Cooper’s Hill Heathland Rescue
Written by: The Wildlife Trust BCN
Cooper’s Hill nature reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its lowland heath, and is situated in Ampthill. It is the largest remaining heathland in Bedfordshire. It is owned by Ampthill Town Council and is managed by the Wildlife Trust. Being on the urban edge it is heavily used by locals.
In recent years, the heather that makes up much of the heathland has been under attack from heather beetle, a native species that normally has a ‘boom and bust’ cycle, but more recently has had several years of heavy infestation on the reserve, damaging and killing the heather. This is obviously of concern, particularly because past experience has shown that when the heather is attacked in this way, it tends to be replaced by grasses, which then make it harder for heather to regenerate. The Wildlife Trust has been carrying out experimental management of the heather and we have found that turf stripping is the best approach to dealing with areas of dead heather and allowing heathland to regenerate. The project set out to carry out large-scale turf stripping alongside other habitat management such as removal of trees that were seeding into the heathland and management of bracken and of a small mire wetland.
The project also set out to improve the visitor experience and understanding of the nature reserve and its importance by installing new interpretation and a sculpture trail. Public engagement events were a key part of this.
The biggest achievement was the large-scale turf stripping, done in several stages during the project. The earliest areas stripped are now supporting heather seedlings. There was a great deal of volunteer involvement in the project and more community engagement than in previous years. In the past, some of our work on the reserve, particularly tree felling, has caused some concern amongst site users, but this has diminished during the lifespan of the project. The sculpture trail is very popular.
Benefits to People
The main beneficiaries of the project are regular site users, who can now enjoy and better understand the reserve and its wildlife thanks to improved interpretation. In particular, younger visitors can enjoy the sculpture trail, which highlights some of the specialist wildlife that uses the reserve. A virtual guided walk has been produced, which will enable more people to experience the reserve.
Benefits to Heritage & Landscape
The reserve is a key part of the heathland network in Greensand Country, as the biggest remnant heathland in the county. Cooper’s Hill being in good condition is thus good for the whole landscape. In particular, cut heather from the reserve and some of the turf that was stripped from the reserve have been taken to nearby CenterParcs to help with their establishment of heathland and acid grassland.
The heathland is in better condition, thanks to the turf stripping and the other management activities undertaken (for example bracken pulling), and is more resilient now, particularly in the face of more heather beetle attacks.
“Thank you to HLF for enabling us to do so much work at Cooper’s Hill – the site looks amazing as a result!”
Challenges & Lessons Learnt
The design and installation of the interpretation, particularly the sculpture trail, took longer than expected, but thankfully the funders were flexible and we were able to get it completed successfully, just somewhat later than originally planned.
We had originally hoped that staff and volunteers would be able to attend habitat management courses on heathland, but nothing suitable was available.
Covid was a significant challenge, in particular for community engagement and visitor surveys – we moved these online to allow them to carry on.
I would leave more time for the interpretation work. I would also make sure that the funding was as flexible as possible to allow for shifting priorities.