If you enjoy the British countryside, you’ve likely heard about the challenges of dealing with non-native invasive species. These include critters large (such as American Mink) and small (New Zealand Flatworms), as well as a number of plants and shrubs. These include Rhododendron Ponticum, Himalayan Balsam, and Japanese Knotweed.
Typically introduced to the British Isles as ornamental plants in the Victoria era, they soon ran rampant and became widespread, often with unanticipated and unwelcome effects on existing ecosystems. The Rhododendron, for example, spreads quickly, and creates dense sprawling thickets. This allows it to outcompete native plant species which are unable to prosper due to insufficient light. Very few creatures enjoy eating Rhododendron to help keep them in check – tough foliage and toxins in the leaves deter most herbivores.
For my first outings as a volunteer with Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, I’ve been helping with “rhoddie bashing”, and eradicating some of these invaders! Most recently, I joined a team of Rangers and other volunteers near Loch Achray in The Trossachs. It’s a beautiful spot, with Highland cattle in the nearby fields, feral goats roaming the grounds, and views over to Ben A’an, a distinctive little peak famed for a rewarding climb.
It’s very physical work felling, uprooting and stacking the cut stands off Rhododendron, but immensely satisfying. Often the thickets were many times taller than we were, and formed dark woody caves of twisted branches and glossy leaves.
It is joyous watching the stacks of cut brash grow taller and realising that, after a few hours of work, ample sunlight now reaches the ground to give native life a foothold. Most enjoyable is the teamwork and camaraderie amongst the staff and volunteers, all of whom share a passion for the outdoors and who have interesting stories of their own.
Volunteering is often described as a way to “recharge your soul”, and after a hard day’s work amidst the smells of cut wood and greenery, with lovely people in beautiful surroundings, it is something I would heartily recommend.