Keeping Dalkeith Country Park Beautiful
16th February, 2021
Ever wondered what it takes to keep Dalkeith Country Park a beautiful green space? We asked Alison Burke, our Park Manager, to give us a little insight into her day-to-day role. As well as an overview of how the Park Team is maintaining the precious landscape of Dalkeith Country Park for future generations to experience.
Ancient & Historic
“Dalkeith Country Park is somewhat unusual as historic estates go. Here the parkland is the focus of attention rather than the big house. This is reflected in the number of people that visit specifically to walk around this unique estate. “Of course, unique is an overused word, but what makes the Park truly unique is our Old Oak Wood. This is the only grazed parkland of this scale remaining in Scotland. The trees within it are said to be the descendants of the Great Forests of Caledonia. There are older trees in Scotland, but this grazed parkland gives you a glimpse into a past world.
If you stand at Steele Park you can see the undulations in the land left by a medieval run rig farming system. Look beyond it. You can see the cows eating away at the grass around the base of the oaks as they have done for generations. Turn around. Look towards Dalkeith Palace and the Bowl. There are the specimen trees that have been deliberately planted to create a fashionable landscape. Cross the road to our waymarked Yellow Walk. There is a mixture of coppiced Lime trees planted as an avenue, now overgrown with ivy, alongside trees that have self-seeded to create a semi-natural woodland.
Dalkeith Country Park essentially is a defined mix of grazed forest, arboretum, plantation woodland and semi-natural plantation woodland. What each have in common is that they are part of a designed landscape that requires huge amounts of management and care.
This awareness is what makes it so very special for us, as a Park Team. As we look at the Park, we see the layers of history and of fashions. All of that needs us to look after it. We understand that we are part of a continuing story. We are inheritors of the work of generations of monks, farmers, foresters, and, of course, the successive generations of three different families (Grahams, Douglases and the Buccleuch family). Each of us, over the centuries, is part of one, hopefully never-ending, story.
This continuity is both reassuring and intimidating. Looking after a Park with trees of such advanced years is on occasion nerve-racking. This is especially so when there are high winds, lightning or long periods of ice or rain. There is nothing sadder for us as when we lose a tree that has been planted in a specific place. This year we lost a large Chestnut tree at the start of the Old Wood( a Site of Special Scientific Interest – SSSI). It was hundreds of years old and very beautiful.
Looking at the landscape is something we would encourage everyone to do. Everything at Dalkeith Country Park is part of a deliberate design choice. The park first became ‘enclosed’ in 1637 when King Charles I wanted to buy the estate for the excellent hunting he could enjoy. Our SSSI Old Wood is a fine example of a hunting forest. The trees show all the signs of having been planted and looked after in such a way as to enable riding through the landscape following the deer. Since then, sections have been deliberately planted to give an effect. We would encourage visitors to stop and think why a tree is there, or even why there is no tree there.
Park Work – Then & Now
As a designed landscape, in its past over 100 ground staff would have been employed to maintain this estate. Many of them would work over night or early in the morning as an invisible workforce keeping the place looking pristine. This was a time when Park work would be kept out of sight. This was so that it always appeared naturally perfect. That pristine view of nature is an illusion. The woodlands were planted like a very large garden. Just as much as a garden, they need maintained. The Yellow Walk is a very good example of that. Its Lime trees are overgrown with ivy. We are a small team of three now. To keep the Park as a designed landscape we rely on the assistance of specialists from Nature Scot, or our contracted tree specialists and, of course, our volunteers.
The Park On Show
The Park has welcomed visitors from Dalkeith Town since the beginning of the 20th Century. Town residents would be expected to wear their ‘Sunday best’ as they walked the Park, which was only open two days per week. Now we open to pedestrians all year. We now annually have hundreds of thousands visitors come to enjoy our waymarked trails, Fort Douglas adventure playground and Restoration Yard’s restaurant, shop and Wellbeing Lab.
Obviously, the Park was not designed for such purposes and these huge numbers. This year has been particularly difficult for everyone. Covid-19 has brought with it fundamental changes to how we live and work. Access to nature and the benefits of our ‘Natural Health Service’ has never been so important as we all struggle to escape the oppression and claustrophobia of lockdown. However, this has seen the numbers to the park increase dramatically. This comes at a time when climate change is also causing the Park to struggle with the amount of rainfall. This means that we face new and difficult challenges that can only be solved if we work together with our visitors.
How Our Visitors Can Help
The main challenges of the Park Team centre on the Old Wood, the Park’s trails and everyone’s safety around the working farm on the estate. Everyone, all our visitors, can help keep this Park beautiful.
The Old Wood
We had to close the Old Wood in the last 12 months due to the erosion of its paths. Footfall causes compaction of tree roots. It leads to losing trees like our beautiful Chestnut. We ask our visitors not to climb gates or walk around panels so that these beautiful trees will be there for generations to come.
“We are also looking at ways to make the Old Wood a destination for two-legged walkers only. This is because our four-legged friends are unwittingly causing environment damage to our rare invertebrates and lichens. Much as we love dogs, their faeces is toxic to our organic cows and unique invertebrates. Also, dog urine is killing the rare lichens that make the Old Wood a SSSI.
“For our trails we would ask our visitors to stick to our paths and not make new ones. We have to inspect trees lining all the paths. As there are only three of us, if people make new paths we struggle to inspect all the relevant trees for safety. This is dangerous for everyone.
For the working farm at Dalkeith Country Park, with its livestock of horses and cows as well as its farm machinery, we would ask that visitors do not enter fields that have closed gates and to always give-way to farm machinery and horses. It is also very important that our visitors do feed any of the animals or leave dog waste bags.
If everyone sticks to these simple things it would make looking after the Park a lot easier.
What The Park Team Do Throughout The Year
Every week we have to undertake set tasks such as inspections of paths, trees, park furniture and bin emptying. Then we will plan the week ahead based on what we know is taking place because of where we are in the year or whether there is something special on. We will also undertake emergency work. For example, if a tree has come down or lost a branch, or a drain has blocked or section of path washed away.
Every year there are more jobs than we can keep up with. In general we split the year up to ensure that we are compliant with Government legislation.
In the winter we undertake any tree work so we are not disturbing nesting birds. This is the time that we also service our machinery for the summer and support events such as Spectacle of Light. This is also the time when we can really look at the trees to see how the branches are. It can be quite difficult to assess a tree when it is in full leaf. There are also weather related jobs such as gritting or snowploughing. The last two years we have focused on removing some of the holly, which has been overtaking the oaks. We then chip this holly to help with rainfall damage to the paths around the Park .
In the spring, summer and autumn we undertake a lot of grass cutting. This can be quite a complicated job as we have steep banks of the Bowl by Dalkeith Palace and need to use specialised equipment. It is also the time, usually, of many weddings, so we need to ensure the Park is looking its best. We have also been adding more planted areas. For example the formal planting of buxus globes around the Orangerie, which require us to swap our saws for secateurs.
We also host our volunteer days, when we undertake tasks that need many hands. This includes pulling out invasive species, like Himalayan Balsam or helping a tree by removing holly from its base or ivy from the trunk.
Our future lies in trying to find a safe and enjoyable way for the Park to accommodate the number of people who want to visit. The car parks are no longer able to accommodate the number of cars. The trails are struggling under the footfall.
We are looking at creating new routes, installing protection measures to existing routes and coming up with 21st century visitor orientation methods. Ideally, we would like to bring local people together to work with us on inventing solutions. Our local community is filled with people of knowledge and skill. We need to reach out to ask for volunteer assistance to come up with creative and inventive solutions that we can discuss with our statutory partners and then work together to implement.
It is a true pleasure to look after the Park and woodlands at Dalkeith Country Park. We are a small team and each of us is aware of how fortunate we are to care for this beautiful place.
Park & Projects Manager at Dalkeith Country Park