need to be more mindful when working outside now and even dogs that used to get a friendly pat, scratch or a cuddle have to make do with a smile at present. I do hope that this is not the new normal? Still, I am often told how lucky I am to work in the countryside and despite the current situation I couldn’t agree more.

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