Feb 21 2020

Winter Winching at Wooston

January is normally a quite month for most people.  Post-Christmas, the short days and inclement weather tend to mean hunkering down until spring has truly sprung, which usually doesn’t happen until well into March, especially on Dartmoor!  However, if you are a National Trust Volunteer Ranger working in Fingle Woods, Winter is the busiest time of year.

“The volunteer rangers come out in all weathers,” remarks Fred Hutt, the National Trust Fingle Ranger, with a smile, “even in the torrential rain last week, they all showed up.”  The commitment of these dedicated volunteers is greatly appreciated especially when the end of the Winter season in creeping ever closer.  Work such as felling, fencing, winching, planting and maintenance work must be carried out when the woodland is essentially dormant throughout the Winter and that means that all the volunteers are working hard to make sure all the seasonal jobs are done before the woods slowly come back to life.

I was lucky to join Fred and the National Trust Volunteer Rangers on a beautiful, cold and frosty morning on the 21st of January, when they were undertaking some essential Winter clearance work at Wooston Hillfort.  The major clearance of the hillfort began just over three years ago to allow better visibility and access to the site as a place of historic interest, but the primary objective of the clearance was to protect the precious archaeological features.  Trees growing on the earthworks are a major threat; if they are not windfirm they can blow over in high winds and when that happens, they can uproot the earthworks when they fall, essentially destroying the banks of the hillfort.


The tractor in position and ready to winch up some trees from the bottom of the hill                     The left over brash will be piled on the boundary lines and left as shelter for wildlife

When I met the team their goal for the day was to remove some recently felled conifers and young birch trees from the wing ditch on the South side of the hillfort, as part of the ongoing clearance operations to preserve this Ancient Scheduled Monument.  The glorious sunshine more than made up for the perilous icy journey to meet them and yet again the team for that day ‘all showed up’.  The team consisted of three volunteers with a variety of experience and time spent volunteering for the National Trust.  Rachael has been volunteering for the past two years; Terry (and his dog Barney) have been volunteering for the past three years and Brian, who started just before Christmas in 2019, has been volunteering for a couple of months.  The group met at about 10.30am and after the obligatory morning coffee, catch up, banter and briefing of the plan for the day (including health and safety!) each volunteer diligently took up the task and effortlessly slotted into their job roles for the day.

The team in action! From left to right – Barney (the dog), Rachael, Terry and Brian

Rachael acted as the ‘winch operator’, controlling the winch and its rope system at the top of the hill.  Rachael openly admitted that she had not been able to attend volunteering for a while as she had been busy with work, but she could have fooled me as she casually started controlling the winch (closely supervised by Fred) and coordinating with the team as though she did this every day of the week.

Brian was acting as the ‘winchman’ following the trees as they were dragged up the hill and alerting the rest of the group of any problems or obstructions.  Brian was relatively new to the team but again like Rachael he was unperturbed by the task at hand and he could have been mistaken for someone who had volunteered with the National Trust for years.

Terry, the longest serving member of the volunteer team, was snedding the conifers and delimbing the birch as they were being pulled up, to stop them getting caught or stuck, under the watchful eye of Fred and Barney.  Terry has his CS30 – Chainsaw Maintenance and Cross-cutting ticket and when I saw him, he was hoping to complete his CS31 – Felling Small Trees (up to 380mm) assessment the following week!  The National Trust offers many training opportunities to learn new skills and gain qualifications through their volunteer programmes.  “They (the Fingle Woods project) put me through my chainsaw training so I feel I should give back to them for helping me get these skills and qualifications, but I also enjoy the social side of it.” Terry tells me when he takes a break from his chainsaw work to throw freshly cut sticks for Barney.


Terry delimbing some of the winched birch under the supervision of Barney                     A heavy frost and the resulting hard ground made work easier for people and machinery alike!

As the trees were slowly but carefully winched up the steep hill, I talked to each volunteer in turn to ask about their time volunteering but also to chat about what they do outside of volunteering.  I realised that each team member had very different reasons for volunteering whether it was to gain new skills, change profession or just to get out the house.  The National Trust Volunteer Rangers are a very diverse group, with a varied combination of age, gender, professions and personalities and the team that were winching was a good example of this.  Despite these differences they worked like a well-oiled machine.  Whilst Fred was operating the tractor, and keeping a careful eye on the operation, he told me that each group that works together soon finds out the best roles for each member of the team, that way they can be as safe and efficient as possible when carrying out a tasks; giving them a satisfied and content feeling of a job well done.

Photos and text by Sarah Parry

Volunteering with this view can make all the hard work feel a bit easier!

please visit https://finglewoods.org.uk/



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