A day with the Hastings park rangers

Ranger Alex Bayley
Ranger Alex Bayley
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THE term park ranger tends to conjure up images of the all-American stereotype. What relevance do they have then here in Hastings? As it turns out, the name itself is slightly misleading, as our rangers look after the town’s parks and green spaces, yes, but the impact of their work goes much deeper.

Murray Davidson, environment and resources manager for Hastings Borough Council, said: “The challenge is getting more people involved in parks and open spaces.

Highland Cattle at Hastings Country Park

Highland Cattle at Hastings Country Park

“The parks in Hastings are so well-kept and well-managed. The thing about Hastings is that people are really passionate about different areas of concern.”

A sunny day in September, as it turns out, is the perfect time to get to know the park rangers, whose work as one may expect takes place to a large degree, outdoors.

The 40 nature reserves and green spaces of Hastings and St Leonards stretch from Hastings Country Park in the east to Marline Valley nature reserve in the west.

All this is overseen by five park rangers, and two estate rangers. They are not superhuman (although their enthusiasm for the job is), so I was determined to find out exactly how they do it.

Nick Hennessy at Shornden Reservoir, Alexandra Park

Nick Hennessy at Shornden Reservoir, Alexandra Park

Their areas of responsibility range from the vast Hastings Country Park, prized Alexandra Park and St Leonards Gardens (all three are Green Flag Award sites in recognition of their quality), right down to tiny Swan Gardens in the Old Town. All come with their own challenges.

The work of the rangers can broadly be divided into the following categories: conservation and managing the natural environment; education; and enforcement, so by its very nature the work is never ‘done’.

Working on projects that suit their particular interests and specialisms, the rangers are partly proactive and partly reactive. They all share a job description, but the remit of a ranger is so wide-ranging that there is plenty of scope for them to work in areas that they are each passionate about.

Hastings Country Park is slightly different from the other parks and green spaces. Its size (660 acres) means that one ranger, Alex Bayley is based there full-time, along with the two estate rangers.

Alex has held this position for about eight years, and is the first ranger to show me his patch. Our first point of call is the East Hill. En route, and deep in conversation, we spot a kestrel swoop overhead. “See that, that’s what makes this job different!” he says. It is not difficult to see where his enthusiasm comes from; the country park is an enviable office.

Alex previously worked in enforcement, as a traffic warden. Part of the job of a ranger is enforcement - they have the power to hand out on-the-spot fines for dog fouling, or littering for example, but there is much more to it. He has a particular soft spot for the teams of volunteers whose vital work keeps the country park, which this year was one of three in the town to scoop a prestigious Green Flag Award, in tip top condition. A small team of volunteers take turns to run the visitors’ centre, while others get stuck in with habitat management projects, on a monthly basis. It is part of Alex’s job to coordinate these groups.

He said: “The volunteers really enjoy the habitat management work. There’s a real sense of achievement.”

A key word is ‘access’, the involvement of the community is important, and much of the work at the park involves keeping it in good shape for the many thousands of visitors that pass through every year. This shows through in his accommodating attitude towards the dog walkers that we pass along a narrow country track. “You don’t have to mind me, I have to mind you,” he shouts out to them.

Many visitors to the park seem to know Alex, and he always stops to say hello and pass the time of day. “If you have the time, I think you should make the effort,” he said. “It makes people feel welcome.”

After making the rounds of the East Hill, checking for litter, fly tipping, and illegal campers (relatively common during the summer months), we head to Alex’s HQ, Warren Cottage, off Pett Level Road. Here we meet Chris Morns one of the estate rangers, part of whose job is to look after the herd of highland cattle that are used for grazing and bracken control. They are a friendly bunch and as we approach their field, they make their presence felt. “They have their own fan club,” Chris said. “There are visitors that come and talk to them over the fence.” The two estate rangers are responsible for maintenance and repairs in Hastings Country Park, and their list of duties changes according to what needs doing, including installing fences, or clearing paths. They also work closely with the park ranger and the contractors at Fairlight Farm.

Monitoring the various animal species that call the park home, is important, as it is a good indicator of whether the team are moving in the right direction in terms of biodiversity.

Alex takes charge of the weekly reptile survey, which I get to experience first-hand. He takes me out on the gator (a small, zippy, off-road vehicle) to a wild section of the park near Warren Cottage that is closed off to the public.

Here he has laid 17 metal sheets, which attract cold-blooded species, providing the perfect environment in which they can warm up.

As he lifts them up one by one, we are on the lookout for common lizards. They prove particularly camera-shy, with only one making a fleeting appearance. However we do spot a shrew, a wood mouse, and several slow worms (Interesting fact: they are reptiles, not snakes, distinguished by their eyelids).

Alex records what we see, and all of this information will later be entered into a computer program, which can be used to spot trends.

He takes me out to Firehills to see one of the projects that the volunteers are currently working on. They are clearing an area of gorse that was damaged in a fire earlier this summer, to encourage new habitats to develop.

Alex is also, along with the other rangers, heavily involved in designing and coordinating the extensive programme of walks, talks, volunteer task days, and activities, for both adults and children, which runs throughout the year.

Rangers’ tasks range from the mammoth to the minute. Clearing overhanging branches on a lake, to resolving conflicts between user groups, to supporting the work of the emergency services, for example when fire breaks out at the country park.

But even the smallest of tasks take on a grand scale, when you consider how few rangers there actually are, and the size of the area that they are covering.

The HQ for the four ‘urban’ park rangers is a small office in Alexandra Park, across from the cafe. This fits well with their general air of approachability.

These rangers do a very similar job to that of Alex at the country park, but there is perhaps even more of an emphasis on education and community involvement, when looking after the urban parks.

Nick Hennessy shows me around Alexandra Park, known by the rangers as ‘the jewel of Hastings’, and now I am with an expert, I begin to see it with different eyes. He gives me an idea of what a working day might involve, using this park as an example.

Nick started as a volunteer at Hastings Country Park for two years before becoming a ranger 11 years ago.

Patrolling the parks, and making sure they are safe environments for visitors, is an important part of the job.

As we walk by the boating lake he tells me of the time he was berated by an irate father, child in tow, who demanded to know when the seagull problem was going to be sorted out. Fair enough, one might say, apart from the fact that he was at the time throwing hunks of bread to, yes, none other than a hungry flock of seagulls.

Nick loves the hands-on work, and counts the ancient art of laying a hedgerow as one of his recent pleasures, explaining how it serves the dual purpose of keeping unwanted visitors out, and providing a habitat for small creatures.

He shows me Shornden meadow, a wildlife only area that is currently closed to the public. Along with a team of people working as part of the community payback scheme, he aims to clear the land completely and put in drainage channels, to encourage a new habitat to flourish.

“People tend to assume that where the land is bare, the habitat has been destroyed, but the opposite is often the case,” he says.

Eventually, the plan is to have the meadow as an educational area, inviting school groups to explore the natural environment.

Nick reflects on the vast amount of conservation work there still is, and will always be, to do. He describes it as a constant battle, but remains staunchly positive. “We are winning,” he says.

Julie Apps is passionate about education and fairness, and removing any barriers that may stand in the way of various groups making the most of their environment.

In a previous life Julie has been both a street warden, and a counsellor, and this job almost seems a combination of the two.

She is fearless, and always determined to engage with individuals to make a difference, whether it be street drinkers or school children.

Both are groups that she regularly comes into contact with as a park ranger.

“I genuinely care about parks and gardens and people respecting them,” she says, adding, “Being a ranger is a great opportunity to meet people and be part of the community, there is no point in complaining about things if you are not prepared to do something about it.”

She speaks enthusiastically of her involvement with the Sussex Autistic Community Trust, where she has been working with a group of adults, carrying out light gardening in Swan Gardens, in the Old Town.

I take to the road with Julie in the rangers’ vehicle and visit a handful of the parks and spaces around town that the rangers have responsibility for. This includes Church Wood, with its Forest School site, where primary school children spend time learning outside of the classroom environment.

While with Julie in St Leonards Gardens, I witness park ranger enforcement in action, as she approaches a couple with a dog off the lead, and is on the receiving end as they make vocal their frustrations at being told they face a fine.

Many of the parks and nature reserves have ‘friends of’ groups, committed to enhancing the natural environment.

They meet regularly coming up with ideas for improvement, which can then be put to the council. They also work together with the rangers on conservation tasks.

The Friends of Alexandra Park are currently working with rangers to develop a new tree walk.

As Julie says: “The volunteers are literally priceless, they give their time for free. I don’t know what we would do without them.”

The rangers may seem to be keeping a low profile, but be assured this is not the case.

Wherever you see a well-tended park, where there are local people flocking to use their safe and accessible public spaces, where there are schoolchildren who appreciate the value of respecting their natural environment, where there are groups of volunteers turning out for routine maintenance or one-off projects, you can be sure the Hastings park rangers have had a hand in it somewhere.

For more information on Hastings’ parks and open spaces, and the work of the rangers, visit www.wildhastings.org.uk or www.hastings.gov.uk/rangersblog, or call 01424 451050.