Fineshade's Ancient Woodland
The Forestry Commission refer to Fineshade as “an ancient mixed broadleaf and conifer woodland", but just how much of it is technically ancient - in the sense that it is protected from development?
(There is serious stuff here – not a page for the light-hearted!)
What is Ancient Woodland?
In England, Ancient Woodland (AW) is classed as woodland that has existed continuously since the year 1600. Because they have been in existence for so long, ancient woodlands have special features including relatively undisturbed soils and communities of plants and animals that are rich, complex and irreplaceable. They have features such as old coppice stools and mediaeval boundary banks and are characterised by having abundant fungi and so-called Ancient Woodland indicator species such as Dog’s Mercury and Bluebells.
There are two types of Ancient Woodland:
ancient semi-natural woods that have developed naturally,
plantations on Ancient Woodland sites where ancient woods were felled and replanted with conifers in the 20th century.
Natural England maintains the Ancient Woodland Inventory (AWI) for England. This was originally drawn up using the presence of woods on old maps and information about the wood’s features. The inventory is classed as provisional and is said to be under constant review. See the Natural England website.
Ancient Woodland indicators: Bluebells and Early Purple Orchids above, Dog's Mercury below.
Photos: George Batchelor
Which parts of Fineshade are Ancient Woodland?
On the right is a screenshot from the AWI showing the areas of Fineshade that are classified as either “Ancient or Semi-Natural Woodland” (vertical green shading) or “Ancient Replanted Woodland” (horizontal brown shading).
The screenshot shows the map as it appeared on 15 October 2018 and it can be viewed on an interactive map here. It is clear that the greater part of Fineshade's Ancient Woodland is in fact plantation, having been clear-felled and replanted by the Forestry Commission in the first half of the twentieth century. Relatively little remains of woodland that has continued relatively unchanged for 400 or more years.
However, before October 2018 there was even less green shading. Before that date, there was none in the area to the north of Top Lodge, the parts of the wood labelled as Far Markham's Wood, The Gullet and Dales Wood. You can read how these extra areas came to be drawn on Fineshade's map below.
Fineshade's status in the most recent Ancient Woodland Inventory
Until recently the Inventory suggested that Ancient Woodlandwas confined to the southern part of Fineshade – this is the area that is leased by the Forestry Commission.
What seemed very surprising was that none of the northern area was designated, despite much of it showing all the characteristics of ancient semi-natural woods – this is the area that is publicly owned and managed by the Forestry Commission – part of the Public Forest Estate.
The original 1980’s AWI was produced rapidly with limited resources. We wondered whether, when it was drawn up, the very fact that the area was publicly owned and managed by the Forestry Commission meant that it was deemed to be safe from exploitation and so designation could be delayed. Perhaps it was thought then that the Public Forest Estate would be safe in the FC’s hands!
The fact that the northern part of Fineshade was not included in the AWI must have made it an easy target for Forest Holidays' development plans. In 2012 Fineshade was included in a list of sites drawn up in a new agreement between Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission – the so-called Exclusivity List, which formed part of their 2012 Framework Agreement. (See full details here.)
Once the initial Forest Holidays proposal for Fineshade was made public in late 2013, it became very clear to everyone who knew the woods well that they were in fact planning to build in areas of woodland that showed every sign of being actual Ancient Woodland.
Pictures like those on the right showed the ancient coppice stools and the survey stakes set up in areas surrounded by AW indicators, and these certainly began to raise widespread concerns. The Woodland Trust were at that time receiving sponsorship from Forest Holidays, but they were also most concerned about the preservation of AW and pressurised their sponsors to assess more carefully the AW characteristics of the wood.
Accordingly, Forest Holidays commissioned a report by one of the country’s foremost woodland specialists, Neil Sanderson.
Questioning the AW Inventory
The Sanderson report
Sanderson's report: Notes on the Status of Woodland at Fineshade, Northamptonshire was produced in April 2014. Sanderson used a combination of evidence from early maps and from a field survey, to assess which parts of the northern area were wooded continuously from before the year 1600. For those interested in the history of woodland, the report makes for very interesting reading indeed. You can download the large file here.
This map shows the outline of what was then proposed as the Forest Holidays development and the route of Sanderson’s field survey. It should be noted that there are large areas of the north of Fineshade that still have not been the subject of this detailed investigation.
Sanderson’s conclusions drew attention to the considerable uncertainty, if old maps are the only evidence used, in determining AW boundaries. For example he said (section 5.1):
"These ancient woods had been overlooked in summaries of landscape use by general historic land use summaries of the Rockingham Forest area. …
The map evidence examined by the Woodland Trust, however, proves that at least Far Markrams Wood and The Gullet were present as woodland in about 1600 demonstrating the map of 17th century land use in Pettit (1968) was at least in part wrong."
However, Sanderson's interpretation of origins of the woodland is shown in the map below. He concluded that
Sanderson's study area and survey route
"It is suggested that the small group of woods around small valleys to the west, Far Markrams Wood, The Gullet and Dales Wood are ancient woodlands of medieval origins, with rich ground floras, some old map evidence and typically irregular outlines. To the east, Peters Nook and the other spinneys east of it, are likely to be early 17th century plantations, and hence recent woodland."
The result of this evidence was that Forest Holidays withdrew their original plans, moving their proposed cabins, central building and proposed new access road back from the area now acknowledged to be AW. Their subsequent plans showed they had moved all these to Peters Nook and Dumb Bob Spinney - woodland that had been judged to have had early 17th century origins, i.e woodland that had been there for 400 years but was not, technically, Ancient.
The Woodland Trust’s concerns about development actually in AW were satisfied, though the proximity of the holiday village to the AW boundary were still a very real concern.
Subsequent botanical surveys and photographic evidence showed that even the blue coloured areas held a variety of AW indicators, with John Handley’s Botanical report listing no less than 22 indicator species.
Sanderson's suggested additions to the ancient woodland inventory (shown red)
Woodland judged to have early 17th century origins (shown blue)
Re-drawing the AW Inventory
In June 2014, Emma Goldberg of Natural England (NE) wrote as follows: (pers. comm.)
"Natural England does not have the resources to field assess sites ourselves, and the ancient woodland inventory is very much based on historical map evidence showing continual forest cover over time. Ancient Woodland Indicators are useful to back up this information, but are very variable in reliability (hence why they are “indicators” rather than solid evidence).
"We find that especially in the base-rich lime soils in Northamptonshire that several species will spread faster in these conditions than in other parts of the country (particularly when located close to medieval hedgerows). Sanderson’s report was very detailed and looked through the historic map evidence available for the site, and assessed the medieval field boundaries. I attach the map from his report, the red area of which Natural England is proposing to use for the final boundary. He did not restrict this to the area proposed for development, and I accepted his recommendations accordingly, although I had a colleague review his report who has a special interest in the Rockingham Forest area. Natural England does not respond to proposals to change the inventory in a piecemeal way, but rather consider the whole site before making changes. "
We wrote regularly to Natural England asking whether this remained their position and urging them to move forward to change the inventory.
In August 2018 we wrote again and received a positive reply from Justin Tilley, the Northamptonshire Team Leader. Apologising for the delay, he said that his colleagues have confirmed that NE would be including the previously agreed area highlighted in the Neil Sanderson report within the AWI maps and that "the GIS team will carry this out asap". Justin re-iterated this during his visit to Fineshade in September 2018 (details here) and in October the AWI map was finally changed.
Hopefully the Forestry Commission’s awareness of the true characteristics of the woodland they manage for us will be sharpened by the salutary experiences of 2015.
They will also, of course be aware of the new (2018) wording of the National Planning Policy Framework:
"development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons.”
Wood Anemones and Yellow Archangel
Both are indicators of Ancient Woodland
Photos: George Batchelor
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