After the fire

I recently took a walk down from Millbrook East car park to look at the area we burnt this spring. As it was my first burn on the Forest, I was keen to see how the vegetation was responding, and I was pleasantly surprised. The first sign that all was well was the presence of plenty of Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica) in flower. This is a partial parasite on the roots of grasses, and the fact that it was flourishing bodes well for some of the other perennial herbs, particularly the Marsh gentian.



Whilst grubbing around on my hands and knees for the photo above, I had a quick look at some woody stems, to confirm that they were, as I suspected, Creeping willow (Salix repens). I was surprised to find a couple of clusters of eggs on the underside of the leaves.


The owner of the eggs was close by – a Red poplar leaf beetle (Chrysomela populi). Despite its name, it seems quite common on willows, with plenty of records from Creeping willow.

Red poplar leaf beetle

Red poplar leaf beetle

All this activity suggests that the burn has certainly done no harm, and will hopefully have benefited a range of heathland species. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the site as the season unfolds.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer


Plants that bite back

Lots of plant species are coming back to life on the Forest; one that I’m particularly excited to see is the Round-leaved sundew. This is a carnivorous plant – it catches and digests insects using the sticky glandular hairs on its leaves. This is an adaptation to the poor soils of places like Ashdown Forest; the sundew obtains nitrogen and other nutrients from the bodies of its prey.

If you look closely, the leaf at the top of the photo has caught a fly

If you look closely, the leaf at the top of the photo has caught a fly

The Round-leaved sundew is uncommon but widespread in the UK; it is very much associated with Sphagnum moss and peat bogs, an increasingly scarce habitat. It does have a particular Ashdown Forest link, though. One of the earliest books on plants that catch and digest insects was written by Charles Darwin. Prior to his research, there was a lot of debate about whether or not the capture of insects was deliberate, and if the plant actually derived any nutritional benefit from the process. In The Insectivorous Plants, published in 1875, Darwin showed conclusively that the carnivorous habit was a deliberate mechanism to supplement the plant’s diet. And the sundews he used in his studies, in his greenhouse at Down House in Kent, were collected from Ashdown Forest.

I hope he had permission!

The kind of nutrient-poor peaty pool favoured by sundews

The kind of nutrient-poor peaty pool favoured by sundews

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

Fencing, more fencing and a lot of rubbish!

Recently in our funny 6000 acre world we have been focusing on the fences around the main grazing area. For the most part, we don’t need to replace the wire, just replace stakes or posts, and missing fencing staples. Still, it is a nice excuse to be out and about on the Forest, although Dartford Warblers still evade me!

TomFence_tonemappedWe have also erected the electric fence for a smaller grazing area in Black Bog for our Galloway cattle. The lines through the taller vegetation had already been cut and it took us a couple of days to put up the fence. It isn’t electrified yet but warning signs will go up when it is!TomCone_tonemapped

This is the same area where we cleared the rhododendron earlier in the year and the Scots Pines in that area are a favourite of Crossbills, picking seeds out of fir-cones. Just as we were finishing the last stretch of the fence, one bird was feeding and dropping its discarded fir-cones so rapidly I was able to catch one! Here it is and you can see how all the spines on the fir-cone have been opened by the Crossbill.

I also saw in this area a Green Tiger Beetle, a heathland specialist, on the bare ground just above where we had been fencing.  These only appear at this time of year and if you can get close enough (this one didn’t hang around for long) you can see it has some very impressive pincers!

TomTigerBeetleThe job isn’t all fun, working in nice places and writing blogs, as we are in the middle of the Forest-wide litter pick. Needless to say, there are much more worthwhile things that we could be doing so could everyone please take their litter home with them!

There have been some highlights though, like when I was emptying one bag into another and found a female Great Huntsman Spider (Micrommata virescens) on the bottom. It was quite alright and it scurried away but I was really surprised by the vibrant, bright green!


That’s all for now from your friendly Countryside Worker,


Pooh Country

This is one of my favourite trees on the Forest; there’s a fantastic view from here, and I can picture A A Milne and young Christopher Robin sitting at the foot of it, discussing bears.


Steve Alton

Light my fire

It’s been a little while since my last blog and we’ve fitted a lot into that time!


First of all, here’s proof that we do work in all weathers, including this hailstorm which was almost a daily (and not always forecast!) occurrence.

We were clearing hardwood tree species and taking the product back to burn in our wood burner back at the Visitor Centre. The main reason, though, was to restrict the spread of trees into heathland, which in the long term would become woodland. However, we do leave Alder Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) as it is the food plant for the Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni).

We have been seeing the first butterflies emerge in the past 2 weeks, as well as some summer visiting birds, such as our heathland specialist, the Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata), and Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita).


A lot of the trees we remove are Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and some of the stumps are interesting shapes, like this one which I think looks like a seahorse (but that could just be me…)

I have also been trying using my Bushnell Trail Camera which I have used to record wildlife in previous roles and used it for the first time on the Forest the other day. Not surprisingly, the first thing it recorded was a pair of Fallow Deer, but it’s a start!

To see what was recorded, please follow the link:

One of the management practices that I have most looked forward to carrying out here has been controlled burning of areas. The first place I was on the scene of a burn was not far from Millbrook East car park and we were burning this area for the benefit of Marsh Gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe). Hopefully I’ll have some photos of this lovely little bright blue flower in July, which is the start of its flowering season.

TomBurnIn the meantime, here’s what ‘the burn’ looked like. One of the advantages of this management technique for removing vegetation is that no nutrients are being put back into the soil, which is key for plants that like low nutrient level soils.


When we have a controlled burn, we have means of putting the fire out should it spread, with 2 water tanks totalling 800 litres of water mounted on the back of one of our trucks and on one of the trailers towed by the tractor.

There are also fire breaks which are usually cut areas so there isn’t vegetation for the fire to use to spread to another area. In this case however, there was a very wet margin and you can see in this photo the limit which the fire spread to.

That’s about it for now. I’ll leave you with a photo of what the Forest looks like from Gills Lap Clump in the fog.

Tom SimonTomFog

Trees on the Forest

Many people are surprised to learn that we spend a lot of our time trying to stop trees growing on the Forest. That is because, for most people, the word ‘forest’ is synonymous with trees. Historically, though, ‘Forest’ was a legal term, denoting an area where it was illegal to hunt deer, which were the property of the Crown. Although most Forests would have had areas of woodland, they would have also have included extensive areas of open ground. They are more densely wooded these days solely because they generally grow good conifers, and as such have been planted up by the Forestry Commission.

Ashdown Forest is lucky in that it has largely escaped the attentions of commercial forestry, but the wide open spaces are continually threatened by the natural growth of trees, particularly birch. Left unmanaged, the Forest would revert to a relatively species-poor secondary woodland, of a type far from rare in the south-east, rather than the internationally-important heathland that it is today.

Open views and scattered trees characterise the Forest

Open views and scattered trees characterise the Forest

We do retain some woodland, however – the Forest is roughly 40% trees, 60% heathland – particularly because the woodland edge, where it meets the heathland, is an important habitat in itself. Most of the woodland is made up of natives, chiefly oak, birch and beech, and we do ourbest to remove non-natives, particularly rhododendron.

One species we do tolerate out on the heath is Scots pine. This is tricky one; it is native to the UK, but only in Scotland. Everywhere else it has been planted. But it is such an iconic feature of the Forest – the ‘clumps’, in particular, are Scots pine – that we let it stay. But it does spread; every tree we retain sends down a constant rain of seeds, and new seedlings spring up every year.


Scots pine dot the Forest landscape

One species that we will be getting rid of, however, is Turkey oak. This native of south-east Europe and Asia Minor as introduced to Britain as an ornamental, and is now spreading onto heaths and chalk grassland sites. It is the host species of the Knopper Gall Wasp, an insect which damages the acorns of the native oak, so affecting its ability to reproduce.

Steve Alton

Black Bog revisited

We’ll be putting up temporary electric fencing behind the HQ of Cats Protection soon. This is so we can get some livestock onto the area – affectionately known, to staff at least, as Black Bog – over the summer.

Black Bog is, as the name suggests, a gloriously soggy corner of the Forest, full of tussocks of Purple Moor-grass interspersed with Sphagnum moss. Scattered small ponds support damselflies and other delights. So why graze it?


Sphagnum moss


Unfortunately, in the absence of management, scrub has started to invade. Birch, Scots pine and the dreaded rhododendron are creeping in, and they will draw moisture out of the soil, drying the site out. We have already dealt with the rhododendron (see Tom’s post), so now it is time to tackle some of the other problems.

The grazing animal of choice for this area is the Galloway cow. The big, lumbering beasts will break up the overgrown tussocks of Moor-grass and prevent the regrowth of scrub, providing gaps for the native mire species to colonise.

Birch and Scots pine soon take over

Birch and Scots pine soon take over

Inevitably, whenever we fence an area of the Forest we upset someone. We’re bound to get in the way of somebody’s favourite walk or view, but we ask you to bear with us. It’s only temporary, so spare a thought for the damselflies. They’re going to love what we’ve done to the place.

Steve Alton

A week in Black Bog


This past week we have been working in the area that probably has many names; Black Bog, the bottom of the old airstrip or Braberry. Since most of what I was walking through felt like a bog, I’ll refer to it as Black Bog.


When the sun has been out, the light through the Scots Pines has been lovely and its really nice to take a moment to enjoy the view, but before anyone thinks that’s all I do here is what my view of the week has mostly been (see right).

I should mention that the brush cutter wasn’t on when I took this photo, but I have just flattened a stand of rhododendron with it!

Rhododendron ponticum, to give its full title, is one of the most invasive and dominating introduced plants in the UK. We are in the process of removing it from this area to prepare it for the grazing animals that will be used on this bit of land.

Once it is cut we gather it up and burn it on site. It’s not the easiest plant to burn and you can end up with a sort of un-burnt core to a rhododendron bonfire, hence this sort of horse-shoe shape.

TomFiredemonAnyway, that part of the Forest has been of interest for another reason this week as one of the Forest’s most notable birds, a Great Grey Shrike, was seen near there (thanks to the Ashdown Bird Group!) and as I was due to take a friend of mine around the Forest yesterday, I thought it would be churlish not to have a look!


Common crossbill

We didn’t find the Shrike but the first Scots Pine we walked under was full of Common Crossbills!

This is a male which is red and the female is green. For those who don’t know, the mandibles of their bills cross at the end to enable them to prise open fir-cones to get the seeds.

The flock we saw were very settled and gave great views but left at about 3:30 to go another part of the Forest. It turns that a member of the Ashdown Bird Group arrived at that spot about when we left and found the Shrike so we probably had our backs to it the whole time! Oh well! There were some lovely Woodlark at Poundgate which more than made up for it and the sunset wasn’t bad either!

Until next week,


Tom Sunset

A week in the trenches

This past week I have been working alongside Colin, the other Countryside Worker/tractor driver at Ashdown Forest, clearing Silver Birch regrowth by the side of New Road.

This is one occasion where the camera does lie because I seemed to have not taken a photo of the rainy and windy conditions we have been working in so it appears that we have only been working in idyllic sunshine.


When the idyllic sun was shining on one particular evening, the low light highlighted the zig-zag pattern of a WW1 practice trench. In that atmosphere and I suppose because a bit of the 100th anniversary coming up it felt quite evocative.

There are a number of WW1 and WW2 sites over the Forest and many different types of feature that has been left behind.  More information on features like this are can be found on our website.

Apart from admiring the archaeology, the week for the most part looked like this. TomGorse

Heather, with gorse, bracken and a tiny Stonechat in the middle on top. The reason why is in the background of the photo, to prevent the eventual domination of Silver Birch and maintain the biodiversity of the heathland habitat.

One bird we manage the habitat for has just returned and now Woodlark are displaying over the Forest.

Our work does mean that some areas get a bit muddy but this is not long lasting.

I even put up with muddy tea for a week!


This week we are clearing rhododendron, where we refer to as ‘the bottom of the airstrip’ or Black Bog and I saw another one of Ashdown’s specialist birds, a Crossbill, sit proudly on top of a Scot’s Pine tree but I wasn’t quick enough with the camera but there’s always tomorrow!

Tom Simon

Hello Blogland!

My name is Tom Simon and I am the new (well I’ve been here for about 2 months now) Countryside Worker for the Conservators fof Ashdown Forest.

To give a brief background of my journey to Ashdown, I have been pursuing a career in environmental conservation for a few years now. I left Plumpton College in 2008 with a foundation degree in Countryside Management and was then volunteering with the West Sussex County Council Low Weald Countryside Rangers and RSPB Pulborough Brook. My adventures have led me to volunteer and work respectively for the National Trust on the north Cornish coast and then the Farne Islands off the Northumberland Coast in 2009/2010.  I spent most of 2012 up in Aberdeenshire doing an internship based at RSPB Loch of Strathbeg and last summer working for Horsham District Council at Southwater Country Park! Phew!

I will try to describe my journey of discovery into Ashdown Forest as best I can and also give an idea of the work I undertake and hopefully some photos of what we are doing which aren’t all arty photography attempts.

That being said, here’s a Silver Birch from Chelwood Vachery that possibly looks like an animal you’d find on the Forest.

badger treeI will also try to describe some of the highlights of working on the Forest, such as the other day when I was waiting for one of our bonfires to burn down next to the entrance to Crest Farm and in the golden sunlight a male Hen Harrier flew over!

 I am very much looking forward to working at Ashdown Forest and now that’s the introductory blog out the way, I will attempt to keep these blog posts regular.