Woodland Management Project at Sharpenhoe and Sundon Hills
Together, Sundon Hills Country Park, Moleskin and Markham Hills, Sharpenhoe Clappers and Smithcombe form a prominent ridge of hills at the northern tip of the Chiltern Hills. We are currently producing a woodland management plan for 2023 – 2033 to maximise benefits for nature, people and climate. We want to create a biodiverse, species rich and mixed aged woodland which maintains the unique character and historic culture of this special landscape.
Overview of Sharpenhoe and Sundon Hills
The woodland area covered by the woodland management plan is a total of 66.33 hectares. Other than a plantation of conifer trees (1.75 hectares of western red cedar), the entire area is within the Smithcombe, Sharpenhoe and Sundon Hills Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) of high value chalk grassland typical of the Chilterns landscape.
Over the next 10 years we proposed carrying out work to improve and restore the special habitats across these sites. Much of the management plan will propose ‘minimal intervention’ and the map below shows the areas of the landscape where we proposed carrying out a number of targeted actions.
Of the targeted actions identified, the following priorities have been identified:
1. Removal of conifer plantation and replanting with broadleaf trees and shrubs.
2. Removal of diseased ash on steep slope and reversion to chalk grassland.
3. Rotational coppicing of hazel.
1. Removal of Conifers
To enhance the wildlife value of the woodland, the conifer plantation will be felled and replanted with native broadleaf tree and shrub species. The steep adjacent slopes make it extremely difficult to access this area so the operation will be carried out in one operation, with all the conifers being removed at once. The area will be replanted with oak, hazel, beech and wild service
The timber will be sold to sawmills for processing into timber products. All income generated from the sale of timber goes directly to help us carry out our important conservation work.
2. Removal of diseased Ash Trees and reversion to grassland
A number of ash trees have been identified as having ash dieback disease. With the trees growing on the steep grassy slope and proximity to a footpath, the trees need to be removed for safety reasons.
The slope is adjacent to an old chalk quarry which contains an excellent example of species-rich chalk grassland (0.5 hectares), a rare and vulnerable wildlife-rich habitat. We propose to manage the site to establish a species-rich grassland habitat rather than replant trees or re-establish of tree cover.
3. Rotational hazel coppice
Hazel is the dominant vegetation on the eastern slope at Sharpenhoe.Hazel has been valued for centuries for producing long, straight stems in response to the pruning process known as coppicing.
Coppicing involves the repeated cutting back of trees to their base to promote new growth. The shrubby new growth provides wonderful habitat for a wonderful range of birds, insects and mammals who nest and shelter in the thick, dense vegetation. Once mature, the stems care harvested to produce a variety of products such as fencing materials, hedge binders, thatching spars, bean sticks, charcoal, and traditional crafts.
Our ambition is to coppice around 50% of the hazel area on a rotational basis over a ten-year period. Due to the challenging nature of the site we would look to work with local partners to help us carry out this important work.
Follow-up management and reversion to chalk grassland
Historic records show the entire scarp slope at Sundon Hills covered in ‘rough pasture’ across what is now the SSSI, a result of sheep-grazing on slopes that were too steep to cultivate. Over time the area would have been naturally colonised by trees as a result of the decrease in grazing pressure as changes took place throughout the 20th century. Whilst this naturally regenerating woody landscape does offer a great resource for wildlife, it has come at the expense of the previously widespread and extremely valuable chalk grassland. The registration of this area as Access Land in 2000 is also testament to its former nature as ‘open land’.
The Smithcombe, Sharpenhoe and Sundon Hills SSSI is designated as an important mix of habitats ranging from grassland, through scrub, to woodland. However, is it designated as a SSSI for its rich chalk grassland habitats which is the fastest declining, and most vulnerable of those present on the site.
Chalk grassland is characterised by an incredibly rich diversity of wildflowers growing closely packed together – up to 45 species per square metre which are home to a wealth of other creatures such as bees, butterflies and beetles, and the birds and bats which feed on them. Chalk grassland is internationally rare, and the Chilterns holds an important concentration of this habitat. Over the course of the 20th century, the Chilterns lost 54% of its chalk grassland. Much of what remains is confined to the steep escarpment slopes that have escaped arable cultivation and development pressure.
The ash trees are located next to the old chalk quarry which is one of the best areas of chalk grassland on this SSSI and a small fragment of the high-quality habitat that was once widespread on this escarpment. The thin chalky soils on the steep slopes have never been fertilised or subject to agricultural inputs. The existing grassland below the trees includes flowers that are typical of chalk grassland such as cowslip, basil, and orchids. This soil type has the potential to support a much greater diversity of grassland flowers, and thus to buffer and extend the chalk quarry habitat.
This area is located within an existing grazing compartment, and it will be the management and intensity of grazing that ultimately determines whether chalk grassland will re-establish on this slope.
In addition to grazing, we propose to collect and scatter ‘green hay’ from local sources to enrich the flower seed bank, a widely used technique in grassland restoration projects. It is also likely that, in the short-term, some cutting of vegetation will be required to supplement the grazing regime. This will be done by remote-controlled flail mower.
It will take time to re-establish high-quality chalk grassland, but the various stages of the process also have value for wildlife. It is likely that a mosaic of habitats will develop initially, including scrub and longer grass, which will add to the structural diversity, and is a valuable habitat in itself.
Grazing management as a strategic priority
One of our strategic priorities across all our Bedfordshire chalk grassland sites is to develop a system of targeted grazing that will be designed specifically for the management of the chalk grassland areas.
Getting the right grazing in place is crucial to maintaining and improving the condition of chalk grassland and the many species of flora and fauna that they support and is a challenge that is faced throughout the Chilterns. Modern livestock breeds do not thrive on this type of vegetation, and it is therefore uneconomic for many farmers. Further challenges are presented by the high levels of recreational dog walking on sites that are grazed by livestock.
We all know that there is a need to plant more trees that can absorb carbon to help mitigate the current climate crisis, and the National Trust is actively working to plant 20 million trees by 2030. At Dunstable Downs we are working on plans to plant 15,000 new trees, however, habitats other than woodland, such as grassland, are also important in taking up atmospheric carbon.
Climate change also presents a serious challenge to nature. Plants and animals will need to adjust to changing weather, and we can help them to do that by extending small areas of habitat, by providing connectivity for wildlife across the landscape, and by encouraging habitat diversity. The sinuous shape of the Sundon – Sharpenhoe ridge could offer plants and animals an excellent opportunity to find favourable conditions on differing slope aspects in response to future climatic change.
Nature in crisis
It is not only climate change that is causing a crisis in nature– we have wreaked havoc on our natural environment and are now amongst the world’s most nature-deprived countries. As identified by Professor Lawton’s landmark report ‘Making Space for Nature’, our wildlife-rich habitats such as those found on SSSIs and nature reserves need to be bigger and better, there need to be more of them, and they need to be more joined up.
We therefore have an urgent need to increase the area available for wildlife in the UK, but we also need to make targeted interventions to safeguard the rare species and habitats that remain. Small fragments of high-quality habitat, such as the chalk grassland in the old quarry at Sundon Hills, are vulnerable to outside threats. If they are to be resilient in future, they need to be enlarged.
Guided Walk around Sharpenhoe and Sundon Hills
Thursday 3 August | 6pm | Meet at Sundon Hills car park
Hosted by staff from the National Trust and Central Bedfordshire Council, this will be a great chance to see the area, hear about the plans first hand and feed in comments.
We'd like your feedback - you can send comments and questions to email@example.com
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