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How Kent’s woodlands are bouncing back, but the battle to save them must carry on

How Kent’s woodlands are bouncing back, but the battle to save them must carry on

With Kent under siege from a seemingly endless barrage of development plans, it would be reasonable to fear the worst for the county’s natural habitats – but it may come as a surprise to learn our woodlands are bouncing back.

Despite a steady spread of urban areas, statistics show there are more woods and trees in the UK today than at any time in the last 100 years.

Woodland at Blean. Image from Kent Wildlife Trust

In Kent broadleaved woodland – that’s basically anything that isn’t coniferous forest – has continued to increase in recent decades, now covering around 30,381 hectares of the county, compared with 26,355 hectares in 1990.

Kent Wildlife Trust hailed the 4,000 hectare rise as good news but warns that planting woodland alone isn’t enough – and more work is needed to help these areas become thriving habitats.

The Trust cites it’s ‘rewilding projects’ such as Heather Corrie Vale nature reserve – an abandoned golf course near West Kingsdown – and its Wilder Blean project at woodland between Canterbury and Herne Bay, as examples of the kind of habitat management needed to improve the county’s ecological value.

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And while such management won’t be possible with every patch of woodland in the county, KWT area manager Matt Hayes said the data was “encouraging”, noting woodlands not only provided vital habitat for wildlife but also had wide-ranging benefits for society.

He added: “These eco-system services are wide ranging from providing clean air, capturing and locking up carbon, preventing flooding to mental health and wellbeing benefits. We do also need our woodlands for a sustainable local supply of timber and wood products.”

Matt says efforts to increase woodland areas are “vitally important” but stressed it was important to consider factors such as the type of woodland created, along with location, purpose and future management.

“We need trees and woodlands in the right places where they benefit nature, the environment and ultimately society as a whole. It is important that we create diversity and a mosaic of habitats.

“The climate and nature crises are intertwined and must be tackled together. Our ecological systems are currently broken with missing elements or natural processes, meaning our landscapes do not function as they once did.

“Planting woodlands is not enough on its own, we must work with nature, using nature-based solutions, to manage our habitats and landscapes and ensure they are connected, physically and functionally.”

Striking drone footage from the Trust also shows how some of the areas it manages are being transformed into natural habitat, with tree cover expanding through it’s Heather Corrie Vale reserve.

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It says the old golf course will be managed through natural processes in order to capture greater levels of soil and above ground carbon, creating a haven for wildlife and improving biodiersity.

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Currently made up of grassland, heathland and scrub habitats with low floral biodiversity or evidence of wildlife, KWT says the project will transform the landscape to a broadleaved woodland with heathland, scrub and grassland, adding “eventually, water features such as ponds will be fully established and serve as water sources for grazing animals and important habitats for wildlife to thrive.”

Meanwhile its Wilder Blean project has won international recognition, capturing headlines through its introduction of wild bison to the Kent landscape.

A bison calf was discovered in the herd at Blean in September last year
Iron Age pigs, a hybrid between a wild boar and a domestic pig, enjoying their new home at Blean

It’s hoped the presence of bison at Blean, alongside Exmoor ponies and Iron Age pigs, will helps the woods return to a thriving, biodiverse environment, and allow the Trust to step back from hands-on management.

Most recently, ‘bison bridges’ at the site have allowed the herd access to 200 hectares of woodland, with the animals crossing under paths to get to different areas, while visitors to the reserve can watch them from viewing platforms above.

But it’s not all about nature reserves and high profile rewilding sites. Smaller areas of woodland around the county are just as important – especially to the species that live in them, and to people living nearby who value the environment they provide.

Leybourne Woods covers only 21 acres near West Malling and Leybourne – and once covered more before its eastern edge was chopped down for the Leybourne and West Malling bypass – but the importance of its remaining acres became apparent when it went up for sale earlier this year, prompting a campaign to save it.

Campaign organisers Bill Banks and Paul Boxall both subsequently elected to Leybourne Parish and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, partly on the back of their fight, and the parish council has since agreed to buy the woods.

Leybourne Woods is to be purchased by the parish council. Image: Rightmove

Cllr Boxall said it was encouraging to hear about the growth of broadleaved woodland in Kent, and said it emphasized the need to protect and preserve precious habitats for future generations.

He added: “By raising awareness about the importance of woods like Leybourne and their role in maintaining biodiversity and supporting mental health, we can foster a greater appreciation for nature and drive efforts to safeguard these invaluable spaces.

“Leybourne woods, as a smaller woodland site, exemplifies the vital role these spaces play in preserving and enhancing Kent’s natural heritage. They serve as invaluable habitats for numerous plant and animal species, contributing to the overall biodiversity of the region.

“Additionally, these woods offer a sanctuary for individuals seeking respite from the modern world, promoting mental well-being through their peaceful ambiance and connection with nature. It is crucial that we recognize and protect such woodlands, not only for their ecological significance but also for the benefit of our communities and future generations.”

But just because an area is designated as woodland, work is often needed to improve it as a habitat. Tree diseases such as dutch elm, ash dieback, sudden oak death, have all been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, and a recent Woodland Trust report stated only 7% of British woodlands are in good ecological condition.

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Kent Nature Partnership’s 2021 ‘State of Nature’ report noted the county had a wide range of woodland type and trees species, including mixed broad-leaved, beech and yew, oak high forest, sweet chestnut coppice, conifer plantation, wooded ghylls, wet woodland, wood pasture and more. It also says woodland is broadly present throughout the county with higher concentrations on the North Downs, the High Weald and the Blean near Canterbury, the majority of which is classed as ancient woodland.

Bluebells flowering in Leybourne Woods

But it also states the pressure on woodland habitats are wide ranging, with an increasing burden from disease and pests, such as the outbreak of the Asian Longhorn Beetle in Paddock Wood in 2012.

It adds: “Kent’s location makes it more vulnerable to new pests and diseases due to its proximity to mainland Europe, and imports/trade passing through the county. Grey Squirrel is also impacting on certain tree species, stripping bark which damages trees species often being grown as crops, such as Sweet Chestnut, and particularly Oak, which is a major recipient of Grey Squirrel stripping. This makes growing Oak for timber difficult unless good squirrel control can be achieved.

“Deer pressure is also increasing, with western parts of Kent seeing larger populations of deer, while in East Kent, deer are more isolated and limited in numbers. Overgrazing and browsing in high density prevents regeneration and damages woodland structure – in the worst cases, leaving no understory (shrubs or trees that grow under the tree canopy) and severe browse lines.”

Meanwhile climate change and associated weather patterns, such as increased periods of heavy rainfall and prolonged periods of drought, are also having an impact on tree species and the health of woodlands.

And the report says one of the major threats to ancient woodland is the lotting up of large woodlands into small plots for sale, leading to a disjointed approach to management despite the best intentions of enthusiastic plot owners.

Changes in woodland coverage in Kent, 1990-2020. Supplied by Kent Wildlife Trust

Meanwhile Mark Hood, KCC councillor for Tonbridge and Malling, said there was reason to find optimism in the council’s ‘Plant Tree’ scheme, adopted last year, which sets an ambition for Kent to extend tree cover by 1.5 million new trees, increase the county’s average canopy cover to 19%, and improve the health of existing woodland.

“The idea is that they want to plant a tree for every resident in the county in Kent,” said the Green Party councillor. “Councillors will get allocated an amount for trees that we’re allowed to plant in our divisions.”

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“That’s the good stuff, but we’ve got a massive disparity in the intensity of trees. Thanet has the lowest tree canopy in the whole count, so there’s a necessity to increase the number of trees there.”

He also said it was impossible to ignore there had been a “huge loss of woodland to housing”, pointing to his childhood home in Higham Wood in Tonbridge as an example – the estate being named after the woods it was built on.

The UK remains one of the least forested countries in Europe, but Cllr Hood said new approaches to development meant there was hope habitats could thrive.

“Now we’ve got a move for biodiversity net gain,” he said. “That means every development has to increase the biodiversity in an area. If you’re building you have to have more nature than you started with. There’s all sorts of techniques that can be used to improve the area.

Patches of woodland amidst new developments, like Leybourne Chase, can help retain habitats and biodiversity.

“Over the past hundred years fields had got bigger and bigger and they stripped out all the hedges to make fields more efficient, but now there’s more work going into replanting hedges. It’s all about mitigating the damage that’s been done.”

The Woodland Trust too was also keen to strike a note of caution following news of the rising woodland coverage, and said while KCC’s ambition to extend tree cover was “welcome progress”, it was undermined when trees are lost to development or disease.

Bridget Fox, the Trust’s Regional External Affairs Officer for the south-east said the Trust acknowledged the growth of woodland was a good thing, but it was not fast enough to meet the effects of the climate crisis. Furthermore she noted a loss of woodland species, and their latest report showed just 7% of native woods were in good ecological condition.

She added: “Existing woods and ancient woodland in particular face a range of threats from development including damaging proposals like the Lower Thames Crossing and the proposed extension of Hermitage Quarry near Maidstone.

“We also need to take action to promote the use of UK sourced and grown tree stock to avoid imported pests and diseases, if we are to keep the precious woodland we so badly need for climate, nature and people.”

Note: Data on woodland coverage has been based on provided by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and detected from satellites.

  • June 25, 2023