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Our work at Morden Hall Park

Shire horse being hosed down with water on Home Farm, Wimpole, Cambridgeshire
Using heavy horses instead of machinery has brought benefits to Morden Hall Park | © National Trust Images/Claire Sargent

In the grounds of Morden Hall Park, we’ve been working to preserve traditional methods of looking after the land and the wildlife that lives here. Read more about our work and find out how you can get involved.

Heavy horses at Morden Hall Park

Heavy horses are once again cutting the hay meadows at Morden Hall Park. Old-fashioned hay cuts using heavy horses offer many benefits to both the natural environment and the rare horse breed doing the work.

In 2018 we brought heavy horses in to harrow and cut to manage our meadows for the first time in many years. Three years on we are already seeing the benefits of using heavy horses over machinery to maintain our meadows.

We’re planning to bring the horses back twice annually; once to harrow in February to help weaker plants to thrive by clearing dead matter and, secondly, to cut to do a hay cut in late summer to enable wildflower seeds to disperse.

Benefits of traditional methods

Compared to modern mowing machinery heavy horses offer lower levels of noise disturbance, soil compaction and impact on flora and fauna, as well as a much lower carbon footprint.

Flower meadows benefit from harrowing, cutting and raking with traditional working horses in the longer term too, slowly regenerating and allowing species to recover. We’re hoping to see wildflowers we’ve never seen before in the South Park.

Keeping heavy horses in work

Operation Centaur uses Shire horses, one of several breeds of heavy horse. Heavy horses have been dramatically impacted by the increase in mechanisation in past decades and Shires are now listed on the Rare Breeds watch-list as ‘at risk’. Find out more about Operation Centaur here.

How to get involved

Check the What’s On section of our website for details of community volunteering days around the hay cut.

We also host regular Weekend of Wildlife events. This brings our staff, volunteers, visiting experts and visitors together to explore and discover the variety of wildlife, plant and fungus that call Morden Hall Park home. These valuable events help us understand where wildlife live in the park, so we can better look after it, whilst providing a great learning experience for children and teens.

Join the Nature Group

Morden Hall Park Nature Group is a team group of adult National Trust volunteers who get together monthly to survey where wildlife lives in the park, so we can look after it.

The Group aims to monitor, protect and promote nature conservation and biodiversity in Morden Hall Park. Each year an Annual Report is produced detailing results and observations

The Nature Group also lead and run the Weekend of Wildlife and other nature themed events.

Group meetings take place at least six times a year on the third Thursday of the month in Morden Hall Park. To find out more and to join in, email or visit the Morden Hall Park Nature Group Twitter page.

Maintaining the wetland at Morden Hall Park

The wetland has been a feature at Morden Hall Park for many years. The previous owner of the estate, Gilliat Hatfeild, mentioned marshy ground in the North Park in his records. Originally this wetland was gravel beds and it then became the marshy ground we have today.

Wetlands are valuable because some species have adapted to live only in this habitat. Wetlands are threatened and rare in London and are one of the Trust’s priority habitats.

Morden Hall Park’s wetland is uniquely diverse for such a small area. Ongoing maintenance work is vital to preserve this diversity.

Why do we need to cut back the wetland beds?

Wetlands are largely a man-made habitat. If we don’t cut them back, trees encroach and reclaim the land and the area becomes a carr woodland (wet woodland). While maintaining the wetland, we want to create a range of habitats and heights and manage the area to best support the resident flora and fauna.

Within the wetland there are sedge beds and reedbeds. The sedge beds are cut every two years and the reedbeds are cut on an eight-year rotation. Sedge is thicker and needs machinery to cut, but in 2018 for the first time we cut both reeds and rushes with heavy horses.

Any work that we do has to take account of the natural features of the land. There’s a big ditch going through the middle and emptying into the River Wandle, which means when we drain the wetland to begin the cut we have to drain it in one go.

This puts time pressure on the maintenance work, because we don’t want to drain the wetland for too long so as not to unduly stress the flora and fauna living there.

Early in 2019, while the wetland was drained, we created new water habitats by digging new ‘scrapes’, shallow depressions around a foot deep. We also used the opportunity to enhance the habitat in as many ways as possible, including coppicing scrub.

Checking the beehives at Attingham Park, Shropshire
Traditional beekeeping at Morden Hall Park | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Traditional beekeeping at Morden Hall Park

Beekeeping has been an integral part of Morden Hall Park for hundreds of years. Throughout this time methods have changed but you can still see traces of the traditional ways here.

Rather than hives, bees were originally kept in skeps - woven baskets - housed in bee boles. Boles – the word derives from the Scots for recess – are alcoves in walls. You can still see eight old boles in the wall by the vehicle compound near the Stableyard, although the little roofs that protected them have gone.

In the days of skeps, beekeepers had to take them into cellars or greenhouses to keep bees warm in winter. Modern hives replaced skeps because their removable frames enabled beekeepers to inspect bees more easily to monitor their health. It also made the honey gathering simpler and less harmful to the bees.

Memories of beekeeping

One individual who remembers traditional beekeeping is Fred Howard, an apiary warden at Morden Hall Park for many years. His grandfather taught him to make skeps as a child and he has been beekeeping since he was eight years old.

Fred’s family connections with Morden Hall Park go back a long way. Old maps of the estate show ‘Howard’s Field’, and Fred’s grandfather knew Gilliat Hatfeild, who bequeathed the estate to the Trust. Fred recalls going round the estate on horse and cart rides with Mr Hatfeild on special occasions as a child.

At Morden Hall Park boles were still in use in the early 19th century (1820–1830) after which the bees were moved to removable frames in cottage hives. The hives were first situated in the kitchen garden and then moved to their current site by the river.

There used to be an observation hive in the Snuff Mill (the bee tunnel is still there in the wall – you can see it if you look carefully).

At Morden Hall Park we have a licence for up to 30 hives. They are managed by the Wimbledon Beekeepers Association (WBK). There’s still an apiary warden here and in most years WBK runs courses at Morden Hall Park to introduce people to beekeeping. WBK also runs talks every year.

Young boy with a butterfly net sweeping the meadow for insects, at Morden Hall Park, London.
Sweeping the meadow for insects, at Morden Hall Park | © National Trust Images/Oskar Proctor

Eel monitoring at Morden Hall Park

The eel-monitoring project at Morden Hall Park began in 2017, when the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) was seeking new eel-monitoring sites along the River Wandle. The Park is one of 13 sites along the Thames where volunteers from 22 partner organisations monitor upstream eel migration.

Heritage Lottery Funding allowed Morden Hall Park to pay for an eel trap and several eel passes, as well as training for staff and volunteers. ZSL trained Rangers, other staff and volunteers and monitoring began in June 2017.

How eel monitoring works

Members of the team check the eel trap daily, measure and release the eels, and record the results, uploading them as part of a wider project. Since the monitoring began at Morden Hall Park the trap has caught over 200 eels.

The trap here catches eels from mid-April to the beginning of October, while they are migrating from their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea, heading into our rivers to find a home to grow up in.

Why monitor eel numbers?

Eels are now classified as critically endangered and we’re monitoring levels because of concerns the numbers are dropping. Numbers are already down 90% on 1980s levels.

Threats to eel numbers:

  • Barriers to migration
  • Changes in climate and currents
  • Hydropower
  • Overfishing
  • Pollution
  • Parasites
  • Loss of habitat

Find out more on the ZSL website

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