Tools of the trade

Give us the tools, and we will finish the job … Winston Churchill, 1941.

Although this one might take some time … Sunart Diarist, 2019

Rhododendron jungle

Rhododendron jungle

Whatever the job, having suitable tools usually makes it much easier. And safer.

One of my top priority jobs at the moment is clearing a large amount of heavily overgrown rhododendron from our plot. The site is steeply sloping in places, with lots of protruding rocks. The only access to the extremities of the site is on foot, so portability is paramount.

Some of the rhododendron were cut back 10-15 years ago but the roots were not killed off. Consequently they regrew, even more vigorously than before. The dense growth makes ‘bushwhacking’ through some of the denser thickets almost impossible.

This makes safe use of a chainsaw problematic.

Handtools

After a bit of trial and error I’ve settled on using a small number of tools that make short – or at least manageable – work of the rhododendron bushes, some of which are 4-5m in height.

Like a hot knife through butter

Like a hot knife through butter

The Wilkinsons Sword pruning saw costs less that £20. Its coarse teeth are razor sharp and cut on the pull stroke. The blade is a good thickness and the teeth clear the cut efficiently, preventing jamming.

The handle is fixed, slightly soft, reasonably comfortable and provides excellent grip. I’ve used folding pruning saws in the past and, not being rigid, they feel much less secure in use. To protect the saw, or to protect anything the saw is in contact with, there is a sheath with a useful belt loop.

I use Screwfix site gloves to improve the grip and prevent blisters.

This handsaw easily cuts through rhododendron stems up to 3″ in diameter (which is a very large bush). The relatively short (250mm) and shallow (top to bottom ~35mm) blade easily fits between the growing stems, making short work of clearing dense regrowth.

Oops

Oops

Smaller stems are best tackled with loppers. I’ve had mixed success with Fiskars PowerGear Anvil loppers. My first pair failed dismally on a smallish rhododendron bush. I’d only had them a month or so and they were replaced under warranty. The current pair are sharp and effective but I’m careful not to ‘overface’ them by tackling stems or branches that are too thick.

Slash and burn

Having felled the main stems of the rhododendron I use a Fiskars billhook to clear off the side branches, leaving a long stem for cutting up into firewood.

Sharper than a sharp thing

Sharper than a sharp thing

I’ve got a couple of these Fiskars billhooks. The older version is more curved at the end with a less pronounced hook (I think it was called their brush axe). It’s much less useful than the one pictured above. The hook means you don’t have to bend down quite so much; you can pull stems towards you with the hook. The blade is good and easily cuts through stems up to an inch or so in diameter.

Using these brush hooks efficiently requires a bit of practice. Once you get the hang of things they can be used to quickly strip off the side branches from a stem, then slice the top off leaving it ready to cut up for firewood.

The handle is hard and a bit slippery in the wet. Use of the rubberised-palm site gloves pictured significantly improves the grip.

Power tools

Rhododendron burns well (and carves well). To stack and dry it before burning it needs to be cut into suitable lengths. You can do this with a handsaw, or the pruning saw shown above. However, it’s a painfully slow process if you’ve got a hundred ~3-4m stems, all needing to be cut into 50cm lengths 1.

This is where a chainsaw saves the day. However, a chainsaw (usually) needs to be held with both hands. Since rhododendron stems tend to be relatively long and light they need to be held securely to use the chainsaw on them.

A useful third hand

A useful third hand

The Mitox Saw Horse and chainsaw holder acts as a third hand. The chainsaw 2 is held securely on a pivot with the chain protected with a metal cover.

The chainsaw can used used singlehanded simply by depressing the trigger and pivoting it so that it cuts through the stems 3. The latter are held down with the left hand in the “V” of the saw horse.

This is easier to do than describe. It feels very safe and secure in use. The left hand 4 is kept well away from the chain and, with suitably straight stems, you can cut multiple lengths at once.

Mitox saw horse

Mitox saw horse

The saw horse has a length guide, folds flat for storage and has broad metal feet that work well on uneven ground. It needs to be assembled after delivery. The instructions are clear but very small. You’ll need a socket set for assembly and it’s worth noting that the wrench sizes stated in the instructions are incorrect.

If you look around you can find these saw horses for anything from £50 to £100 … shop around!

Safety first

Anything with sharp edges, loud engines or rotating blades needs to be treated with respect. Using appropriate safety gear gives you confidence and can protect from disaster.

The Screwfix Superlight site gloves are a couple of quid a pair and provide some hand protection and much improved grip on hand tools. They will not protect you from a chainsaw or poorly used slasher or brush hook. For the former you need proper chainsaw gloves. For the latter you need to use the brush hook more carefully … keep your hands well away from the blade.

I always wear safety glasses when working in the garden. Current models provide much improved visibility and comfort than the super-geeky old-fashioned laboratory overglasses. For less than a fiver you can save your sight from whippy foliage and flying wood chips.

Chainsaw safety requires chainsaw overtrousers, gloves, steel toe capped boots and a protective hard hat with eye protection and ear defenders. I do without the overtrousers when using the Mitox saw horse as the chainsaw is fixed and cannot come into contact with my legs.

Yes, wearing that lot makes what is already a tough job a hot, uncomfortable and tough job … but it could save your sight, your hearing or your life.

And on that cheerful thought …


 

Nestboxes

The plot on Ardnamurchan is south facing hillside and was originally probably a mix of scrubby birch and oak woodland with dense ground cover of bracken. Over the years rhododendron have infested the site and, despite being cut back severely 10-15 years ago, still predominate.

Nestbox #3 and #4

Nestbox #3 and #4

I’m working hard to clear the rhododendron with the long-term goal of planting more native woodland. In the meantime I’m keen to improve the habitat in other ways that will benefit the local bird population.

Trees

As well as the dense and dreary understory of rhododendron, there are quite a few substantial trees around the plot. These include a number of mature (perhaps 40+ year old) larches, some Scots pine, quite a bit of birch and a few scattered rowan and hazel.

With the exception of the conifers, most of the trees are relatively small. Very few offer hole-nesting birds any real opportunities.

The future tree planting will be aimed at improving the pollen and nectar sources for pollinators (like bees, which need ample early season pollen for brood rearing) and the insect population. Caterpillars and larvae of the latter will boost the food available for the birds.

However, none of these new trees will provide any suitable sites for hole-nesting birds. At least not in the foreseeable future or, in the case of hazel and willow which will probably be coppiced, ever.

Nestboxes

About €60 and horrid

About €60 and horrid

Fortunately, the majority of hole-nesting birds readily use artificial nestboxes. In the ’18/’19 winter I’ve put up about ten in likely looking sites.

There are a huge range of nestboxes available to purchase, though many are pretty hopeless and are little more than garden ornaments. A nest box has to fulfil a couple of relatively simple functions:

  • Protection to birds and nestlings from predators
  • Protection from extremes of weather, in particular rain and excess temperatures

The physical and environmental protection is best served by using nestboxes made from robust materials, like 1″ thick wooden planks. However, because of the high rainfall on Ardnamurchan, I’ve opted to use boxes made from a composite cement and sawdust mix. These are marketed under trade names like Woodcrete (from Schwegler) and Woodstone (from Vivara).

Woodcrete and Woodstone

Nestbox #4

Nestbox #4 – 32mm oval

If you mix sawdust and cement in the correct proportions (apparently about 3.5:1) and press the mixture into a suitable mould you end up with a hard stone-like material that offers excellent protection to birds and nestlings.

Woodcrete and Woodstone are essentially indistinguishable in terms of suitability for nest box construction and – for all I know – might come out of the same factory. They are completely impervious to water and, being stone-like, offers excellent insulation from excess temperatures. It won’t ever rot (and usually comes with a ten year guarantee) and it should be immune to even the most determined woodpecker.

Schwegler manufactures nestboxes from Woodcrete in a variety of designs. The majority of UK suppliers appear to have had low or non-existent stock for the last year. I therefore ended up buying Vivara boxes which are sold by CJ Wildlife and other suppliers, again in a wide range of designs.

I purchased a mix of nestboxes with 28mm, 32mm and 32mm oval entrance holes. These should suit the majority of hole-nesting birds in the area – blue, great and coal tits and possibly redstarts, though I have yet to see them in the area.

I’ve used Woodcrete-type boxes before and they’re widely used by biologists studying nesting birds. The front of the box is removable for easy cleaning, there are well-placed drainage holes in the base of box and they have a secure hook at the back for attachment.

Siting

All of the boxes were firmly fixed 2-4 metres up on the NNW to NNE face of birch, Scots pine or larch trees. There are few cats in the area and the partly-arboreal pine marten could reach them however high I placed them. I therefore chose positions that gave good flight lines for the birds, and reasonable sight lines for me to observe them without disturbing them.

The boxes will need annual cleaning and this is much easier if they’re not high above the ground.

The boxes are about 6kg in weight … another very practical justification not to place them too high.

Nestbox #5

Nestbox #5

Apparently the only way you know if there are too many boxes in an area is if a proportion are always unused. I’ve put up 10 in about 2 acres, with the option of increasing this if needed.

At the time of writing (late March) birds are establishing their territories. Some of the boxes were being irregularly visited, but it was too early for any to be occupied.

Nestbox #2

Nestbox #2


 

B8007 – the road to everywhere

The B8007 is the sinuous single track road linking the villages of Salen and Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. This 19 mile, often tortuous, tarmac strip does a lot to protect the remoteness and largely unspoiled environment of the peninsula. Particularly at the eastern end, the combination of the encroaching oakwoods and numerous switchback corners discourages undue haste.

B8007 from Salen to Kilchoan

B8007 from Salen to Kilchoan

By day the scenery along the B8007 changes from the slightly claustrophobic mossy, verdant oakwoods clinging to the shore of Loch Sunart via windswept open moorland around Ben Hiant to panoramic, yacht-studded seascapes towards Mull or Eigg and Rum.

Or vice versa if you’re driving from west to east.

The straightest piece of road between Salen and Ardslingnish

The straightest piece of road between Salen and Ardslingnish

At night you drive down a narrow monochrome cone of light with the reflections from road-edge marker posts and passing places stretching off into the gloom. If you’re lucky you’ll see large stags down off the hill serenely melting away into the shadows as you pass.

If you’re unlucky you might hit one.

The A861 aperitif

Even before reaching Salen, visitors approaching from the Corran ferry will have already completed about 8 miles of single track A861 from Strontian. This starts almost immediately you get to the cattle grid at the eastern boundary of Strontian, and is a marked contrast to the long, fast straights of the two-lane A861 stretching across Ardgour.

These 8 miles generally have pretty good sightlines, ample passing places – more on these later – and are a reasonably gentle introduction to the main course. This is the loch-hugging stretch between Salen and Ardslingnish.

Salen to Ardslingnish

This part of the B8007 has some poor surfaces (though there’s worse to look forward to above Loch Mudle), the tightest bends, the narrowest corners and often non-existent sightlines.

Going east to west there’s trees, rocks and hills on your right and – in places – a low wall and water on you left. Here and there are gaps in the wall. Some of these are disconcertingly car-sized. The road stays close to the loch, sometimes at sea level and other times rising above it as it negotiates the contours.

After passing the Natural History centre at Glenmore the road rises to Ardslingnish and the views open out. There is a good place to park above Camas nan Gaell with great views across to Ben Hiant and Mull. This is a dependable place to spot eagles from, both golden and sea, either on the hill in front or the western ridges of Beinn Bhuidhe (“Behind you” as they say in panto).

B8007 and Beinn an Leathaid

B8007 and Beinn an Leathaid

After Ardslingnish the road remains single track, but it’s less tortuous and – with very few trees – you can see what’s coming and prepare accordingly.

Single track with passing places

As the title of this post states, the B8007 is the road to everywhere. It’s the only road.

Therefore the ~300 residents of Ardnamurchan, the estate workers, farmers, foresters and others lucky enough to live on the peninsula are, year round, the primary users. Then there are the delivery drivers, the builders, the telecoms engineers and dozens of others who are regular visitors. Finally, there is the influx of holidaymakers, the slow adventurers, the solitude-seekers and the sightseers.

Permit overtaking

Permit overtaking

At times the road can get quite busy. Fortunately the road has hundreds of passing places and it’s relatively rare for vehicles to have to reverse.

As long as you are travelling at an appropriate speed for the road – which might mean 15mph on a couple of corners – there’s usually time to see an approaching vehicle and for one or the other to pull in.

Etiquette and priorities

Which brings me to the thorny question of who has priority? Who should pull over?

Is it the vehicle closest to the passing place? Is it the car travelling less fast? Perhaps the visitor should let the local through unimpeded? Is it the gleaming Bentley or the mud-spattered Toyota Hilux?

Tricky.

Having driven the road many times it’s clear there is a hierarchy amongst the majority of the users.

For two vehicles travelling in opposite directions size appears to be the primary consideration. A car gives way to a lorry which gives way to a tractor and trailer.

However, there are some nuances to these interactions and it involves all sorts of near-instantaneous judgements being made. Locals tend to be driving faster and so often get priority even if they’re driving a Smart car (like the Sanna Spice deliveries).

Everyone – at least everyone with any sense – gives way to the mud-spattered Toyota Hilux travelling at 50mph as the driver simultaneously talks to his dog in the passenger seat, tunes the radio and phones ahead to say he’s late … 😉

Rear view mirror

Who has priority when two vehicles are travelling in the same direction?

Is it the visitor enjoying the scenery? The local returning from the Co-op in Mallaig? The Shiel bus on the way to the ferry?

By rights it’s the vehicle travelling fastest, irrespective of whether it’s a local or a visitor. This applies whatever the sizes of the vehicles.

This of course means that the mud-spattered Toyota Hilux, local driver plus dog takes priority over almost everything travelling in the same direction.

The only thing that trumps the Hilux is an ageing motorhome with three bikes obscuring the rear window, a canoe on the roof and a bumper sticker bearing the words Adventure before dementia.

Drivers of vehicles like these seem to spend their entire journey (understandably) gawping at the scenery, they never use their mirrors, have little spatial awareness and are seemingly totally deaf.

Don’t ask me how I know but my dog will back me up 😉


Notes

The road to nowhere

The road to nowhere

The title of this post is a bastardisation of “The Road to Nowhere”, a track on the 1985 Talking Heads album Little Creatures. David Byrne wrote the song and directed the video that accompanied its release.

The Road to Nowhere is also the name given to a number of incomplete highways in the US. These include Lakeview Drive on the north shore of Fontana Lake in North Carolina and the $25M Gravina Island Highway to the non-existent Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska.