The phrase was first coined by Rachel Carson in 1962 in her book of the same name, exposing the decline in songbirds through the indiscriminate use of chemicals in the countryside.
Today the shutdown of modern life as we know it is liberating British wildlife to enjoy newly depopulated landscapes, at the same time as we appreciate the gathering quietude.
When we move out, obviously nature moves in – when dog faeces and scent markings are gone, then the fox, stoat and weasel appear, and ground nesting birds prosper. Moles have been appearing above ground in increasing numbers! Northchurch Common could see record numbers of skylark and pipit this year. Maybe the arrival of the grey partridge or pheasant from nearby Hill Farm as they extend their good work on biodiversity.

When did you last see a pheasant at Ashridge?

Down Farm can boast a resident covey of grey partridge which should thrive without human disturbance and the regular larks, pipits, buntings and yellow hammers on Pitstone Hill will be in their element. Quail have been about for the last two years and they could be joined by such rarities as the wheatear or even the stone curlew. In the 18th century wheatear were so numerous on the Downs that they were trapped and sold as a delicacy to travellers at the coaching inns in Dunstable. The deer will roam abroad.
One of the positive things that could come out of our confinement is the realisation that machinery noise damages us and damages our minds. Without traffic and aeroplane noise – no holiday flights on the Luton flight path and road travel falling to levels last seen in the fifties – we hear the birds more clearly along with the wind.
Will we get to hear the throb of life itself in the dawn chorus? – not this year.
Will we get to see the bluebells in Dockey Wood or the wild daffodils at Webb’s Copse. Sadly no.

Credit to Matt

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On or Off?

Since the events list for Spring/Summer published last month exhorting volunteers to “get-together”, the Trust has detailed twelve further events – some are now in doubt following the Government’s intervention over the coronavirus outbreak.

You will need to check on the event details at 

Monday 25th – Friday 29th May Ashridge Through the Ages  10.00am- 3.30pm
Head into the Visitor Centre to complete your craft for the history trail.

Sunday 31st May Canine Capers 10.00am- 12.30pm
Watch the ProDogs team demonstrate agility with their dogs – then join in!

Monday 1st June  Ashridge Through the Ages 11.00am
Exhibition opening – All year display of past life at Ashridge.

Saturday 13th June  Photography Workshop 10.00am- 4pm
A professionally led workshop for beginners – lunch provided.

Saturday 20th June Photography Workshop – intermediate stage 10.00am- 4pm
A professionally led workshop for non beginners – lunch provided.

Sunday 5th July  The Dovecote 11.00am- 3pm
A rare chance to see inside the 18th century vernacular building.

Monday 6th July Chalkland Flower Walk 2.30pm – 4.30pm
A volunteer led walk to identify summer flowers.

Sunday 26th July  The BioBlitz 10.00am – 4.00pm
Look for wildlife on Ivinghoe Beacon with the Rangers.

Every Tuesday and Thursday 28th July – 27th August  Ashridge Adventurers  10.30am – 12.00pm and 1.30pm – 3pm
Children can learn more about Ashridge’s animals and plants from the experts.

Friday 31st July Totally Batty Walk 8.30pm – 10.00pm
A Ranger led walk to identify the local bat population.

Tuesday 4th August  Hanging Coombe 2.30pm – 4.30pm
A volunteer led walk through this part of the Estate.

Saturday 22nd August Big Family Cycle 10.00am – 12.00pm
A guided cycle ride for the family through the woods.

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Rail against the weather

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Despite the recent appalling weather conditions the Trust has managed to start on the restoration of Rail Copse – with visitor cooperation. The public have been entrusted for the first time to help with planting trees on the Estate! This taps into the public urge to plant more trees to combat climate change – and visitors have turned out to meet the challenge.
The western half of Rail Copse, some thirteen acres, was planted up in 1966 with Scots pines after the area was clear-felled – but has been neglected over the years as a plantation – a commercial enterprise which did not materialise.
The overall twenty six acres of Rail Copse was enclosed woodland originally part of Aldbury common, planted up with hornbeam coppice in the early part of the 19th century by the Bridgewaters. Trees were traditionally cultivated as coppice and historically harvested for the hard, dense wood with a calorific value approaching anthracite. However, it appears the commoners were not allowed into the woodland to cut and coppice hornbeam for firewood or to allow their livestock to forage on hornbeam’s succulent spring foliage.
As part of the 20 year Ashridge Woodland Management Plan, Norfolk contractors moved in to clear-fell the Scots pine, with the larger logs harvested for agricultural use and the remainder chipped for livestock bedding – important that the wood is not used for biomass burning when it would release its stored carbon into the atmosphere. The wet conditions required the access track to be beefed up with a layer of chalk clunch.
The new wood is to be planted up with hundreds of Carpinus betulus which are only native in England as far north as Hertfordshire. Hertfordshire is hornbeam country.

Hertfordshire is hornbeam country



Time has been of the essence with Spring fast approaching putting a stop to tree planting. The forest floor has been prepared for the new “whips” – the small bare-rooted saplings – but any disturbance to the topsoil will inevitably lead to carbon leakage into the atmosphere, which has been absorbed by the soil over the last sixty years.
Despite its long-standing reputation as an under storey tree, hornbeam should be seriously considered for planting and culture as a standard high-forest tree, rather than coppicing. There are no identifiable potential disasters from insect pests and pathogens waiting in the wings for the hornbeam, apart from the deer.
Its credentials for combating climate change, including warmer and drier growing conditions, appear encouraging. Together with beech, hornbeam was one of the last tree species to cross the land bridge which once connected the British Isles with the rest of Europe. As such, it should be in a better position than most to withstand any future climate warming in the UK. This calculation is supported by the natural distribution of Carpinus betulus, which extends right across Europe, through the Balkans and well into western Asia.
At least our offspring can look forward to a fecund forest!

Next stop Frithsden Copse.

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The National Trust has ditched plastic for the annual membership card it sends out to the 5.5 million members, in favour of a paper alternative. This is part of the ten year plan announced in the Spring of 2018 to address the scourge of plastic pollution.
The new card will be made from a type of strong and durable paper featuring a tough water-based coating, with the paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. They will be produced in a mill powered by its own biomass.
The Trust said the new cards would remove the use of 12.5 tonnes of plastic a year from the environment – not a great amount in the grand scheme of things but it shows good intention.
The new cards will be entirely recyclable and compostable, as well as coming in at a fraction of the cost of the old cards, which were made of a chalk based plastic, a by-product of the mining industry.
The National Trust said the move was part of a range of measures it was bringing in to protect the environment and tackle the climate emergency, after a survey showed it was backed by the majority of the members.

Plastic free before 2023

The Trust’s membership team said: “Replacing our membership cards is a great step towards helping to reduce our impact on the environment, which we know is an important issue for so many of our supporters.” The magazine which is issued three times a year is already dispatched in a potato starch wrapping, saving some sixteen million plastic wrappers a year!

Elsewhere, the charity is looking at removing plastic from most of its greeting cards and wrapping paper, and looking at alternatives to plastic tree guards and plant pots which would be a major breakthrough. They are trialling drink dispensers to reduce sales of single use plastic in bottled drinks in the shops – there was no evidence of any plastic tat last Christmas – all very tasteful and progressive.

credit to PAMedia



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Get Together!

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Get out and about as a Volunteer or Visitor.
Spring into action on one of these planned events on the Estate.
You will need to check on the event details before you sign up at 

At present there are twelve events on offer – ten less than last year!

The big surprise is the tree planting event, when for the first time the public are offered the chance to plant a tree on the Estate – it is normally frowned upon!

Monday 17th – Friday 21st February Half-term Trail and Crafts 10.00am- 3pm
Head into the Visitor Centre to complete your craft before following the underground trail.

Saturday 29th February  Tree Planting  9.30am – 11.30am
Help restore Rail Copse by planting native trees.

Monday 6th – Thursday 9th April  Early Bird Easter Egg Offer 10am – 4pm
Check out the Easter nature trail. – NOW CANCELLED

Friday 10th – Monday 13th April  Easter Weekend Trail 10am – 4pm
Complete the woodland trail to claim a prize Easter egg. – NOW CANCELLED

Tuesday 14th – Friday 17th April  Easter Crafts  10 00am- 4pm
Make and decorate an Easter craft at the Visitor Centre. – NOW CANCELLED

Saturday 18th – Monday 20th April Watercolour Workshops 10am – 1pm
Create your own image of bluebells – materials and refreshments provided. – NOW CANCELLED

Saturday 25th & Sunday 26th April, Saturday 2nd & Sunday 3rd May, Saturday 8th – Monday 10th May  Dockey Wood 10am – 4pm — NOW CANCELLED

Learn about the creation of this iconic bluebell wood.

Thursday 30th April & Saturday 9th May, Bluebell Walks 6pm -7.30pm – NOW CANCELLED

A mindfulness evening walk to see the best of the bluebells. – NOW CANCELLED

Saturday 2nd & 9th May Dawn Chorus 6 – 8am
Experience early morning bird song with the rangers – breakfast included. — NOW CANCELLED

Wednesday 6th May Gentle Stroll 10.30am – 12.30pm
A volunteer – led look at the bluebells. — NOW CANCELLED

Sunday 21st June  Fun Ride  10am – 12pm
Bring your horse for a way-marked ride over the Ivinghoe hills

Saturday 15th & Sunday 16th August  Big Camp 12.00am – 12.00am

Bring the whole family for a fun-filled night at Ashridge

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Thorny Issue

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To scrub out or not to scrub out, that is the question? Vital hawthorn scrub has recently been removed by the Trust from Pitstone Hill – Buckinghamshire birders bewildered. Ring Ouzel gulley on the crown of the hill used by migrating birds returning from north Africa has been cleared out by agreement with Natural England –  too much hawthorn on the hill?  Ironically  a Ring Ouzel is over-wintering on the hill at this spot.
The clearance has been promoted because in earlier years the rare Easter blooming pasque flower occurred in the holloway and it needs to be restored – previous attempts to reinstate the plant at Ashridge have failed. Staff from Kew Botanical Gardens planted up an area on Clipper Down in the spring of 2014 and the volunteers planted some fifty plug plants on Piccadilly Hill in 2015 without success – the plant was once widespread in Incombe Hole. For the seed to germinate the plant requires an open soil, so divots in the sward are necessary courtesy of livestock – the sooner the cattle return the better!
Pasque flowers are the vogue models of the wild flower kingdom worth travelling miles to see.

There have been past issues affecting the topography of the hill


In the early 1930’s there was a proposal to relocate Brooklands Motor Racing circuit in Surrey to Pitstone, which fortunately did not materialise.
The cement works which closed in 1991 arrived in Pitstone in 1937, and surprisingly the Tunnel Portland Cement company acquired the rights in 1953 to quarry the western face of the hill which obliterated any remains of the white horse hill figure which once looked out over the Aylesbury vale as a waymark sign for the Welsh drovers. The archive details at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies suggests this to be the second earliest of the hill carvings in the land, created in Tudor times! The White Horse Hill figure in Oxfordshire is undoubtedly the oldest.
Unlike the Chiltern  chalk crosses at Bledlow (SP769009) and Whitehill (SP821039) which can be seen today viewing the Vale of Aylesbury but have no historical records, the Pitstone hill figure does have three archive references. It has the same sight line as the crosses, and pre-dates an original will of 1580 – a “furlong Whight Horse”. The 1848 tithe map of Pitstone shows three small fields named first, second, and third White Horse Piece at the base of the western escarpment of the hill. A will of 1630 refers to a nearby track as “White Horse Way” which leads to Aldbury. Before the Acts of Enclosure in the 1800’s the fields would have been of furlong strips, farmed by the inhabitants of Pitstone.

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Breaking news for volunteers……..


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Following the recent political debate on tree planting the National Trust has now announced plans to plant 20 million trees over the next decade as part of efforts to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.
The Trust made the announcement, which will cost between £90m-100m, on Thursday 9th January to mark its 125th anniversary.
By the end of the decade, the new trees and natural regeneration of woods will cover more than 18,000 hectares (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%, which is the national aspiration.
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. There are five farms on the Ashridge Estate.
The charity confirms that a similar level of tree cover is needed nationwide to meet government targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Other initiatives announced by the Trust include maintaining peat bogs, investing in more renewable energy and cutting its carbon footprint.
Efforts will focus on the National Trust’s own pollution, but McGrady acknowledged the impact of visitors, many of whom travel by car to the properties.
She said the Trust was measuring the impact of visitor emissions and suggesting ways to encourage more sustainable transport – it plans to work with other organisations to create “green corridors” that connect people in urban areas to nature.
“As Europe’s biggest conservation charity, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to fight climate change, which poses the biggest threat to the places, nature and collections we care for,” McGrady said.
“People need nature now more than ever. If they connect with it then they look after it. And working together is the only way we can reverse the decline in wildlife and the challenges we face due to climate change.”
No doubt the 20 year Woodland Management Plan for Ashridge will need to be revised to accommodate these new targets, and with minimal regeneration taking place in the woodlands because of predation by deer and squirrels, Ashridge will have to aggressively tackle these problems if targets are to be met.

Watch this space…………

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Scarred for Life ?

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The Beacon, that great hump of chalk overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury has raised its ugly head with the erosion of the sward on the approach to the summit caused by visitors. and lately by mountain bikers – it has now been partly fenced off to prevent further damage during the wet winter period with a detour for walkers and bikers!
Tourists have been visiting the Beacon in force since the early 1920’s when the National Trust acquired the land. First to arrive were the middle class day-trippers on their bicycles quickly followed by the gentry in their cars which were parked at the bottom of Piccadilly Hill. The scars on the hillside were well depicted by Paul Nash in his painting “Wood on the Downs” in 1929. A national preoccupation with prehistory had been growing since the Victorian era and, in the aftermath of the Great War, books like H. J. Massingham’s Downland Man (1926) encouraged readers to explore the landscape of the ancient past.
The erosion of the sward on the route to the summit has occurred over the last one hundred years without any restoration by the Trust and is now part of the landscape – no longer  a blot.

However the Trust are now “working with Historic England and the Beacons of the Past Project on a longer term repair plan for 2020”.
This important habitat is a class SSSI site as classified by Natural England, and as such presents particular problems for restoration work. Any re-seeding requires seed to be harvested from the adjacent sward, and any soil for infilling has to be sourced locally in order to have the same ph values and nutrient content. The problem with a steep sloping site is that any infilling will eventually be washed out by the weather because there is no bonding with the chalk sub-base. Regeneration can take place naturally if the scar is protected from further traffic, but takes a decade or more as in the case of the holloways.

Interesting work for the volunteers


Up until about two hundred years ago when the drovers were bringing their cattle from Wales to the fairs and markets of southern England, they created  deep scars climbing the chalk escarpment, now known as holloways. – in the low light of winter they are highly visible skirting around Piccadilly Hill. It would be a strange noisy sight today – a line of black cattle trudging up the slope wearing their metal shoes – it was these “cues” which caused the scouring of the hillside. In the mid 1800’s the holloways began to recover as the cattle trade petered out and the Beacon Road was built, producing the natural regeneration that  we see today with the profusion of summer flowering in the micro-climate found in the trackways. That earlier damage has now become a benefit to biodiversity!

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TREEMENDOUS – A political planting 

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A promise to plant trees can be a political turning point – mass planting of trees has always been political.
Now some want to be liberal, planting sixty million trees a year, others more conservative at thirty million, while others labour under a pledge of planting two billion trees by 2040, or if you are really green then seventy million trees a year seems sensible! To plant two billion trees over twenty years would require some twenty thousand tree planters a year – probably volunteers!

This enthusiasm for a greener world, expressed in trees, is inspiring and overdue. For two hundred years forested countries barely knew what to do with their trees. They were treated as expendable and a waste of space. But in a great cultural shift, they have changed from being dark and fearsome places to semi-sacred and untouchable.
And why not? In this new ecological age, we have learned that trees have far more value than just providing timber – they keep soils moist, prevent floods and provide shelter, store carbon, beautify landscapes, protect water sources, increase biodiversity, improve conservation and induce human wellbeing. So woe betide councils such as Sheffield that want to remove trees. From the Newbury bypass protests twenty years ago to today’s battles to save the ancient woodlands along the route of the HS2 rail link, there are few surer ways of angering people than cutting down their trees.

Much better to promise to plant anew…


And of course, having targets for more trees is only the first step. Parties need to ensure that tree planting delivers the right trees in the right places to maximise biodiversity benefits, and make the supply chain sustainable. They also need the policies and funding to deliver their pledges – some support greening the Green Belt using citizens’ assemblies to identify tree-planting sites, while some see agricultural subsidies being redirected to environmental schemes.
Friends of the Earth say “the UK needs to double its tree cover – from 13% of the land mass to 26% – to draw down millions of tonnes of carbon and make more space for nature. We have the land to do so – what is missing is the political will. Big numbers are meaningless without context given the climate emergency we face.”
Trees can be planted anywhere from schools and old peoples homes to parks, sports grounds, and even roundabouts and traffic islands, helping people reclaim local green spaces for their community. But while nature loves a mess, officialdom abhors one – instead of natural exuberance it seeks neat industrial rows of plastic tree guards tied with plastic ties!
The National Trust have not recently published any plans for large scale afforestation in England. In April they proposed planting sixty eight new orchards – interestingly they have nearly two hundred orchards on their books! They also have some five hundred tree avenues historically planted to frame a particular view, some of which are in need of restoration. Rooted in the history of Ashridge is the avenue on the Beacon Road at Crawley Wood where the original Ivinghoe common bursts onto the Ivinghoe hills. Planted in the early 1800’s when the road was laid down, comprising some fifty oaks and fifty beeches it is not recognisable today! As an avenue of trees there is no specific treatment included in the 20 year Woodland Management Plan other than the thinning of broadleaved trees – in fact there is no mention of increasing the tree cover on the Estate. 

As a token gesture towards restoration – a byword for the National Trust – Ashridge would do well to replant the twenty five oak trees around the perimeter of Meadleys Meadow lost over the last century, outlined in the previous post “Lie of the Land”.




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High Point

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In the middle of the last century some long suffering professionals trudged up hill and down dale to create a measurement of the land by “triangulation” , now superseded by GPS – the global positioning system. They were masters of all they surveyed – they built concrete trig pillars. The pillar was devised to provide a solid base for the theodolites used by the Ordnance Survey teams and to improve the accuracy of their readings. Starting in 1936 they completed some 6,500 over time choosing the highest point in an area in line of sight with at least two other pillars to form a triangle. By 1962 the project was complete and the Ordnance Survey launched their seventh series of the one-inch-to-the-mile maps

A cartographic classic that turned a generation on to the great outdoors

So on a cold but bright November morning I set out for the Beacon with my current “Explorer” map in hand – that great hump of chalk overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury – to rediscover the landscape from my mind’s eye. The surveyors measured the hill at 230 meters or 755 feet in old money, and I could make out the adjacent trig points at Castle Hill Totternhoe at 160 meters and Southend Hill at Cheddington at 140 meters. But there was more – the Ordnance Survey showed a trig point to the south on Clipper Down. Retracing my steps I headed off to find this elusive pillar which was recorded at 249 meters, the highest point on the Estate – not many people would know that! And sure enough it was still there, but hemmed in by the trees of Crawley Wood. There are no tracks or paths to show its presence as it is rarely visited – a poor relation to the Beacon. Not surprisingly you could not see Cheddington or the Beacon from the pillar because of intervening trees which have grown up over time. It turns out that the surveyors used hurricane lamps in the darkness to locate adjacent trig points and do their measuring, so it would have been possible to have a line of sight through the trees in winter time!

Suddenly from inside the wood there was a burst of noise which I recognised – the loggers were in business – more work for the volunteers. Thinning out this mixed wood plantation is a priority for the Trust in line with their 20 year management plan published last January – a high point in the restoration of the Estate.
“Thinning will be undertaken on a cycle of five or 10 years. It will concentrate on the removal of suppressed or deteriorating trees and will look to increase the light levels reaching the forest floor increasing the sub and understorey to provide improved habitat for roosting and nesting birds.” Enclosed on three sides Crawley Wood is not a safe attraction for the deer population probably predating the new growth, so the recovery of the understorey should take place quickly.
I have taken the opportunity to correct the Trust on the accuracy of their document where it states….
“The Estate lies on the Chilterns escarpment that peaks at an altitude of 230m above sea level (ASL) at Ivinghoe Beacon towards the northern end of the Estate.”

Chris Skinner

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