Archive for the ‘The Westonbirt Project’ Category

Return of the grazers – cattle are coming back to the downs!

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

In mid-November, a group of Gloucester cattle will be taking up residence on the downland of Westonbirt Arboretum. They will be helping us to create and maintain diverse habitat for wildflowers and insects that make their home on the Downs.


Photo credit: Rare Breeds’ Survival Trust


The steep parts of the Downs here at Westonbirt are a particularly good example of  wildflower rich limestone grassland, and surveys over recent years have shown that they are home to at least 236 different plant species –  around 8.1% of the UK flora! In recent decades, this type of limestone grassland has been in rapid decline across the country; in the 1930’s 40% of the Cotswolds was covered in wildflower rich limestone grassland; today that figure has fallen to 1.5%, a decline which is reflected across the rest of Great Britain.

So why is this grassland disappearing? Well, a large factor is that many herbaceous plant  species found in these habitats , are susceptible to being outcompeted by more aggressive, tall rank species such as cocksfoot grass, docks and thistles.


Historically, these more competitive species have been kept in check and managed in Cotswolds grasslands by a combination of grazing, mowing, and burning. Burning is not an option at Westonbirt, and mowing is both labour intensive and does not produce as diverse a sward as grazing does. Grazing by livestock reduces the dominance of coarse, aggressive species (such as tall oat-grass and dock), which in turn allows less competitive species to establish and thrive. Through the action of their hooves, the animals open up the sward and soil to provide niches where seeds can germinate.



However, not all grazers are suitable for the Westonbirt downland. Sheep, for example, are highly selective grazers, preferring to eat flower-heads and buds of herbaceous plants rather than grass. Horses are also selective, and mainly eat finer species of grass, producing extensive ‘lawns’. Cattle are less selective than sheep or horses; they will eat grass and herbaceous plants equally, and are especially good at removing coarse grasses. The way cattle eat is important too: rather than nibbling with their teeth (as horses and sheep do), they pull clumps of vegetation from the ground with their tongues; this creates a more tussocky sward, and provides small areas of bare soil in which seeds can germinate.


Photo credit: Cotswold Farm Park

There are two other important factors to consider; the number of animals used, and the timing and duration of grazing. Too few cattle, and any beneficial effects will be negligible; too many, and the area will soon become too poached up with large areas of bare soil, which are too disturbed to allow seedlings to establish. In order to ensure that we are getting the number just right, we’ll be closely monitoring the effects of the grazing via vegetation surveys. If needed, we can adjust the numbers and frequency of grazing. Timing-wise, it’s important to stop the grazing when the vegetation starts to flower, then get them back on the ground once most of the species have shed their seeds. Grazers should also be removed if there are signs of excessive ground disturbance during periods of prolonged wet weather.
As long as the cattle are with us, it is important for our visitors to remember that, whilst Gloucester cattle are mostly docile, you should not try to touch or pet them. Whilst dogs do not have to be on the lead near the area where the cattle will be grazing, please ensure that all dogs are kept well under control and to heel when near them.


Watch this space as we share updates on the benefits that the cattle bring to the nationally important habitat of the Westonbirt Downs!


Back ‘app’ and running

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

As part of Westonbirt’s continuing mission to ‘connect people with trees’, we like to try new things to engage with our audiences here at the Arboretum.

TreeQuest App

The Westonbirt Project allowed us to test new technological boundaries and after consultation with a wide range of visitors and our fabulous youth forum, Team WB, a mobile app was created! It offers the opportunity to discover new species, awesome facts and areas of the arboretum that you may not have even set foot in before.
The app launched in August 2015, and has received positive reviews. However, some negative comments came about due to some technical issues with our beacons. These ‘beacons’ are small white boxes positioned in 50 trees around the site. They ‘talk’ to the app via Bluetooth and tell the app to alert you when you are near a tree. Unfortunately, the beacons themselves appeared to stop working, which in effect made the app unusable…
Not to be discouraged by such things, we have continued to work to resolve this – working closely with our developers, who in turn have worked tirelessly with the beacon manufacturers to come up with a solution.

You will now see little grey boxes around the arboretum which are our new, robust, ‘belt and braces’ beacons! They are more conspicuous at the moment, but bear with us as we work to position them in to best way possible to allow users of mobile technology to connect with their surroundings whilst also allowing for those who wishing to be ‘tech-free’ to still enjoy our wonderful tree collection.


If you fancy having a go at the app head to the App Store or Google Play Store, create your own quest and explore the arboretum in a new and exciting way!

Overnight Plant Hunter Challenge

Friday, July 29th, 2016

A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood
The mouse saw….a group of teenagers unsure of where they stood

July saw the first Westonbirt Overnight Plant Hunter Challenge in which teams of young people from a range of organisations and youth clubs, navigated their way around a four mile course throughout the arboretum.

On the way, they undertook a number of timed tasks, based on plant hunters past and present, and were scored on teamwork, creativity and skill.

Nineteen young people, some with additional needs, took part in the challenge.

At 9pm, the first teams headed off into the trees and throughout the night they walked and walked, and then walked some more (particularly those teams who, at times, were unsure of which direction they were going in or where they were heading to).

They followed in the footsteps of William Lobb and collected sequoia seeds (although we had carelessly dropped ours into a ‘toxic swamp’); lit a fire using natural materials as David Douglas was required to do; made a herbarium as Joseph Banks did on-board the Endeavour; sorted viable seeds from diseased ones; created a new species of tree (using only newspapers) and made their own version of a Holford family portrait.


At 2.45 am the torch lights of the last team were spotted making their way across the Downs, where they were greeted with cheers, tea and toast before settling down for a night in the Great Oak Hall.

A few short hours later it was time for a barbeque breakfast and prize giving with Brimsham Green Youth Wing the overall winners.

A huge thank you to all the young people who took part and all the Westonbirt staff, volunteers and visiting group leaders who made the event possible.

Karen Price, Community Youth Officer

Still plenty of work to be done!

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

The opening ceremony for Phase Two may have now been and gone, but there is still plenty of ongoing work for the Westonbirt Project.

Those of you who are regular followers of the blog will remember that Phase One has numerous ongoing activities supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Aside from the community work, Downs restoration and various site-wide interpretation, the HLF are also supporting a large amount of boundary restoration.

Existing wall around the Downs awaiting restoration.

The next boundary that we are restoring is the dry stone Ha-Ha wall with iron railings that runs around the Downs. Ha-Ha walls are put in place to provide an uninterrupted view whilst creating a vertical barrier often to help contain livestock as this particular wall was originally. The name “Ha-Ha” derives from the unexpected (i.e., amusing) moment of discovery when, on approach, the vertical drop suddenly becomes visible. Fortunately, due to the iron railings attached to the Downs Ha-Ha, the drop is not quite as hidden!

The restoration process has now begun with the removal of the iron railings, and these will all be restored while our dry stone waller takes the lead and takes the wall down stone by stone, before building it back up to its former glory. The iron railings will then be reinstalled using an onsite forge.

Volunteers helping with the restoration of the ha-ha near Mitchell Drive.

The dry stone waller will be aided throughout by a number of our volunteers, who will be able to learn this specialised skill. At approx. 625 metres they will have plenty of practice, and the restoration process is expected to take around four months.

As the wall runs so close to the Dew pond which inhabits Great Crested Newts, and newts love dry stone walls, e.g. for hibernation, plans have been put into place to keep them from harm, and a newt license has been granted by Natural England for the works. We aim to coincide the works closest to the pond with the time at which the newts are most likely to be in the water.

Finished wall and railings along Mitchell Drive.

For those of you visiting the site soon, you will be able to see this all unfolding, and if you look along Mitchell Drive, you will see a boundary of the same style which we previously restored in 2012.

Dan Reid, Project Support Officer

A great big THANK YOU!

Friday, April 29th, 2016

On Tuesday 26 April 2016, Westonbirt Arboretum hosted an event to celebrate the completion of phase two of the Westonbirt Project and to thank the many people who made it possible.

Over 300 donors and supporters attended and saw the STIHL Treetop Walkway opened by BBC Countryfile‘s Ellie Harrison, before enjoying lunch at the newly completed Wolfson Tree Management Centre.

Donors gather to celebrate the completion of phase two of the Westonbirt Project.
The crowds gather.

Ellie Harrison addresses the crowd, watched by guests, Stephen Segar (Chair of the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum), Paul Cody (Head of Visitor Attraction) and Andrew Smith (Arboretum Director).
Ellie Harrison addresses guests.

Ellie Harrison cuts the ribbon to open the STIHL Treetop Walkway
Ellie Harrison cutting the ribbon and opening the STIHL Treetop Walkway.

The first donors make their way across the STIHL Treetop Walkway
The first guests take to the walkway.

The completion of the Westonbirt Project capital developments was made possible by a vast amount of support from many, many people. We thank you all!

All images: Matt Tween

Pizza in the Woods!

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

The community team welcome a wide range of groups from the surrounding area to come and learn about our tree collection through exploration and discovery. Some of our work is up in the coppice in Silk Wood, where we teach woodland management skills including coppicing and green wood craft, amongst other activities.

A big part of bringing groups here is so they can have the opportunity to work with their peers, learn self-resilience, and develop their self- confidence. We have found one of the best ways to get people to relax, work together as a team and have fun is to pull together to make a meal out in the woods. In all cultures around the world, food is at the heart of the community – and what better way to practice safe fire lighting and culinary skills in our very own cob oven?!

In March, we brought together our community groups here at the arboretum, to help build a cob oven at their woodland base in Silk Wood. Working alongside Nico from Red Kite Design, participants from Royal Wotton Basset Academy, Nelson Trust, Wild Westonbirt and Stonehouse Youth Council were part of the whole building process; mixing cob ( a mixture of clay, sand and straw), learning about the construction of a cob oven through hands on experience, adding final decorations and making dough before firing up the oven to create the first meal: pizzas! There was even time to have a go at making clay pinch pots and coil pots which are drying out before we try firing them in the oven at a later date.

We were wonderfully supported by members of the community volunteer team and a huge thank you to the estate volunteers who constructed the wooden base for us.

This oven will be used frequently throughout the year to help teach community groups about other food that can be cooked (and foraged) out in the woods without gas or electricity and of course fuel volunteer work parties! It will also be a great addition to our group overnight stays who get to experience Westonbirt at night. Who doesn’t like freshly baked bread in the morning?

Feel free to wander in and take a look!

Karen Price & Claire Goulding, Community Officers

STIHL Treetop Walkway: an update

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

We are getting very close to completion of the walkway, not too long to wait now! Before we open the walkway there are a few more finishing touches we need to install.

Outside Studios, our interpretation designers, have started installing the interpretation and will continue to be here for the next few weeks.

A large delivery of interpretation, unpacked ready for assembly.
A large delivery of interpretation has arrived and has been unpacked ready for assembly. The interpretation has been designed to clamp on to the handrail and the balustrade.

Interpretation being clamped to the balustrade of the walkway.Metal frames for graphics panels being clamped to the handrail.
The first few metal frames are ready for the graphics to be installed and have been clamped to the handrail.

A bench on the Treetop Walkway
The two benches are in position and look beautiful! This bench is the first you come to and is a great place to sit in the afternoon sun. You can see four steel uprights in this photo. They will be hidden from view and will support two large panels featuring quiz questions and activities. In the background you can see one of our favourite trees, an Atlas cedar.

The second bench is situated at the base of the crows nest stairs.

The steep staircase to the crows nest.
This is the staircase to the crows nest. Outside Studios have installed a poem up the stairs as well as telescopes at the top of the crows nest which you can peer out of into the surrounding trees.

The black pine which is surrounded by the crows nest platform.
This is the Black pine which is surrounded by the crows nest platform. The platform bounces as it cantilevers from its two supporting timber legs, the bounce is even more exciting when it’s windy and you can see the tree moving! We are hoping the gap between the platform and the Black pine will be filled with a net before we open the walkway, fingers crossed!

Sophie Nash, Project Manager

Inside the Machinery Store with architect Piers Taylor

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Work on the new Wolfson Tree Management Centre is nearing completion. The new facility will provide all that Westonbirt’s expert tree team needs to manage the tree collection.

Here, its architect, Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio shares some stunning images of the interior of the machinery store element, which has now been handed over to the tree team.

Inside the new machinery storeInside the new machinery storeInside the new machinery store

The Wolfson Tree Management Centre: a glimpse inside the new mess building

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

Work is currently underway on what will become the new Wolfson Tree Management Centre. The new facility will provide all that Westonbirt’s expert tree team needs to manage the tree collection.

Work is now taking place to complete the interior of the Tree Team’s new mess building.

The entrance to the building is covered by a substantial overhang, which acts as a big porch as you enter and exit the building.

Polycarbonate wall
Inside, one of the most striking features is the polycarbonate end wall – this lets lots of diffused daylight into the main space which the team will use for tea breaks and meetings.

Plywood ceiling
The ceiling of the building is plywood sheeting – this is soon to be varnished, and the lights installed where you currently see dangling cables.

The heart of any mess room is the kitchen. It’s nearly finished and the worktops will be installed in the next few weeks! Look closely and you’ll see that the taps above the sink are made of copper piping with stop taps… a simple solution and alternative to off-the-peg kitchen fittings.

The kitchen will be an area for food preparation (the fuel essential for a busy arborist!) and a washing machine where kit and ropes will be washed to improve their condition.

Sophie Nash, Project Manager

The Wolfson Tree Management Centre: One building complete!

Friday, February 12th, 2016

Work is currently underway on what will become the new Wolfson Tree Management Centre. The new facility will provide all that Westonbirt’s expert tree team needs to manage the tree collection.

The Machinery Store

Machinery store
We have the keys! The first of the three building projects for Phase Two is now complete and the tree team have started to move in.

Machinery store  polycarbonate wall
The polycarbonate wall allows lots of natural light into the building, just inside is the tree team’s workshop where they will maintain their vehicles and will keep their tools. The storage units and pressure washer are now in place ready for use.

Machinery store - interior
The vehicle doors let lots of daylight into the space. We installed several doors so they can drive all the way through the building to access Silk Wood and the Old Arboretum without having to reverse out of the building. This will mean there will no longer be a need to unclip the wood chipper and trailers each morning and evening, so the team can spend more time out in the tree collection.

Machinery store - interior
Now even with some vehicles inside it (these vans belong to the electricians, but will be replaced with tractors once the team are in!) the building is really starting to look like a machinery store. The timber frame still stands out even with the lighting and equipment inside the building. It’s a great large open plan space using arboretum timber, hopefully an upgrade compared to the tree team’s existing tractor shed and mess cabin.


The Mess Building

On a daily basis the new mess building is changing quicker than we can blog!

Mess building
The entire building has been clad in oak which was felled as part of the management of the coppice coups in Silk Wood; we couldn’t have used more locally sourced timber! Up close each piece of cladding is slightly different and you can see the patterns in the oak. The new machinery store is just visible behind the mess building. The box on the end of the building is a bat feeding perch, much more in keeping than an off-the-shelf bat box.

View from staff car park
The tree team’s new kitchen is on the right of this picture. A deck area has been created and is currently being used by the contractors. When the summer comes other staff and volunteers can join the tree team for lunch.
Now the scaffolding is down you can clearly see the shape of the building and how it fits with the machinery store behind it. The two buildings have been designed to complement each other; the roof of the Mess Building allows more winter sun into the yard behind. The Mess Building also has horizontal cladding and a curved roof which took inspiration from the Welcome Building.

Mess building - polycarbonate wall
The end elevation of the Mess Building has been clad with polycarbonate which matches the new machinery store. This allows more natural light into the building as this end will be used by the tree team as communal space for breaks and a space for meetings.

Inside the building the kitchen is almost complete and the ceiling is being finished. More pictures of the interior will follow in the next blog!

Many thanks to our fantastic team of volunteers who have helped the contractors with the Mess Building.