On Saturday 26 March I attended the ceremony to mark the handover of Black Down Woods, on the windy heights of south Dorset, from the Forestry Commission to Dorset County Council. This was a significant event for a number of reasons.
This is a really important site, it is extremely visible being on the highest point of the 17-mile South Dorset Ridgeway with panoramic views of the downs and the coast. It laps right up to the 72-foot-high Hardy Monument (‘Kiss me Hardy’ of Trafalgar fame) which is owned by the National Trust.
The 117-hectare site consists of wood and heathland and has lots of Bronze Age barrows and other archaeological riches. The sale was part of the Forestry Commission’s asset disposal programme (long before the threatened sales this year). The Forestry Commission (FC) worked with Dorset County Council (DCC) and others to bid for Heritage Lottery Fund support for the purchase but when this failed, the FC placed the property on the open market and accepted an offer from a private purchaser. At this time I was lobbying, through the Open Spaces Society, both the FC and the environment minister Huw Irranca-Davies, and other organisations did likewise.
Fortunately there were legal problems and the FC took the property off the market, whereupon DCC raised enough money to buy the site.
That too is an interesting story. Phil Sterling, DCC’s ecologist, had known the late Patsy Wood, who died tragically young a few years ago and in whose memory her family set up the Patsy Wood Trust. The trustees donate to charities in which Patsy was involved, or which were close to her heart, and applications must come from personal friends of Patsy or via the trustees. In this case, because the trustees knew Phil well and felt that Patsy would have supported the project, they were willing to commit an unprecedented £160,000 to the sale, at very short notice – which made all the difference.
The launch event was held in the fine Portesham village hall, with refreshments provided by the Women’s Institute. Speakers included representatives from DCC, the FC, the Patsy Wood Trust, the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Open Spaces Society.
It is clear that, had the government’s plans to flog off the forestry estate gone ahead, local authorities throughout England could not have raised the money to buy the countless woods and forests which would have gone on the market. So while there was a success story for Black Down Woods, it was achieved only with difficulty and this could not have been replicated the length and breadth of England. It was good that Oliver Letwin, West Dorset MP and minister of state for the Cabinet Office, was able to attend the event, to hear of all that will be achieved by keeping Black Down Woods in public ownership.
Afterwards we visited the area and heard of DCC’s plans for restoring heathland, on which there will be a public consultation. The site is unusual in being on acid soil with heathland plants in an essentially chalk landscape. If the heathland (which is being swallowed by bracken) can be restored it will provide a valuable stepping-stone, particularly for birds, between the heaths of east Dorset and east Devon.
DCC may wish to graze the site, and one option might be to put cattle-grids on the road past the monument, allowing the land to be grazed without fencing. That would be terrific, and would have the additional benefit of slowing the traffic in this sensitive area.
The site does not include the car-park by the monument which is privately owned and blocked off for much of the time, but DCC hopes to provide a landscaped car-park just off the site, which will be a great asset as currently cars are parked along the road.
This is an exciting project with huge potential for habitat restoration on a large scale, and great opportunities for increased public access in a splendid landscape. So it is wonderful that Black Down Woods have remained in public ownership, and best of luck Dorset County Council in fulfilling this exciting project.