Volunteers team up with English Heritage on hillfort maintenance

Local love for a Shropshire heritage site is being put to good use through a progressive new volunteering initiative. 

Earlier this year on Valentine’s Day, residents of Oswestry on the Shropshire/Wales border congregated on Old Oswestry hillfort in a symbolic hug of protection. Now they are turning their affection into hands-on support with the monument’s maintenance under the supervision of its national guardians, English Heritage.

Members of the HOOOH Community Group, which is promoting local engagement in Old Oswestry’s future, are recruiting volunteers to help English Heritage with landscape management and monitoring. Tasks will range from scrub clearance and pond maintenance, to taking fixed-point photos and supporting environmental initiatives to aid the hillfort’s preservation and upkeep.

(L to R): HOOOH Community Group volunteers Neil Phillips, Rob Baur and Katie Jones install a ‘No Bikes’ sign as their first task working with English Heritage.

(L to R): HOOOH Community Group volunteers Neil Phillips, Rob Baur and Katie Jones install a ‘No Bikes’ sign as their first task working with English Heritage.

English Heritage is also keen to work with other local organisations including colleges with expertise and interest in undertaking potential biodiversity and animal management initiatives on the fort.

The scheme is one of just a few in England involving local volunteers in landscape maintenance combined with environmental and wildlife initiatives at an English Heritage site. It is hoped that the success of the partnering at Old Oswestry will pave the way to more volunteering of this type, especially at unstaffed and more remote properties.

English Heritage is the charitable trust which cares for over 400 historic monuments, buildings and sites across the country – it became separate from Historic England, the government service championing and offering advice on heritage, in 2015. As part of its mission as a charity, English Heritage is committed to including the wider community in its work and expanding opportunities for volunteers. Currently, around 2,000 people are involved with volunteering at some 50 of its 400 sites.

Volunteer involvement

HOOOH Community Group member, Neil Phillips, and heritage adviser, Tim Malim, recently met with English Heritage representatives to discuss the scope of volunteer involvement.

English Heritage has an established management plan in place for the hillfort, though recent wet summers have impacted on control of undergrowth, particularly around the ‘ponds’ or pits on the western side. New gates installed in 2015 have improved access for the landscape contractor. An additional log bench is due to be installed this year by the ‘floating’ path at the western entrance.

During a tour of the hillfort, plans were discussed for clearing overgrown areas, especially bracken, with minimal disturbance to wildlife. This would include an annual cutback of willow and woody growth in the winter, and control of bracken in the summer.

A newt and ecology survey was undertaken earlier this year to help assess what additional tasks can be tackled, and when, alongside regular grounds maintenance during the next 12 months. English Heritage will be updating its landscape maintenance plan to offer a range of opportunities for volunteers, including a programme of pond clearance this autumn.

Volunteers, with Maggie Rowlands and Tim Malim in the foreground, get to grips with locations for taking monitoring photography on the hillfort.

Volunteers, with Maggie Rowlands and Tim Malim in the foreground, get to grips with locations for taking monitoring photography on the hillfort.

Tim Malim said: “Managing the earthworks is a complex mission, with the need to balance several conflicting interests. Uncontrolled vegetation is a threat to the monument, and one of the best methods for managing this is through grazing the ramparts. But access to water and steep slopes make this difficult without unsightly fencing being introduced.

“Another balance has to be achieved between wildlife and the historic monument. There is a need to control the rabbit population and cut down scrub undergrowth and bracken, while maintaining habitats for newts and linnets at critical times in the year.”

English Heritage West is responsible for over 135 scheduled and listed sites across a substantial area stretching from the Scilly Isles to Cheshire.  The Charity is keen to involve local groups and volunteers as “outreach caretakers” to undertake maintenance tasks and site monitoring.

As a first task, HOOOH volunteers have installed ‘No Bikes’ signs to deter bikers from scrambling over the 3000-year-old scheduled earthwork and causing severe erosion scars. Help is also being sought with a fixed-point photography project to document the impact of on-going maintenance work.

Push-bikes are prohibited as a new safeguard against damage to the 3000-year-old monument which is known as ‘The Stonehenge of the Iron Age’.

Push-bikes are prohibited as a new safeguard against damage to the 3000-year-old monument which is known as ‘The Stonehenge of the Iron Age’.

Before leaving, the English Heritage team visited the Artists Hugging the Hillfort exhibition at the Willow Gallery in Oswestry. With over 60 art pieces, including work by local school children, they were impressed by the local pride and strength of feeling shown for Old Oswestry.

Volunteer Neil Phillips said: “As one of many local people that have been inspired by Old Oswestry since childhood, this is a constructive and rewarding way to be more closely involved in its conservation. The HOOOH Community Group is proud to contribute through the volunteers’ initiative, following the example of the town’s archaeology and history groups, as well as the hillfort landscape improvement project, which have long championed the hillfort.”

Anyone who would like to volunteer should contact Mr Phillips in the first instance on 07751 160576.