Delightful campaign walk in St Leonard’s Forest, Saturday 9th April - Dave Bangs
Our walk brought together 35 forest lovers from Horsham, Brighton, Worthing - and even London - in celebration of government minister Caroline Spelman’s recent climb-down - and resolution to keep up the campaign against future piecemeal privatization by stealth of our public forests.
The Forestry Commission is in the middle of a huge programme of restoration work at St Leonard’s to bring back the heathy rides and the old broad-leaved forest, to make glades and restore worn pathways. Their vision is for a multi-functional forest that can cater for wildlife, public recreation, and timber production – and make a contribution to action against climate change.
Our walk took us to some of the special places where relics of the ecosystem of the ancient royal hunting forest survive. The part of the ancient forest that the Forestry Commission owns holds some of those fragments.
St Leonard’s Forest was HUGE a millennium ago. In the days when it was a royal hunting forest of the Saxon Kings of Sussex, and later of Wessex and England, it likely stretched all along the high sandstone watershed eastwards from Horsham, past Crawley almost to East Grinstead. It embraced all those parts which now come under different ‘Forest’ names…St Leonard’s, Tilgate, Worthlodge, Highbeeches, Balcombe, Brantridge, Holmbush and Monks Forests, as well as Leonardslee, Oldhouse Warren and much, much else.
The Forest was probably made up in roughly equal parts of ‘high forest’ (no doubt with some enclosed coppice) and open ground of heath and grassland. The woodland would largely have been a mixture of Beech, Oak and Birch with some Lime, over Hazel, Hawthorn and Holly, with Bluebell, Bilberry, Broom and Heather beneath. The open ground would probably have been like the New Forest today, with a mixture of ‘lawns’ and heather, and areas of soggy mire. Black Grouse would have been common, with Curlew and Snipe abounding.
Scarcely any parts of the present forest ecosystem can now boast continuity with this ancient hunting landscape.
But a few can.
It is reasonable to hypothesise that some of the humid, shady ‘gills’ (steep sided clefts containing fast running streams); some of the clusters of gigantic pollarded veteran Beeches and Oaks; and some of the heath and unimproved grassland fragments, like the ‘Lily Beds’(Lily of the Valley) have a continuity going back to the royal forest and possibly to the primeval ‘wildwood’.
The Forestry Commission St Leonard’s estate holds superb examples of all these habitats.
Climb down into those green gills and look down into the clear water – as through a looking glass – and see little bits of leaf and twig walking themselves slowly across the stream bed. These are the larvae of different species of Caddis Flies, each encased by their own extraordinary little personalized ‘sleeping bags’ of cemented leaf, twig, sand, or pebble.
On the banks there are rare mosses surviving from the time – 7 or 8 thousand years ago – when the climate was much wetter and warmer. Most of them would be happier in Wales or Scotland.
Some of the Forest’s ancient trees are amongst the biggest in the country. The enormous ‘Sun Oak’ is over five spans in girth and dates back to around 1210 – just before Magna Carta. The ‘Whitevane Beech’ is now only a fragment, but there is still enough of it to envision its immense past girth. The Forest Grange Beech is also five spans in girth, and I have seen Stock Dove nesting there, alongside Woodpeckers.
In a good autumn the groves of veteran trees are full of many-coloured fungi. In spring the Bluebells are out, and the May blossom buzzes with old forest insects – beetles, bees, moths and flies. In summer the heather is in bloom. Nightjars churr from dusk onwards. Silver-studded Blue butterfly has now gone, I think, but it may return.