Every Step Counts at Hatfield Forest - the challenge of Winter opening
Wet weather takes its toll on Hatfield Forest, especially in the late autumn, winter and early spring. As the ground conditions deteriorate, we ask you to please be patient. Together, we can take EVERY STEP to care for the Forest at this time of year.
Why does Every Step Count?
Hatfield Forest dates back to medieval times. Its ancient woodland soil gives life to all of its wildlife and makes it the special place it has come to be known. Today we welcome half a million visits every year - twice as many as ten years ago – that’s a lot of footsteps on muddy paths. Because the local area is being built on so quickly, the number is growing.
The grass on the historic paths is being worn away. The clay soils are heavily compacted and waterlogged, resulting in some areas becoming a muddy mess. Ancient woodland soils are now very rare. They take a thousand years to be created but can be damaged and eroded in a matter of weeks. This has a serious impact for our much loved, ancient Forest.
A very special place
While Hatfield Forest may look like other forests or woods you’ve visited, it’s actually a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, so there are steps we must all take to look after it and keep it special for everyone.
Paths Health Check
We regularly monitor the condition of our path network and nearby habitats. Using fixed point photography, we can soon see the conditions worsen and take direct action when necessary.
This health check map shows the situation a few years ago and this winter the situation has got significantly worse with the mild, wet conditions. Please continue to follow the path diversions in place and stick to the centre of a path where possible so as not to erode into the woodland:
What steps can we all take?
To help manage the most vulnerable paths, we will need to let some rest and recover. We’re already seeing good signs of recovery, but there is still more to do and nature needs time to rest, recover and rejuvenate. This year, our diversions will continue to give the most vulnerable paths a rest. There will be diversion signs in place, but you can also plan your walk by downloading our diversions map.
In the depths of winter, to help prevent lasting damage to this special place, please try to stick to the grassy open areas, surfaced routes and walk single-file when passing others. If you come across a very muddy path, please retrace your steps and find another way round, rather than walk along the edges and widen the muddy area. If you walk at the edges of the path, you will be trampling on some of the rarer plants which call this place home. Out in the open spaces, social distancing is easy.
Drainage and Parkland restoration
Over the past few years we have noticed that, with wetter winters, the drainage network was not working as intended, becoming silted up and ineffective. The restoration and repair work undertaken last summer by Miles Water Engineering Ltd, a leading East Anglian specialist drainage company, focussed on improving the historic (and more recently added) drains around the busy picnic area.
Here we have also restored some really important parkland habitat – a landscape designed by Capability Brown in the mid-1700s. As well as opening up some great views not seen since the invasion of hawthorn scrub during WWII, its grassy surface will also help to stop soil erosion and siltation of the lake and provides much more space for picnicking.
In addition, we have extended the area of hard standing, in front of the Fishermen's Shelter, to make this more resilient in the winter months.
Ride cutting for multiple benefits
We cyclically cut back the coppice vegetation, bramble and scrub that would otherwise invade the margins of the rides (the paths throughout the coppices). The light let in by this work helps a variety of wildflowers such as the oxlip to establish. These provide food for many rare insects, which in turn are eaten by birds – a vital food chain. The ride cutting helps access too, not only by restoring the ride width, but also to allow more circulation of air. Wind is a more effective drying agent than sunshine, for the wet surfaces.
What about events?
We are no longer running any large scale events during late autumn, winter and early spring. We have also changed the format of some events and have had to make difficult decisions about others throughout the year, to help the Forest recover.
Once the ground conditions are better, we host some of our more popular events, but monitor the impact of these with the support of Natural England. We'll continue to keep you updated on all our events.
But how do we continue our vital conservation work?
It is important that our team of Rangers continue their work all year round. During winter, you may have seen the team busy working on wood pasture restoration, coppicing and ride cutting, as well as sheep husbandry to care for our conservation grazers..
To carry out this work, our team only use vehicles fitting with low pressure tyres, including an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) which is designed to be driven in all conditions, whilst limiting impact and erosion of the ground. Wherever possible we use hard surfaced roads in and out of the Forest or we walk. Sometimes we need heavier equipment taken out to site, so we use routes which have been carefully chosen to reduce impact to the Forest.
One of our 'conservation in action' success stories is that thirteen years ago the team restored and deer fenced an area of coppice south of Forest Lodge in the hope it would provide suitable nesting habitat for nightingales. These rare birds had sadly been absent here for several years but once the coppice had turned to thicket, the birds returned. During May, you could be lucky enough to hear them singing their hearts out once more.
Understanding the bigger picture
As part of Every Step Counts, we commissioned a renowned ecological consultancy - Footprint Ecology - to undertake a condition survey, as the Forest was continuing to show severe signs in winter of being over-capacity in terms of visitor footfall.
Unfortunately, the survey report was alarming and the governmental body who monitor SSSIs (Site of Special Scientific Interest), Natural England, formally recorded that Hatfield Forest is now at threat of its current condition status declining. The stark reality is that if the impacts created by excessive footfall continue to rise, Hatfield Forest will inevitably suffer a significant loss of wildlife species. With its sheer biodiversity being what makes it uniquely and internationally important, this is a really worrying situation. Find out more about their findings in this article.
Play your part by calling for more green space in the local area
Some of the challenges the Forest is facing are down to lack of significant, alternative green space in the surrounding area. If you'd like to influence the future green space provision in the Local Plans, and find out why it's so important in new developments and the surrounding countryside, you can read more about the benefits of urban green spaces here.
Playing your part in shaping Hatfield Forest's future
At the start of Every Step Counts, we wanted to know what the Forest meant to you and how we could better balance access for all our visitors, whilst still caring for this very special place.
We started our Stakeholder Dialogue process by working with Dialogue Matters and held two community workshops, a drop-in event at the Forest and an online survey - thank you to all those who took part.
The output of this work was:
The outcome of the workshops was the formation of a Stakeholder Working Group, made up of people representing different areas of interest and user groups. These people worked with us to progress the ideas and solutions which came out of the Stakeholder workshops. This is only the beginning, and we greatly value the time you have all taken to help us try and find a sustainable future where there is a balance between nature and access.
These newsletter chart some of their progress:
A big thank you
We’re committed to caring for Hatfield Forest and thank you all for your support. Together, we can find a way to secure a healthier future for the Forest and make sure it can be enjoyed by everyone, forever.