Land Manager's Diary: Read it here>

We held a fantastic public event at the wood we manage with the owner Bev and Jo Dennison at Gillside, Grasmere recently. We think this must be one of the greenest/most sustainable valleys in Lakeland with its new woodland and a hydro-electric plant, plus being at the heart of red squirrel conservation in the Lake District. So that motivated us to hold and event and tell people about it. 

The land is owned by Friends of the Lake District members Bev and Jo Dennison and Bev joined us to tell us all about what has happened in the last 20 years.

They have always been passionate about the environment and Bev always wanted to create a woodland. When they bought nearby Broadrayne Farm, this piece of land gave them the opportunity to do that and working with ourselves, a new 7ha woodland was created in 2014/15.

Bev had always seen the potential of Tongue Gill to provide hydro electric power and met with all the relevant agencies about the potential for this. Alas it was not possible as the beck already had an Abstraction Licence on it going back to 1907 for drinking water for Grasmere. That all changed in 2009 when the water was removed from the drinking water supply system due to cryptosporidium outbreaks.

That meant that four years later,  after having to sell Broadrayne to finance the £750,000 scheme, and produce huge reports on the ecology, fish, geomorphology, flows and other issues, the Tongue Gill Hydro-station was in place and began producing green energy.

It has the capability to produce 100kW of electricity which is sold to a green energy company 'Good Energy' and then goes into the grid. At maximum output, that is enough power for 120 houses. The water is taken from above the hydro and flows underground for 600 yards, all by gravity to the Gilkes turbine in the power house. So far, it has produced 3.8 million kW of power with very little stoppage time and eight years on, is now beginning to go into profit for Bev and Jo.

Whilst the hydro was not actually working that day due to low flows of water (a minimum amount of water always has to flow down the beck, so at low flows the hydro is not allowed to take water), Bev said other hydros in the area had stopped working two to three weeks ago. The Tongue Gill catchment must therefore be better at holding water and releasing it slowly than neighbouring areas. There are now quite a few hydro electric plants in the Lake District, with the National Trust in particular, investing heavily in them across the area. However, this may be the only one provided by a small individual landowner and we suspect very few individuals would have the passion and commitment that Bev showed to undertake something on this scale. 

Trevor Cooper from the Grasmere Red Squirrel Group was also with us for the day. Not only does Tongue Gill have a unique micro climate and a beck with important lichens, bryophytes and liverworts, it is also a crucial location for the fight against grey squirrel invasion by the inspiring Grasmere Red Squirrel Group.

We tasked the people with us for the day to come up with a squirrel question that Trevor did not know the answer to – needless to say we failed miserably such is his encyclopedic knowledge of and passion for squirrels!

Grey squirrels were introduced into the UK from America in 1880 by the Duke of Bedford who wanted to have them for the sport of hunting. It took a while for them to establish but by 1950/60 there was concern about their spread and impacts. There are now estimated to be 19 million grey squirrels in the country and as they are always programmed to expand their territory and move outwards. The Grasmere Red Squirrel group are a key barometer in how successful the move to prevent this is.

Grey squirrels carry the deadly Parapox virus which can kill red squirrels within a couple of weeks, but also their different digestive systems mean they can process the tannins in wood and other products faster than the reds and so eat all the food first. This weakens the red squirrels and their ability to reproduce and eventually they die out.

Grey squirrels also decimate woodland by ring barking trees as they enter maturity The Grasmere Red Squirrel group have been operating around 30 years now and their tally of grey squirrel removal this year is already about 250, compared to a total population of reds in the area of 120. Gillside is a haven for the squirrels due to the woodland environment, but also it is undisturbed. Trevor estimates the wood currently supports around 6 squirrels, but when fully mature this could increase to 10 or 12. Trevor has some feeders in the wood and also some wildlife cameras and as soon as there is evidence of greys (either grey hairs on the feeders or pictures), the dispatcher is sent in.

We were told of the work the Animal and Plant Health Agency are doing to eradicate grey squirrels and the more recent concern following the Covid virus mutating from bats to humans that potentially grey squirrels could be zoonotic and do the same re: the pox.

We had some lively discussions about how people in the south view grey squirrels, the role of pine martens in controlling greys, the situation in Europe and questions as to whether interbreeding between the two types of squirrel is possible (it is not).

Alas with all the good food around this year we saw no squirrels but did you know this other interesting fact – they never lose the nuts they bury as when they bury them their scent goes on the food and they can smell this a foot underground! 

The bracken was a bit too high to go exploring the woodland, but if anyone wishes to do that and help us with the management of the wood, we have a workparty when we will be removing tree tubes scheduled for Monday 17th October which can be booked via the workparty section of our website>

We are also planning a mass volunteering event in the wood in February so keep an eye on our events pages for that too.