Coombes & Churnet Valley

Coombes Valley

Coombes Valley
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Coombes & Churnet Valley

  • A week in the life of Coombes Warden Interns

    This month's blog gives you a behind the scenes look at a typical working week for our hard working volunteer warden interns.

    (Kirsty and Charlotte current Warden Interns c/o Kirsty Forrester)

    Our general week:


    Checks. Each Monday we walk the trails around the two RSPB sites we manage at Coombes Valley and Churnet Valley. We check for litter, infrastructure and hanging branches over trail amongst other things. We also complete routine checks including: play trail check, canopy walk way check, yurt check, ATV check, 4x4 check. Mondays are also a day to do chainsaw maintenance after using them the week previously.

    (The Coombes Valley Trails that are checked each Monday c/o RSPB)


    Tuesday work party. Every Tuesday our team of dedicated work party volunteers come and give us a hand. Whilst volunteers use hand tools such as bow saws and loppers, us interns spend the day chain sawing holly to clear as much as we can. This winter it is mainly holly clearance that we tackle on a weekly basis but we like to give our volunteers a variety of tasks to do. So, to mix it up, we work as team to do things such as scrub clearance and hay raking to keep on top of our site management plan and to keep everyone motivated.

    (Work party and interns working hard in the rain hedge planting c/o Kirsty Forrester)


    Chainsawing. RSPB Coombes Valley and RSPB Churnet Valley are both beautiful woodland reserves in North Staffordshire and are part of the Staffordshire Woods and Moors Futurescape. In 2014, the Forestry Commission awarded the reserves a Woodland Improvement Grant to clear 46.8 ha of holly to improve the habitat for birds such as pied flycatcher and redstart. This being one of our priorities for the site so we work tirelessly 3 days a week sawing the holly to clear enough to bring these special bird numbers back up.



    Odd jobs. Thursdays are our day to get an array of jobs done from tree safety inspections to maintenance tasks such as making a corduroy path. Thursdays include a staff meeting once a month where all the staff get caught up with each other and to create our to-do lists. We get up to all sorts enjoying the diversity of jobs including pole sawing dead limbs off trees, fencing, path maintenance,  GIS mapping and helping our volunteers who come in twice a week to do jobs around site.

    (Charlotte and Kirsty all geared up to do some pole sawing on the roadside boundary of the reserve (it’s a good job we don’t take ourselves too seriously) c/o Charlotte Ditchburn


    Chainsawing. Fridays are our last day of sawing for the week (yay!). Fridays we go out sawing with our Site Manager and Warden to get as much holly cleared as we can. Work can often be hard on very slippery steep ground and it gets very cold in these wintery months. BUT It’s all totally worth it, it’s such a rewarding job and very satisfying seeing all the holly that we have cleared in one day you can immediately see the difference we have made. Our WIG project has been going on for 3 year and this is the final winter of the project. It has already been a success pied flycatcher numbers going up and redstart numbers having more than doubled with this being within the areas we have cleared of holly.

    (Charlotte and Kirsty enjoying a quick break from holly clearance for a selfie c/o Charlotte Ditchburn)

    Charlotte Ditchburn – Warden Intern


    Graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Countryside Management in the summer of 2017. Completing student placements with the Northumberland National Park and the North Pennines AONB whilst at University. Fitting in volunteering with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, the Lake District National Park, Ramblers Association, RSPB and the Cumbria Wildlife Trust during my studies. Passionate about nature having lived in the Lake District all my life I love the outdoors and could never settle with an office job. I’ve been volunteering as a Warden Intern at Coombes Valley for 3 months now and having a fab time. I’m now qualified as a Tree Safety Advisor, chainsaw operator and to use pesticides. I love the variety of jobs we do as interns from chain sawing to engaging with the public through events such as the Harry Otter Trail at Coombes.

    Kirsty Forrester – Warden Intern


    Graduated from the University of Cumbria with a degree in Animal Conservation Science in the summer of 2016, having worked as an outdoors and high ropes instructor before this. Completing a 9 month university placement in Canada working on the Grizzly Bear research project enabled me to put a lot of what I had learnt at university into practice. I love the outdoors and hope to follow a career in the outdoors in roles such as a Warden. Since starting my internship I have gained many qualifications including: St John Ambulance First Aider, Tree Safety Advisor, brushcutter, strimmer, sit-astride ATV, 4x4 off road driving, pesticide (PA1&PA6) and chainsaw (CS30&CS31). I am thoroughly enjoying my internship here at Coombes Valley developing my skills set to enable me to get a job doing what I love at the end of it all.

    Come and volunteer with Coombes Valley yourself:

    Residential Volunteer - Long term placement - Coombes and Churnet Valleys 

    People Engagement Volunteer - Events Helper, Coombes & Churnet Valley 

    Valley Tots Leader, Coombes Valley 

    Visitor Centre Volunteer, Coombes Valley


  • Making a good red-start

    RSPB Coombes Valley and RSPB Churnet Valley are both beautiful woodland reserves in North Staffordshire and are part of the Staffordshire Woods and Moors Futurescape.  The reserves are home to a wealth of wildlife such as the argent & sable moth, pied flycatcher, common redstart, spotted flycatcher and wood warbler. 

    In the UK, woodland birds are in trouble. The latest Breeding Bird Survey from the British Trust for Ornithology shows that in the last 23 years spotted flycatcher and wood warbler have declined by 38% and 57% respectively. Between 1994 and 2015 pied flycatcher has declined by 48% and is now a red listed species and redstart is an amber list species.

    Pied Flycatcher in Hawthorn at RSPB Coombes Valley photo c/o Mel Brown

    Both Coombes and Churnet Valleys are Sites of Special Scientific Interest because of their woodland habitat and associated bird species.  However in 2012, both valleys were identified as sites that were struggling to support these special birds.  This was because of a very unusual problem- holly! Although holly is a native species in the UK, and an important component part of many woodlands, holly at Coombes and Churnet had gone crazy. Across both reserves holly bushes had grown into dense, tall, impenetrable barriers that completely dominated the woodland understorey and let no light through to the woodland floor.

    The holly was also having a dramatic impact on our bird species; in particular pied flycatcher, redstart and wood warbler, which all require an open understorey and good horizontal visibility through the woodland. To tackle this unusual problem the RSPB team needed help and in 2014, the Forestry Commission awarded the reserves a Woodland Improvement Grant to clear 46.8 ha of holly.

    Contractors and the RSPB team, mostly made up of volunteers and interns, have worked tirelessly over three wet winters. On incredibly steep and muddy slopes they have felled large areas of dense and very prickly holly.  But there’s good news- all this hard scratchy work has paid off.  Each holly bush that has been cleared has opened up the woodland and given mature oak trees space and light for the first time in many years.



    Staff and Volunteers hard at work photos c/o Mel Brown

    Our woodland bird species have noticed the difference too. Pied flycatcher numbers have already seen promising improvements following the holly clearance. Volunteer led Nestbox surveys have found pied flycatcher in 38 Nestboxes this year compared with 31 in 2016. Redstart numbers have more than doubled- from 14 territories in 2016 to 31 in 2017.  What has been particularly encouraging is that these increases are happening on parts of the reserve where we have targeted the holly clearance.  In particular Brawnback at Coombes Valley and Chase Wood in the Churnet.  Both of these areas have permissive paths running through them, so we hope that visitors will get better views of these iconic birds than ever before.

    Before and After, Booths Wood, RSPB Churnet Valley, photo c/o Paul Bennett

    None of these achievements would have been possible without the generous funding provided by the Forestry Commission, support from Natural England, the mammoth efforts of the hardcore Tuesday volunteer work party, intern workforce and groups such as the University of Central Lancashire and AMEY plc/Staffordshire County Council. We won’t see the full benefits of this project for some time but we have one more winter of holly clearance to go, so who knows what we might find next spring!?


  • Hay Day at RSPB Coombes Valley – celebrating National Meadows Day


    Did you know that a single, healthy meadow can be home to over 80 species of wildflowers and a wealth of other wildlife? Sadly, it’s staggering to learn that 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s.

    That’s the reason for National Meadows Day, this year held on 1 July. It’s the headline event of Save Our Magnificent Meadows, the UK’s largest partnership project which aims to transform the fortunes of our vanishing grasslands and their associated wildlife. Led by Plantlife, the partnership is made up of 11 organisations, including the RSPB, and is primarily funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

    Just 100 years ago, there would have been a meadow in every Staffordshire parish, supporting a way of life that had gone on for centuries. They provided grazing and hay for livestock, employment, and food and medicine. Meadows are an essential element of our nation’s rich cultural and social history.


    As hay meadows form a hugely significant aspect of the precious habitats for the wildlife here at RSPB Coombes Valley, and in the wider vale of the River Churnet, we were especially keen to celebrate with an event befitting the importance of them, with activities ranging from family crafts to guided walks. There was something for everyone to join in and have fun.



    In the craft barn, families could try their hand at weaving willow dreamcatchers or bird feeders, making a dragonfly to patrol the meadows, or a seed bomb to take home to start their very wild mini-meadow in their “nature reserve” part of the lawn. People could also chat to the Staffordshire Bat Group and visit our moth and butterfly stand to get up close and personal to some moths. Sweep netting sessions provided a further, and very popular, way of encountering bugs and minibeasts close up in our beautiful meadows.



    One of the stars of the show was the artisan, Jez the Scythe, an old friend of the reserve who gave scything demonstrations throughout the day to show traditional methods of hay meadow management.


    Through generous funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, as part of the buffer solution project, the RSPB has recently acquired Bellpit Meadows near Ipstones. Visitors were able to discover more about wildflowers and grassland habitats by joining one of the guided walks which were led by a professional ecologist. A practical demonstration in the craft barn showed how a meadow in good condition buffers surrounding woodlands from contaminants such as chemicals and pesticides and acts to protect the Churnet Valley from extreme drought or flooding.



    For those needing a cuppa with delicious homemade cake, or who just wanted to relax with an ice cream and soak up the atmosphere, some fabulous live music in the yurt was provided by The Idioms, a local alternative folk band.



    The weather was kind and this year’s Hay Day was hugely successful, not just in the great number of smiling faces, but perhaps more importantly in the message that was spread about protecting and recreating our meadows. Our special thanks go to the heritage Lottery Fund for making the RSPB Coombes Valley 2017 Hay Day possible.