Image of water vole burrow

A tale of voles and holes

It was wet and windy when we met to celebrate the completion of the Greater Easterhouse Green Infrastructure project back in December. The site at Blairtummock was perhaps a little raw looking, however, the cool temperature and soggy surrounds couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm for a great transformation.

As with any milestone reached it was a good opportunity to pause and take stock.

The project, which began in August 2018, was massive in terms of its size and covered three individual areas in Glasgow’s east end — Blairtummock, Cranhill and Croftcoign. There was an additional early challenge thrown into the mix. These sizable sites generated around 40,000 tonnes of earthworks spoil.

The chosen deposition site was inhabited by water voles and was quickly declared off limits, then to compound matters it was acknowledged that it simply wouldn’t be environmentally sound to have so much material going off site.

The imaginative solution was to use the soil and waste within the massive landscaped areas. Plans which had shown a site that was going to be flat were redesigned and, using the soil and spoilage creatively, saw the area sculpted and moulded with pleasing undulations

So the project quickly went from a flat vision to an almost accidental rolling landscape. And in amongst the modest slopes and gradients were ponds, swales and a freshly revealed burn. Here was mitigation against flash-flooding and increased episodes of heavy rain. And all of this created with materials which were often waterlogged and had to be dried out before they could be moved.

In amongst the shaping of the new site was the need to accommodate resident fossorial water voles. The hardy little rodents caught the public eye and unlike most water voles, which usually live on riverbanks, canals, marshes and reed beds, these grassland water voles had set up home on this very site.

For Patrick Kennan, who headed up the main contractor team for RJ MacLeod, these were ‘a good’ challenge, and you can sense that he feels an admiration and fondness for them.  “They get everywhere, absolutely everywhere,” he laughs. “But when I learned that they were fossorial and quite a rarity in Scotland I could appreciate their value. We’ve worked with SNH to ensure their safety, trapped about 200 of them, and are preparing to return them to their home. Whoever picks up the management of this site in future will have to factor the water voles into their actions. Anyway, I don’t think anyone grudges us running beyond the initial completion date due to accommodating them”.

“This is actually the first rejuvenation project I’ve been involved in. I’ve been involved in large windfarms, Transport Scotland trunk roads – a lot of big and different challenges, however, the hurdles on this one have been unique for me and I suspect that they would be a challenge for any contractor,” he said.

The Council not only had a knack of overcoming challenges such as water voles and keeping materials on site but generated considerable local goodwill by stipulating throughout their tendering process that the project had to deliver clear community benefits. This took several forms. On site many labourers were recruited from within a two-miles radius, one indeed living in a house which when the curtains were pulled back in the morning overlooked the Blairtummock site.

Schools were invited to come see what was happening.  Patrick is understandably particularly proud of this relationship. “We worked closely with the local primary here, even providing them with safety barriers when we learned of an issue they had,” he notes. “The bridges that we see in front of us used to be grey, I wasn’t particularly happy with the grey colour so we got the local school involved. They picked the colours, so now the bridges are red, green, blue and yellow and that provided a lesson in primary colours for the children back in the classroom. We brought the kids to the site and spoke about water voles and we explained to them the safety and hazard issues on a site like this. So I’d say that there has been a decent education process through the life of this project.”

“It is great that the community can now see what everyone has been working towards,” said Maureen Burke, a councillor and long-standing resident of the area. “It shows what can be delivered when we work in partnership. Now it’s going to be a place to enjoy, to come and reflect on what we have created. In summer it is going to be great asset for the elderly around here, for local nurseries and local schools, and it’s right on the doorstep of the college. I’m proud to be a councillor for the area, not just for being the elected representative but for being somebody who lives here, and to be part of making these things come to fruition.”

Catching the mood of the event superbly and with a dash of realism about the December weather was Councillor Kenny McLean. “This is a remarkable piece of regeneration of what was a derelict site,” he offered. “It is great to see it turned into this fantastic greenspace with the water courses, the burns, and the trees going in and it is going to be a tremendous asset to the local community. Obviously it is pretty rough at the moment, it’s just newly in, and still quite muddy (especially with the kind of weather we get at this time of year), but this is going to develop into a wonderful park for the local community here.

Spring will undoubtedly see Blairtummock, Cranhill and Croftcoign greening up. The wet and windy event in Easterhouse recognised the profound change from barren, over-grown blaze pitches to this new vision. Now the focus will be on using this new resource to the full, a bit like enjoying the sunshine after the rain.