Written by: The Greensand Trust Team
The opportunity to acquire the adjacent area of Shire Oak Heath SSSI was first discussed at an event in 2016 (marking the launch of the extended Kings Wood and Rushmere National Nature Reserve). Part of the SSSI was already under the stewardship of the Greensand Trust, and had been successfully restored to heathland. The adjacent area had been unmanaged since the 1980’s, and heathland and acid grassland was rapidly being over-shaded by trees and scrub. It was important to secure the site and restore key habitats, as with it being high quality heathland relatively recently, and with some small patches of heather surviving into the 1990’s, it was likely that restoration would be more successful.
The site was acquired in 2017, and restoration activity began in early 2018. Large scale clearance and scarification (removal of nutrient-rich top layer) were carried out by contractors, but with care being taken to leave an area of woodland on the eastern edge of the site, adjacent to Heath and Reach village. This woodland forms an important part of the local landscape and is the backdrop for part of the village, and is valued by local people. A cycle route has been created within this woodland, creating an off-road link between the village and the Country Park, where none existed before.
Scrub and small trees were cleared, with the northern part of the site (adjacent to the other part of the SSSI already being managed by the Greensand Trust) identified as the most likely part of the site for re-establishing heathland. Although the chances of heather re-establishing from the seedbank were relatively high, nature was given a helping hand by the local St Leonard’s Lower School, with the children having great fun spreading heather seed collected from the nearby Rammamere Heath. In addition to this, an area of acid grassland was restored from an area of dense bracken and scrub in the southern part of the site. Creating such a mosaic of habitats further increase diversity and supports an even greater range of species.
The site had been declining in condition for approximately 30 years, with Natural England classifying it as it
“Unfavourable, declining” in the Citation for the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). We worked with the owners at the time (2016) to create a mutually beneficial opportunity, bringing the site into Greensand Trust ownership and ‘reuniting’ it with the portion of SSSI the Trust had already been managing for its heathland interest.
We are extremely proud to have:
- Secured funding from a range of funders to secure and restore the land;
- Communicated with the wider public in advance of works, in order to secure support for activities which although beneficial to biodiversity would have perceived negative impacts (particularly where trees were to be removed). We received very little negative feedback;
- Worked with our volunteers, Rushmere Country Park users, local communities and organisations to raise the funds necessary to complete the funding package;
- Carried out restoration activities which have resulted in restoration of key habitats (including heathland and acid grassland), working with local volunteers and a local school;
- Had the site re-classified by Natural England as “Unfavourable, Recovering*” by Natural England (2020)
- Improved understanding of the site, its habitats and history;
- Improved access to the wider site for a range of users;
- Increased the area of land under positive conservation management at Rushmere Country Park.
- Had the site added to the Kings Wood and Rushmere National Nature Reserve by Natural England (2020)
Benefits to People
The project benefits users of Rushmere Country Park (who come from across a wider area, including Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis) and the local community. A neglected area of land subject to fly tipping, illegal bike jump activity and other anti-social behavior has been transformed into a wildlife haven. The wooded fringe around the site was retained to maintain its wooded backdrop, and a new cycle access into the site has been created.
Interpretation and guided walks have helped people learn about the heritage (natural and historic), and school pupils took part in special heather seeding activities. Local volunteers also worked on the site, developing their skills.
We had originally intended to engage a group of young people with special needs, but due to circumstances beyond our control (including cancellation on several occasions) we instead involved a group of home-schooled local children. These children can feel excluded and isolated at times, so it was beneficial to engage them in a group activity in the outdoors.
The project has created a great sense of achievement amongst the Greensand Trust staff involved. To have achieved a long-term ambition, and to have restored this significant area of habitat, has been very satisfying. Seeing the first shoots of heather appear was especially rewarding.
Benefits to Heritage & Landscape
The site is officially in better (“Recovering”) condition, as classified by Natural England in 2020. It is being better managed, as it is now part of Rushmere Country Park, and the Conservation Management Plan has been updated to incorporate it, ensuring management consistent with wider site objectives going forward. Heather has begun to reestablish on the part of the site restored to conditions suitable for heathland. Anti-social use and litter/dumping have also been significantly reduced.
The site continues to be managed through a mix of volunteer tasks and contractor activity (where the former is not appropriate). It has been securely fenced, with the intention of introducing grazing livestock to manage habitats in the longer term.
On-site interpretation and guided walks have helped raise awareness of not only the restoration project and heathland management, but also the associated historic and cultural importance of the ancient Coker Way which runs along one edge of the site.
Engagement with the local school, St Leonard’s Lower, Heath and Reach, has engaged young people with biodiversity in their ‘back yard’, and given them a stake in the project. Areas where heather has regenerated coincide with areas seeded by groups from St Leonard’s, and while it is not possible to prove whether this is ‘their’ heather or naturally regenerating plants from the seed bank, it nevertheless gives them a strong stake in the project. Pupils will be able to visit the site over the years and watch habitats mature, hopefully spotting species like green tiger beetles over the next few years.
The site will be monitored as it develops, with fixed point photography being used alongside ecological surveys to monitor change over time.
See above re condition. The site is now fully integrated within Rushmere Country Park, with a mosaic of habitats better connected across a larger area. The project has delivered against all three of the “Lawton Principles”, creating a “bigger” site (by 6ha) being managed for conservation, enhancing habitat quality (“better”) and making them “more joined up”. Permeability for species moving around the site has subsequently been further increased through additional thinning of trees and linking of habitats.
Heather seedlings have begun to re-establish, and more open habitats have increased opportunities for a range of species. Surveys will take place in the summer of 2021 to further quantify this.
Although there was already a public footpath passing through the site, this was overgrown and unattractive to use, and also subject to illegal bike use despite its narrow nature. It has now been opened out and is a much more attractive route to use, with reduced illegal activity. Additionally, a new cycle route into the site has been created.
“After watching this area of heathland slowly degrading over so many years, it is fantastic to see it being restored in such a short period of time”.
Phil Irving, Senior Ecologist, The Greensand Trust
“This fantastic restoration work by the Greensand Trust has taken a huge step towards favourable status for this important SSSI habitat. It’s great to see a project that combines habitat conservation with community engagement and real benefits for local people.”
Tim Hopwell, Land Management and Conservation Advisor, Natural England
Challenges & Lessons Learnt
The biggest challenge was funding the purchase and restoration of the site. This involved the creation of a specific funding strategy for the project, bids to several different funders plus a public appeal.
Ensuring that there are enough funds so that the site is managed positively into the future and continues on its journey towards ‘favourable’ condition will always be a challenge. Funds have been secured via the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (part of the Rural Development Programme for England funded through the EU and Defra through the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England).