I’m guilty of not having posted on here for quite a while, but in my defence, I’ve been pretty busy. The funding which underpins our conservation work here on the Forest runs out next year, and it falls to me to apply for the money to replace it.
Higher Level Stewardship, a grant scheme from Defra, has supported heathland conservation on Ashdown Forest for the last 10 years, but the scheme is now coming to an end. It will be replaced by Countryside Stewardship, again a Defra scheme, administered by the Rural Payments Agency and overseen by the government’s conservation advisors, Natural England.
So I am busy putting together a bid for funding under the new scheme, which will now cover woodland management as well. As the biggest wildlife site in the south-east and a site enjoying the highest level of protection for the habitats and species it supports, we’re quietly confident that funding will be forthcoming, but there is still an awful lot of paperwork to complete.
The aim is to bring the Forest into what Natural England call ‘favourable conservation status’, which means getting just the right balance of habitats and features required to support the species that make the Forest special. We’re very close already – in fact, areas of the Forest are already ‘favourable’ – but there are a few issues we still need to tackle:
Gorse is incredibly important on the Forest. It supports more insect species than heather, and at the right age and size it provides habitat for the rare Dartford warbler. However, there is currently too much of it on the Forest, and the past regime of mowing has created dense stands of even-aged gorse to the exclusion of everything else.
At some time in the distant past, bracken must have been a well-behaved component of the British landscape. These days, however, it seems to take over, possibly as a result of too much burning in the past. We have been mowing it for many years, which weakens it but also creates ‘lawns’ of grass in its place.
Most of the woodland on the Forest is relatively recent, having colonised open areas in the last 40 years or so. As a result, most of it is of the same age and has little diversity of structure and, in particular, a lack of dead wood. Deer pressure has added to this, suppressing any seedlings that manage to germinate. We need to address the deer issue but also to increase diversity by selective thinning.
We seem to have more than our fair share of non-native plants trying to invade the Forest. Shrubs like Rhododendron and Gaultheria are creeping out into the woods and heaths, the damp stream-sides have Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, and we even have the dreaded New Zealand swamp stonecrop, which covers ponds in a choking blanket of green. We have a duty to control these, though we will never eradicate them entirely.
Much of what we want to achieve can be brought about by grazing; livestock eat the scrub, trample the bracken and break up the ground to allow regeneration to take place. Many people living within or around the Forest have Commoners’ rights to graze livestock, though very few currently exercise those rights; we are looking to work more closely with Commoners to reinstate this traditional form of management.
We do, though, have a conflicting responsibility to maintain free public access to the Forest on foot and horseback, and have no wish to restrict public movement and enjoyment through too much fencing. To get around this, we are currently experimenting with ‘invisible’ fencing, which uses a buried loop of wire to confine cattle to a specified area. The cattle wear a collar which responds to the wire by producing a ‘beep’ or, if they get too close, a mild electric shock; humans, dogs and horses are not affected, nor is there any visible sign of the ‘fence’ above ground.
We are currently trialling this system between the old airstrip and Isle of Thorns, and it seems to be working well.
But now I had better return to my form-filling. Think of me, dear reader, as you enjoy the fresh air of the Forest, and keep checking back for more news on our funding bid.