As a child I visited Burnham Beeches in Bucks regularly with my parents, sister Sue and dog Elmer. If Dad was in charge the chances are that we got lost among the beech trees around Egypt, Dad’s sense of direction not being great. Those magnificent old trees were remarkably similar, so it was like the unbouncing of Tigger when Rabbit, Pooh and Piglet walked in circles round the top of the Forest.
I returned 50 years later to find it was much the same—but now the photos are in colour.
I was there to meet Andy Barnard, superintendent of Burnham Beeches, Helen Read, conservation officer, and Martin Hartup, head ranger. They are all employed by the City of London Corporation which has owned Burnham Beeches since 1880. The site is heavily designated, as a national nature reserve and special area for conservation.
Right in the heart of South Buckinghamshire it is under tremendous development pressures from all sides. It is surrounded by large houses with extensive gardens; these are being subdivided to squeeze in many more dwellings. When this intensification occurs near to a special protection area (designated for birds), the developer is required to provide suitable alternative greenspace (SANGS) to take the pressure off the protected site. There is no such requirement for areas like Burnham Beeches, which is designated primarily for vegetation. Yet they too suffer when there’s development on the doorstep. It is clearly unfair.
The main purpose of my visit was to learn more about the invisible fencing which the city is using. This enables the land to be grazed without having any adverse effect on the landscape or public access. The system is produced by Boviguard and is designed for use where traditional fencing would be unsightly, debarred or difficult to erect. It is designed for cattle. A wire is buried on the perimeter of the area to be grazed and is attached to a generator.
The animal wears a collar with a receiver. If the animal moves close to the wire, the collar emits a warning tone, and if it continues to the wire the animal receives a small impulse.
The cattle are trained first in a field and learn quickly. When they are turned out wearing the collars on land with invisible fencing they are naturally wary of crossing the wire. For the first week they must be checked every four hours, 24 hours a day, so it’s labour intensive, but still a lot cheaper overall than traditional fencing.
A herd of six British White cattle currently graze Burnham Beeches. They were in the corral when I visited, and were shortly to be moved off the common for the winter.
The virtual fence runs parallel to Pumpkin Hill which is a rat run. The regime seems to have worked, keeping the cattle and motorists apart, with no ugly fencing alongside the road.
And the land which has been grazed looks good too.
Burnham Beeches was traditionally grazed but this stopped over 100 years ago and scrub woodland took over the open pasture and heath. The aim is to reverse the decline in biodiversity, regenerate the ancient pollards and provide a more open landscape.
Park Lane is quieter and here the cattle can cross the road and graze the other side, to keep the verges uniform in appearance. The technology is still being developed and the lengths of ‘fencing’ are limited, but it does seem that virtual fencing could be a solution to many problems of managing commons. It is also being used in Epping Forest and on Chorleywood Common in Hertfordshire.
The city has closed the roads across the beeches so that now they can be enjoyed by walkers, riders and cyclists.
It still needs to do something about its elaborate signboards, which are more suited to an urban park.
There is a part of the beeches which is quite different, around the mediaeval (1250-1350) moated farmhouse, Hartley Court Moat. Here the soil is acid with heathers and the rhododendron has been kept at bay.
There is scientific research here too. Helen Read is extremely knowledgeable about trees and is running an experiment cutting the younger trees at different times of year to monitor the effect. She told me that the tradition was to cut beech when the moon was waxing and oak when the moon was waning (but that might have been because it gave better-quality wood, not because it was better for the trees). They are pollarding the older trees, gradually reducing their size to prevent the crowns from becoming too big. Not surprisingly there’s an art to it.
They are also pollarding trees to see if it extends their life.
And so after an extremely informative morning we headed to the sustainably-built visitor centre for an excellent lunch. In the afternoon I visited nearby Stoke Common, which is also managed by the city, but that’s another story.