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Forest Diary - March

A little on the wild side

Leanne Sargeant, new Senior Ecologist at the Forestry Commission

It’s only been a matter of weeks since I joined the Forestry Commission as the Senior Ecologist, but I’ve settled in really quickly. I’m no stranger to our office in Queens House, Lyndhurst, as I previously worked just next door with the Verderers of the New Forest as the Grazing Scheme Administrator for two years from 2014.

I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to my new role, I bring with me over 17 years of experience working in conservation. I started my employed life with TCV (then known as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) organising conservation work parties for volunteers and went on to work with Essex Wildlife Trust before I moved down to the New Forest. I’ve spent the last year working with the Wessex Chalk Stream and Rivers Trust on the Hampshire Avon. I am a keen naturalist, which I think started from my fascination with watching birds in my garden as a child. I’ve spent many hours with my trusty binoculars, wandering the Forest, trying to spot different birds. We are so lucky here in the New Forest, where there are so many rare birds and interesting wildlife to spot - there is always something new to see each time I’m out and about.

So what’s my new role all about? Well, as the Senior Ecologist here in the South of England the core part of my job is making sure Forestry Commission staff adhere to all the legislation around wildlife and habitats when they are going about their daily work, such as ensuring consents are in place for all forestry works affecting Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s).

I’ll be involved in the monitoring of the effects of works carried out on all the sites in the South District, we actively manage just shy of 48,000 hectares of land– equivalent to some 48,000 football pitches or 389,000 Olympic sized swimming pools– and that means our work can be very diverse.  I’ll be working right across the New Forest, East Hampshire and Surrey, and in other areas such as Dorset, so there’s a lot to consider in our region. Luckily, I’m not alone, my fellow Ecologist, Jay Doyle, will also be making sure that the Foresters and New Forest Keepers have the support and information they need about the wildlife in their patch.

As custodians of the Forest, our team of staff are helping to protect our woodlands, it’s critical, not just for our future, but for the future of local wildlife too. From the humble bumblebee to the rare and beautiful Goshawk, we have a wildlife haven that we must protect. I am passionate about the wildlife and plant life of the New Forest and enjoy nothing better than walking or riding through its magnificent scenery. One of my favourite spots here is Wootton stream, near Sway, where many interesting plants are supported by the wet woodland. This includes the wonderful smelling Bog Myrtle, whose delicate foliage has a sweet resinous scent, which takes me back to one of my first conservation jobs on the Norfolk Broads.

What I love most of all about this job is the variety it brings. From understanding the unique wildlife in each woodland, to liaising with colleagues, no one day is ever the same! It’s good to know that, as part of a wider team, I’m helping to achieve that delicate balance between the needs of people, wildlife and the environment.

Deliberate choices about tree planting or regeneration help to manage the delicate balance between different broadleaf, and conifer species, and protect our woodlands against pests, diseases and cope with the projected increases in temperature, and changes to the seasonality of rainfall associated with global climate change. Similar deliberate choices to remove trees to restore heathland ensure that wonderful local wildlife such as Nightjar and Dartford warbler can continue to flourish. One of my favourite walks includes all these habitats, going from Wilverley Inclosure across the heath and down to the mire, gives me a chance to see many of the important bird species.

It’s a delicate balance to manage the social, environmental and economic demands on our woodlands, and it’s critical that this is achieved, not just in partnership with colleagues, but by really engaging with local communities. What’s important to local people is what’s important to us. It’s all about protecting and improving our woodlands and associated habitats, and celebrating them.

So next time you visit your much loved local woodland, remember there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to keep the New Forest healthy and well-managed so we can all enjoy it. 

A Burning Need in the New Forest

by Open Forest Manager, Dave Morris

 The recent drier weather has at long last offered us a brief window of opportunity to carry out our annual controlled burning programme across the Crown lands of the New Forest. We usually start the process of burning areas of heather and gorse in early February, to encourage new growth that brings benefits to a variety of plants and wildlife.

 The cold snap hampered our start this year, but the still-wet ground now offers protection to the peaty soil. Last week we began ‘test burning’ at a few small sites, which determined the readiness of the vegetation for burning and once satisfied, we’ll begin our programme in earnest.

 The target programme this season is 263 hectares – which is only 2% of the total heathland area across the Crown lands. But even this relatively small proportion of heath offers a valuable mosaic effect of different aged habitats, which as well as providing diversity also provides us with effective firebreaks to protect large areas of heathland, woodland and private property from wildfire.

Other landowners managing publically accessible Sites of Special Scientific Interest land take a similar approach to burning, which encourages the heather to regenerate.  This includes the National Trust and we’ve recently been advising Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust staff about the use of controlled burning as a tool to help manage heaths which they look after.

 Our staff have excellent practical knowledge of the Forest and whilst it may look dangerous at first, I can assure you that we have work closely with Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service during our burning season. This enables them to build on practical experience and knowledge of fire behaviour on heathlands and how to tackle them in a wildfire situation.

 We have two to three teams of experienced burners, made up of Forestry Commission staff and trained contractors, who work to complete as many burns as possible in the short time available. They are assessing ground conditions on a daily basis to make sure that they remain suitable. At first, we’ll complete just a couple of sites a day but we’ll progress to around ten controlled burns a day across the New Forest. The smoke can hang in the still air during periods of settled weather and it’s not unusual for both the Forestry Commission and Fire Service to receive many calls about the Forest being ‘on fire’!

 Open burns across the Forest can look alarming to passers by, but the controlled nature and planned programme of works have real benefits for the Forest environment and the area will quickly recover. Heathland is a low nutrient habitat and needs to be maintained. Otherwise, the vegetation would rot and decay in-situ, returning nutrients to the soil which would affect and ultimately destroy the delicate balance of our heathlands. The wildlife and vegetation actually benefit from our intervention. For example, woodlarks do well on newly bare ground and reptiles and insects thrive from the ‘edge’ effect that is created. Far from tampering with nature, this work is in fact protecting it and ensuring the local landscapes we know and love are here for many years to come.

 For more information about forestry operations in the New Forest please visit:

www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest-closures

 

 

 

Last updated: 25th March 2017

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England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.