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A walk on the wild side

Park ranger Vikki Austin describes her working days…

It’s a cliché, but there is no such thing as an average day for a ranger. There are routine tasks that we complete every day, or every week, around the park but, as with many (if not all) jobs there is always a reactive element. For rangers it is often weather-related. Severe weather can dictate immediate action, for example, heavy snow or flooding, and high winds can bring down trees and large branches, blocking paths which need clearing. Most recently, we had to close one of the tunnels along the Brampton Valley Way due to the beautiful, but potentially dangerous, icicles hanging from the roof of the tunnel.

The Countryside Service in Northamptonshire looks after six parks: Brixworth, Sywell, Irchester, Fermyn Woods, Barnwell and the Brampton Valley Way. In total, ten rangers look after those six sites, managing a range of habitats including woodland (both deciduous and coniferous), wetland, meadows, hedgerows, ponds, lakes, and human habitats such as picnic meadows, paths and trails, and playgrounds.

Being a countryside ranger is the best job in the world. We get to work outside all day, in the fresh air and sunshine, counting wildflowers and watching the birds and butterflies and bees enjoying the habitats we have helped shape for them. Also, we get to use the ride-on mower and chainsaws. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The reality is not quite as poetic. Of course, there are days when it certainly feels like the best job in the world, and people become rangers because of a passion for nature and the environment. Certainly, no-one becomes a ranger to get rich. It’s a labour of love, not simply a means to pay the mortgage. And it isn’t sunny every day. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it snows or hails, and sometimes it does everything in one day!

Our aim is to create and manage green spaces for everyone to enjoy. We want people to arrive at the parks and see the swan gliding gracefully across the water, not the legs paddling frantically beneath the surface. It’s nice to feel appreciated, but the majority of our work should go unnoticed. People should only really notice if we didn’t do it.
The morning litter picks, the weekly mowing and strimming from April through to October, trimming back the over-hanging vegetation from paths, wading into the freezing waters of the ponds in winter to clear out sticks and weeds and whatever else has been thrown in there over the summer (last year we found a kid’s scooter in one of the ponds!). These are the routine things that we do that, we hope, keep the parks looking good for our human visitors.

Once the summer holidays are over we can get cracking on with our winter work programmes, managing the habitats to encourage a greater diversity of wildlife. Meadows need a hay-cut so the wildflower seeds can germinate and bloom again the following year. Many of our woodlands are coppiced, an ancient management technique that produces new growth which can be harvested and used in the park. Hazel canes are used as stakes and binders for hedge-laying, or woven into hurdles to make attractive fencing.

Hedgerows need either laying or cutting back, to ensure the footpaths remain open for walkers and cyclists during the summer, and the annual ‘haircut’ ensures good regrowth which allows better nesting habitat for birds, and more berries for them to feed on. Seats and benches need re-staining to protect them for future years, and when they do inevitably rot, they need repairing or replacing.

The play areas need a lot of attention, too. Daily and weekly inspections are carried out to ensure they are safe enough, and any areas of concern are picked up quickly and fixed. Each year, several tonnes of play bark and sand are added to the appropriate areas to top up what inevitably migrates during the year.

Not only do rangers enjoy sharing their green spaces with everyone, but they also enjoy passing on their knowledge and enthusiasm, and as such each park puts on a calendar of events, both fun and educational. These events tend to be run during the school holidays, and as well as the planning and preparation, they are run when the parks are usually at their busiest. This often means a ranger needs to be running an event, whilst simultaneously sorting out change for the car park machines, dealing with first aid incidents, and occasionally tracking down lost children or lost dogs.

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At some point, between the litter-picking, checking, mowing, cutting back, emptying dog-bins, repairing, replacing, clearing, tidying, running events, patching people up and reuniting parents, children and pets, there is the admin that inevitably goes with any job. And emails, there are lots of emails, which are difficult to read and reply to when you’re in a woodland, even if you have a smart phone. This is the side of the job that most rangers like least.

Each park is supported by a fantastic group of volunteers who willingly give a day each week to help out with any one of the myriad tasks necessary to keep the park in tip-top shape. These are people who share our enthusiasm for the parks, bring a wealth of knowledge and skills from a wide variety of backgrounds, and have the luxury of staying at home if the weather looks a bit iffy.

Rangers, thankfully, have a very robust uniform that can stand up to most weather conditions, so we are out in almost all weathers.

Rangers will often take a few minutes to stop and chat with park visitors, either out for a stroll or walking the dog. For some it is part of their daily routine, a chance for a few minutes peace and quiet in their busy day, but for others, you know you may be the only person they have seen or spoken to that day.

It is a tacit understanding, but those few minutes can have a positive impact for someone who just needs to see a friendly face and feel that someone cares.

A year is a much better measure of time for the role of a ranger, as the seasons dictate our pattern of work. It is a small, but dedicated, team of rangers paddling furiously to maintain the parks.

All of the rangers hope that visitors see the graceful swan when they visit one of the parks, and we apologise for the occasional splash.

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