We seek the collaboration of the various volunteering groups at Ashridge, to record their work experience, and showcase the restoration work which is achieved. When reporting events we aim to be topical and informative about environmental issues as and when they might affect Ashridge, and to provide background information on the plants and wildlife. There is no direct or implied connection betweeen this Blog and the National Trust. The Blog does not seek any commercial gain.
Bishop’s Heath is parched and crisped by the last few weeks of dry summer heat, the heather is a burnt brown-to-burgundy, the heathland grass yellowed. The bracken looks all right – still a deep pea-green – it takes cold weather to bother bracken. The gorse looks Lincoln green with new growths of forest green getting ready to flower at the first sign of spring. The gorse has regenerated well from the maintenance it received some two years ago. This part of the Estate is acidic clay over chalk hence the bracken. It’s mid morning and the day hasn’t yet been fully cranked up – the broken sky is a messy palette of blues and greys while a loose flock of a dozen gold finches foraging for food, lights up the day.
Where am I ?
Ling Ride off Beacon Road is part of Ivinghoe common, and in 1420 was given to the Bonhommes in the monastery, later reverting to the Crown after the Dissolution in 1538. Queen Mary the 1st gave it to the Bishops of Lincoln in the 1550’s when it was known as Bishop’s Heath, but it reverted back to the Crown on her death. Lord Ellesmere Chancellor to James 1st and the first of the Bridgewater line, purchased it along with the Ashridge estate in 1604. It acquired the name of Ling Ride sometime in the 1800’s. Ivinghoe common used to stretch south passed Ringshall down to Witchcraft Bottom. Ling Ride is a rare example of lowland heath which the Trust were hoping to restore to its former state. Some four years ago the Thursday volunteers were tasked to remove areas of course grass and prepare a seed bed with the hope that dormant heather would recolonise – this has not gone to plan with hardly any new plants appearing. A more reliable method would be for the NT plant centre in Devon to propagate new plants from cuttings. More work needs to be done including the removal of encroaching bracken and brambles. Lowland heathland is a hugely important wildlife habitat and cultural landscape. The area that survives today is but a small part of what existed one hundred years ago. There are still many pleasures to be had on the heath before the autumn chills set in. The shy slow-worm can be found warming itself beneath the corrugated metal sheets while awaiting hibernation – gently lifting the three refugia produced four specimens. A villager in 1829 died from an adder bite, but there is nothing to be concerned about nowadays. A few dead logs on the heath would bring out the common lizard which is much more accommodating when it is sun-bathing. Still lots of insect activity amongst the heather or ling. Lots of diminutive small copper butterflies helping themselves to the late summer heat – they are so territorial for such a small insect. The speckled wood can be found flitting in and out of the surrounding tree line dancing in the dappled shade.
It will be a good year for fungi. Already there are specimens of fly agaric and the beechwood sickener to be seen – their red caps a sign that they are both poisonous and to be avoided.
If you go down to the woods today, you are in for a big surprise – blue-spotted ash trees! The Trust are currently assessing the extent of the dieback on ash trees known as chalara, which has been at Ashridge for some five years to a limited extent. First located in England in 2012 at a garden centre in Buckinghamshire on imported stock, it is now widespread throughout Britain. Trees on the estate which are subject to the fungus and pose a future risk to the public are marked with a blue spot ready for winter felling.
This fungus originates from north-east Asia where it lives in balance with its natural host the Manchurian ash without causing any significant issues. It was not until the host was introduced into Europe some thirty years ago that it was realised the pathogen could cause the rapid death of European ash. It is often the case that innocuous fungi, bacteria and insects go on to cause major problems once they get to new locations and find hosts that have not evolved defences against them. Chalara has been ravaging European woods for over twenty years but DEFRA were unable to ban imported saplings because of EU rules at that time. The woodland at Ashridge extends to some two thousand three hundred acres – some 50% of the estate – where ash trees represent 10% of the timber and oak and beech predominate at 20% each. Ash trees have always been prominent at Ashridge as the medieval name of Asscherugge in the 13th century was descriptive of the place – it is alarming to think that they might not be around after seven hundred years. Ash was once one of the most widespread tree species in Europe but now it is on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Woodland Trust expects chalara to kill off 80% of ash trees over time – so serious an issue the government held a COBRA meeting in 2012.
Without a cure we must endure
Hopefully there may be some innate tolerance to ash dieback disease in the UK’s ash population. With no chemical treatment available to kill off the fungus, it is hoped that a resistant strain will evolve to replace the lost trees. Studies have shown that some ash trees possess a genetic tolerance to the disease. Some trees that are fit and healthy and are not subjected to high levels of spores and deer predation may survive and pass on their fitness to the next generation – ash seeds, known as keys germinate readily. The fungus overwinters in the leaf litter on the woodland floor producing white fruiting bodies between July and October, which then release their spores into the surrounding atmosphere. In ideal conditions spores can blow many miles. When spores land on developing ash leaves they adhere and penetrate the leaf and beyond. The fungus then grows inside the tree, eventually blocking its water-transport systems leading to its death. Though the tree can block the infection and fight back to some extent, repeated infections will eventually kill the vast majority of trees. Chalara attacks trees indiscriminately – saplings and young trees die quickly but older trees can take a number of years to succumb. The National Trust policy at Ashridge is to “identify and manage woodland compartments of ash trees and to remove or mitigate infected trees and implement phased species restructuring of ash dominated areas” The ash tree has a high biodiversity value with over one thousand species associated with the tree, of which forty four are totally dependent on Fraxinus.
The Cubbington pear in Warwickshire was voted England’s Tree of the Year in 2015 but despite years of protest it is now awaiting the chop! The very rare lonesome pear is now to be sacrificed on the alter of progress. The high speed railway project HS2 is steaming through the countryside taking out any plant life in its path. Destruction is now about to restart after postponement during the corona virus lockdown in March. The Cubbington pear is the second largest Pyrus Pyrester in England with a girth over three metres – a veteran of some two hundred and fifty years. Located in the hedgerow in the south east corner of South Cubbington Wood it has been valued over the years and protected as a parish boundary marker. Multi-stemmed, it was probably coppiced in its infancy as part of the field hedgerow.
If it was a cathedral, would it be knocked down for a railway? If it was an ancient monument such as Stonehenge, it would be bypassed. If it was a listed building would it be raised to the ground? Why do we venerate what humans build but not the natural world which provides the environment we live in? Ancient trees such as this need to be loved and protected to show us how important the natural world is to our sense of being, and to root us in reason.
LONG LIVE THE PEAR
When the Cubbington pear was earmarked for destruction a memorial pear was planted on the Ashridge Estate – now in its third year in the arboretum. In years to come eagle-eyed visitors will spot it in springtime on the Ivinghoe common, protected from deer predation by its thorns. Like its domesticated cousin the pear flowers before it leafs. It makes for a compact handsome addition to any garden with its glossy leaves and vivid autumn colours.
It’s time we stopped treating the soil like dirt..
Without efforts to rebuild soil health, we could lose our ability to grow enough nutritious food to feed the planet’s population. The world needs topsoil to grow most of its food – but it is rapidly disappearing and degrading. Three years ago Michael Gove the then environment secretary in a landmark speech on the environment, considered it to be an emergency – “a country cannot withstand the loss of its soil fertility”. “if you drench soil in chemicals that improves yields … but ignore fertility, ultimately you are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that,” said Gove. The UK is thirty to forty years away from ‘eradication of soil fertility’ – in inherently poor soils the time frame may only be ten years.
Soil is pretty remarkable stuff. It provides 95% of our food , helps regulate the world’s atmosphere and is a bigger carbon sink than all the world’s forests combined. In fact it basically enables all life on land to exist. Made up of a mix of materials broken down from rocks and minerals with organic matter and water holding it together to support life – earth worms, insects, and thousands of micro-organisms. Something so vital to our life that we don’t even think about it is probably why we are doing such a bad job protecting it. We have been taking out more than we have been putting in – if year on year we don’t return 30% of organic matter to the topsoil we get soil degradation. The organic matter is the glue that holds together all of the soil ingredients stopping them blowing or washing away, and preventing the captured carbon escaping into the atmosphere.
Soil is alive but we are killing it
In terms of food farming – stop digging up the soil – no more ploughing. Hill Farm and Down Farm on the Ashridge estate both practice some form of no-till farming known as conservation agriculture. Ploughing has been around for a long time but it gradually destroys the soil structure by exposing the worm population which is responsible for the aeration of the soil, digesting organic matter making it available to the farm crop. It also brings weed seeds to the surface. Fallow fields are no longer a feature of the modern intensive farming landscape. The aim is to keep the land surface crop-covered at all times. After a harvest the land is scarified to break up the surface matter and allow direct drilling of the next crop at the same time. With an ideal seed bed the new crop germinates and grows quickly and stifles any arable weeds – no need for herbicides, fewer pesticides and less chemical fertilizers – the soil becomes more fertile all the time from not being disturbed. A build up of organic matter at the surface hoovers up huge quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere helping to reduce climate change. Conservation agriculture has been growing world-wide in the last decade but UK farmers have been slow to change from traditional methods – we can now look forward to fewer sterile fieldscapes!
A well known piece of the British landscape that had become depleted of flora and fauna because of years of intensive farming is alive with wildflowers, butterflies and birds this summer. Since the National Trust acquired fields on the top of the white cliffs of Dover two and half years ago after a £1m national appeal championed by Dame Vera Lynn, it has worked to restore the area to rich grassland. The charity is excited at the results, reporting an increase in birds including skylarks, corn buntings, partridges and meadow pipits. Peregrine falcons are benefiting from an increase in wild pigeons, a main source of prey. Fields have been vivid with poppies, ox-eye daisies and buttercups, and staff hope the new habitat will in time support chalkland butterfly species such as the adonis blue and the dingy skipper, as well as continuing to provide a home for more common marbled whites and red admirals. The fields are part of a 178-acre plot that the Trust bought in 2017. It immediately set about reversing the effect of seventy years of intensive agriculture that began after the second world war, which resulted in 97% of flower meadows being lost. In 2018, barley was sown to remove some of the nutrients from the well-fertilised soil, preparing it for a wildflower and grass mix. Wildflower meadows do need cutting, but conservationists usually advise to do so in the autumn, after flowers have seeded and invertebrates are hunkered down for the winter. The new site is an important link with existing holdings creating a continuous wildlife corridor.
Wildflower meadows are among our most culturally important and best loved habitats
At Ashridge there is nothing to match this vivid display as the meadows are self-seeded from the wild without management intervention. Meadleys meadow which is cut for silage in mid July is a carpet of yellow buttercups and the 70 acre permissive access field on the Aldbury road (SP955152) is awash with yellow ladies bedstraw. This arable acreage was set-aside some ten years ago for re-wilding and connects Pitstone Hill with Steps Hill, an important link in the wildlife corridor which now runs from Tring to Dunstable. Known as B- lines these wide strips of meadow and pasture join up to create a network of habitat across the country established by the charity Bugline. allowing wildlife to repopulate isolated areas.
Flower rich grasslands need regular “aftercare” – important in restricting long grasses and scrub from stifling important arable weeds – fumitory, sanfoin, pimpernel, kidney vetch and bird’s foot trefoil. Since the grazing cattle were removed two years ago, hawthorn, bramble and dog rose have started to proliferate. If it is left uncut and without cattle grazing it will develop by natural succession into secondary woodland – long live the flowering meadow!
The National Trust is planning to plant twenty million trees over the next decade as part of its efforts to become a net zero carbon emitter by 2030, which it says will cost some £90m- £100m. The organisation made the announcement back in January, to mark its 125th anniversary. By the end of the decade, it says the new trees and natural regeneration of woods will cover more than 44,000 acres, an area one and a half times the size of Manchester. It will mean that 17% of the land the National Trust looks after will be wooded, up from 10%. This is a big ask and the trees will take decades to bear fruit – thirty to fifty years of growth is realistic to achieve significant reductions of carbon. The focus will be on planting on farmland – including in upland areas – that the Trust owns, rather than in country estates, but the director general, Hilary McGrady, said the National Trust would be working with farmers to deliver the targets. The use of cultivated farmland would seem counter productive unless it is surplus to requirements. Keeping global warming below 1.5 °C to avoid dangerous climate change requires the removal of vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as drastic cuts in emissions. No one knows how to capture so much CO2. Forests must play a part – locking up carbon in ecosystems is proven, safe and very affordable if volunteers are involved. Increasing tree cover has the benefit of also increasing biodiversity, but there is a quicker method than traditional planting. The Trust need an innovative approach.
Quick – forests …………….
Tiny, dense forests are springing up around Europe as part of a movement aimed at restoring biodiversity and fighting the climate crisis – Miyawaki forests. Often sited around school playing fields or alongside roads, the forests can be as small as a tennis court. They are based on the work of the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who has planted more than one thousand such forests in Japan, Malaysia and elsewhere. Advocates for the method say the miniature forests grow ten times faster and become thirty times denser and one hundred times more bio-diverse than those planted by conventional methods. This result is achieved by planting saplings close together, three per square metre, without plastic tree guards, using native varieties adapted to local conditions. A wide variety of species – ideally thirty or more – are planted to recreate the layers of a natural forest. Birds like the nightingale and partridge, abundant at Ashridge in the fifties and sixties require dense planting for nesting, something which is now sorely missing on the Estate. Scientists say such ecosystems are key to meeting climate goals, estimating that natural forests can store forty times more carbon than single-species plantations. The Miyawaki forests are designed to regenerate land in far less time than the seventy-plus years it takes for a forest to mature on its own. The recent removal of the coniferous plantations in Rail Copse and Frithsden Little Copse are all very well but replanting will take decades to have any significant effect on carbon reduction – the soil preparation ready for replanting has released significant amounts of stored carbon! Re-planting with single-species like hornbeam does very little to boost biodiversity and store carbon compared with mixed planting. There are currently some fifty acres of unused land in small patches around Frithsden and Ringshall which would be ideal for small-scale Miyawaki forests. Then there is the one hundred acres of Northchurch open common which is due for upgrading now that the planning restrictions have lapsed. The present twenty year Woodland Management plan has no provision for increasing the woodland cover at Ashridge! Something for the Executive Committee to consider.
John Wilson arrived at Ashridge in 1957 to take up the post of Head Ranger, and was to become the most influential National Trust manager during his thirty four years service. He was responsible for much of the new planting and was the man responsible for turning Frithsden Little Copse into a larch plantation – coniferous plantations were fashionable at that time – it has lain neglected for over fifty years. His team removed the scrub and scattered and degraded deciduous trees by hand using cross-cut saws and axes – before the arrival of the chain-saw. Frithsden Little Copse was originally part of the open common heathland considered as unproductive by the Bridgewaters, therefore enclosed and planted up with mixed deciduous trees in the early 1800’s. Non native larch plantations are currently suffering a fungal disease attack which can quickly destroy all trees so the nineteen acres of conifers has now been clear-felled by Norfolk Contractors and removed for pulp, wood – chip bedding and fence posts – larch poles have very little commercial value. As part of the twenty year woodland management plan the copse will be reinstated with native broad-leaf trees, giving much more biodiversity.
nothing lasts forever
The village of Frithsden, first mentioned in 1291 as Frithesdene, has been a conservation area since 1968. By the beginning of the C19th, the Ashridge Estate had acquired most of the holdings in the Frithsden valley and the farmers were all tenants – the Bridgewaters aspired to become landed gentry – living off rental income. The hamlet expanded and contracted according to the relative fortunes of the Estate. In the early C19th, work was plentiful and between 1821 and 1830 a total of eighty families lived in Frithsden. Farm buildings such as the yard formerly attached to Holly Bush Farm enshrine the ‘model farm’ principles adopted by estate landlords. Cottages also housed labourers who worked in the south facing walled kitchen gardens and orchards at the western end of the valley. This vast enterprise catered for more than just the needs of Ashridge House, with surplus produce being sent by train to Covent Garden in Victorian London. When the Estate was sold in the 1920’s the gardens became a prosperous family-run commercial nursery. The skills and expertise generated by the estate gardens no doubt spilt over into the rest of the hamlet. Relic fruit trees are reminders that Frithsden is reputedly the home of the cherry turnover, using only black cherries called caroon cherries – an important early agricultural product in this area of Hertfordshire. With the demise of the Estate in the C20th, the population of the hamlet dwindled drastically. Buildings now punctuate the valley bottom with generous spaces between them but the Tithe Map of 1840 shows as many as thirty six houses lining the road from the Alford Arms to Frithsden Gardens. These earlier cottages filled in many of the present gaps between Hollybush Farm and Bede Cottage where eight dwellings once stood – one of which was a beer-house. In the 1850’s three straw-thatched cottages burnt down. Other lost buildings include the group of cottages that stood on the strip of heath land known as Cherry Bounce, on the south side of the Green. Another building probably provided by the Estate but now lost, was a communal wash-house and a large brick oven, fired by gorse “fuzzen-sticks”, where housewives of the hamlet baked bread and cooked the Sunday joint at a cost of one penny. Wells for drinking water and an ice-house were also built by the Bridgewaters in the early days. Many of the properties including the Alford Arms have now been gentrified to suit modern tastes with restrictions imposed by the conservation area status.
For those wishing to take the air, fear not for the rules on confinement have been clarified. Driving to the countryside for a walk on the wild side – where more time is spent doing the latter than the former – is among a list of reasonable reasons for Britons leaving their home during the coronavirus lockdown, according to advice issued to police. It seems like a reward for good behaviour during confinement. A document published by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the professional standards body the College of Policing says public statements made soon after the adoption of the lockdown regulations suggested members of the public could leave their homes only if “essential” to do so. The document categorically states it is “lawful to drive for exercise”. However, driving for a prolonged period for only brief exercise would “not likely” be a reasonable excuse. Driving a distance to Ashridge for a short walk for the dog would not be permitted under the rules.
The Privations of Lockdown
Should you meet another walker on any trip, social distancing should be adhered to – you can always get up close and personal with the flowering trees and plants – smell the violets or wild garlic! The blackthorn has been saturated in white blossom in the hedgerows, but is now gone over – so we await may. The hawthorn to be precise, which flowers after leafing in May, whereas the blackthorn flowers before leafing. The woodland bird cherries are still in bloom, and of course the gorse which lives with a pleasant hum of bees. There are rarities at Ashridge like the cherry-plum in Pitstone car park and the wild pear at the foot of the Beacon – both gone over now. We can look forward to the spring flowering of the wayfaring shrub and guilder rose on Steps Hill. Down at ground level you have the ubiquitous bluebells, with snatches of wood anemone and primroses in the woods, then wood sorrel and yellow archangel to follow, while the chalk downs might throw up a rare pasque flower or an early gentian – certainly lots of cowslips. There is a joy of noticing something new each time you take your daily state-sanctioned exercise.