Preservation of trees is a topic that raises great passion in many with an interest in Conservation. Mention a chainsaw and many will strap themselves to a tree to save it. Britain’s natural state was once a wooded one, but mankind’s practices of clearance for agriculture, and construction using timber, has depleted the nation’s woodland to just 10% of its former cover and nowadays the felling of trees may be reason for concern.
Here in the Kent Downs, we are fortunate to have many beautiful expanses of woodland, with over 70% being ancient. Woodland cover in the Kent Downs stands at around 23%. However, what many people don’t realise is that woodland must be sensitively managed to remain healthy, just as any other habitat, if it is to continue to benefit a wide range of flora and fauna. Left to its own devices, land will naturally and gradually be invaded by shrubby growth and eventually become dense woodland, causing losses detrimental to many species.
In contrast, chalk grassland, the main focus of our project, is reported to be rarer than tropical rainforest. Kent has around 6% of the UK’s share, a considerable amount of this globally significant habitat. Therefore, it is essential to protect what is left, restore what has been lost in recent decades and join up the scattered fragments by creation of wildlife corridors.
Plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, insects and butterflies all need diversity to survive. Some will need the light and warmth of open grassland for growth; others will feed in the open but use nearby scrub for shelter. Non-native and invasive species are generally less valuable to these species, so may be removed.
During development of the Old Chalk New Downs Project, computerised mapping techniques identified areas of land which had once been chalk grassland, particularly along the scarp slope of the Downs. Historic aerial photographs of some of these places back this up, showing large expanses of chalk grassland which are now completely covered with scrub rendering them useless for chalkland species or as wildlife corridors between other areas of such grassland.
For the future success of rarities such as Pyramidal Orchids, Great Green Bush-Crickets and the Chalkhill Blue butterfly, restoration of these historic, chalk grassland areas is essential. Stitching together the neighbouring areas of this habitat will offer an even better chance of survival to such species. So, for this reason, carefully chosen scrubland and some trees will have to be sacrificed.
However, to begin this restorative process, there is a lot of backroom work to be done. Permissions must be sought from landowners, Natural England and the Forestry Commission and any groundwork will be carefully planned and monitored.
Decades of scrub growth may take time to remove and nature’s processes, with the addition of conservation grazing, will slowly restore the grassland to its chalky splendour. As any gardener will know, working with nature takes patience, but the rewards for wildlife in years to come will speak for themselves.