When is a field not a field? When it is about to become part of Heartwood Forest, the largest new native forest ever to be created in England. The Woodland Trust charity has bought 850 acres of arable farmland at Sandridge, north of St Albans, and begins planting the first of 600,000 new trees in November. This will be a major boost for the Hertfordshire environment and put us at the forefront of nature conservation in the UK. I went for a walk around the site this week and was briefed on the work by the Senior Woodland Officer overseeing the project, Al Crosby, and Trust expert, Dr James Cooper.
We started in one of the 2 small areas of ancient woodland remaining on the land. It is shocking to hear that nearly 50% of ancient woodland (defined as being over 400 years old) that survived until the 1930s has disappeared since then. This small wood is mainly hornbeam which would previously have been coppiced for firewood. It is well-used these days by local scouts and schoolchildren taking part in Forest School sessions run by the Forestry Commission. This striking sculpture is a memento of a willow-weaving course run over the summer.
We walked on across the field where planting begins in a few weeks. The Trust hope that all of the new trees will be planted by volunteers, so that the local community will feel a sense of pride as the forest takes shape. Within 12 years, the area should be recognisable as woodland. We carried on to the second area of ancient woodland, which had a very different character. This was mainly ash and oak. Al has had an inspired idea. The adjoining wheat field was harvested last year and could have been included in the re-planting scheme. Instead, he has decided to leave a large part of it undisturbed to allow the wood to regenerate itself. Apparently ash trees produce plentiful seeds, which are easily carried on the wind. I was staggered to see that within the past 12 months, scores of seeds have taken root over a wide area of the field and have already produced shoots up to a foot high. There are also oaks growing from acorns carried by squirrels, but these are less abundant.
This photo shows Al, me and James admiring one of the ash plants. I shall look forward to going back next year to see how this natural extension of the ancient woodland has progressed.
The Heartwood Forest project is exciting, imaginative and of enormous benefit to the county.