For our first ever issue in August 2020, Elizabeth Riminton-Drury wrote about the Ashdown Forest’s looming funding crisis due to Brexit and the consequent loss of crucial EU funding. A year later, the beloved Sussex forest has a new visionary CEO, and the author has herself recently been appointed as a Conservator. But, she warns, despite the passion and enthusiasm of those charged with its management, the iconic woodland home of Winnie-the-Pooh is still under threat because it remains desperately short of the basic funding needed to maintain and conserve it…
Our famous Ashdown Forest – Sussex beauty spot, nature site, and home to Winnie–the-Pooh and friends – is still teetering on the brink of survival. Despite a reprieve from the UK government, which is currently replacing the EU nature conservation funds that stopped after Brexit, the Forest’s promising new chapter of development is at risk. This is due to the still-acute lack of funding needed to maintain the Forest as a safe and welcoming place for its many visitors.
From picnics to Poohsticks
My own fond memories, of walking – both with dogs and children – and riding over the Ashdown Forest for the past 23 years, are not only shared with a few locals like me. The forest is visited by over 1.5 million people every year. And this number was probably nearer two million during the Covid lockdowns, when walking in nature helped keep people sane in the face of such difficult times.
This means an average of 4,000 people visit the Forest every day, including: dog walkers, picnickers, horse-riders, family day-trippers, bird watchers, joggers, and Winnie-the-Pooh fans eager to locate the famous bridge and play “Poohsticks”.
A walk anywhere on this ancient area of open heathland, woods and streams is a tonic. There are spectacular open views across Sussex woodlands to the North, and towards the Downs in the South. And the Forest is home to a large variety of wildlife, including deer, rare birds such as the nightjar, and various wildflowers including the well-known bluebells that carpet the woods each Spring.
High-level conservation site status
The Forest’s high-level status as a national and European conservation site is mainly due to its large area of lowland heathland, which not only supports much of the protected wildlife, but also provides a natural water filtering and cleansing service for the local environment.
This is a treasured space, loved by all, from local residents to the many international fans of A. A. Milne’s famous fictional characters. It is also a piece of our cultural history.
Created as an enclosed medieval hunting playground for kings, it survived as a protected common space due to the efforts of the forest ‘Commoners’, whose fierce defence of their rights to keep the land intact and for public use saw off multiple attempts over the centuries by various Lords of the Manor to split it up. There are still over 700 ‘Commoners‘ today who retain their (largely unused) rights to graze livestock, and cut wood and bracken, and who have a truly special relationship with the Forest.
New CEO – a breath of fresh air
Now, in the latest chapter of the Forest, there is a new breath of fresh air in the form of its recently appointed CEO, James Adler. James has a broad and outstanding vision for the Forest and is determined to rise to the challenge of balancing its internationally protected status as a nature site with the pressure from the millions of visitors who flock to enjoy this beautiful AONB – the largest public green space in the South East of England.
James foresees it ultimately becoming a National Nature Reserve – like the South Downs – and remaining at the same time a brilliant and welcoming place to visit, with a dedicated visitors’ centre to welcome people and give information, such as on the various walks, what wildlife to look for, or safety with dogs.
Forward planning for a sustainable future
He is already forward planning for the Forest to receive the next round of UK government funds for nature recovery, starting in 2026, and is reaching out to local landowners and farmers to create a ‘Land Recovery’ network of environmentally sustainable land which will contribute to nationwide nature and wildlife networks.
In his first six months as CEO, James says he has been struck by the Forest’s special place in people’s hearts and he speaks of it being “a space that lives and breathes and speaks with voices old and new” as part of a strong local community, as well as the wider cultural fan base of visitors from all parts of the UK and the world.
He is realistic, however, about the challenges of ensuring the Forest is protected for future generations, and that realising his inspiring vision won’t be easy. The most pressing problem facing him and the Forest’s management Board of Conservators is financial. In his frank words: “the Ashdown Forest is desperately short of funds”.
What price nature?
The current UK government funding which replaces the former EU grant covers the work needed for nature conservation, but it doesn’t pay for the day-to-day maintenance of the Forest as a safe and welcoming public amenity.
There are significant costs involved in providing the necessary services, which include: a 24-7 emergency ranger service to respond to deer collisions, dogs or riding incidents; upkeep and repairs to the 47 car parks and countless paths and bridleways; safety measures to avoid forest fires; attending to grazing cattle and sheep; and clearing up fly-tipping and litter. The list goes on.
So who pays?
Until recent years, East Sussex County Council (ESCC) paid the deficit in the annual budget, following the 1974 Act of Parliament that governs the Ashdown Forest.
It is widely assumed that ESCC and other local Councils fund the Forest today – but sadly this is no longer true. Swingeing budget cuts to all local authorities led to ESCC drastically reducing its contributions – from nearly £200,000 a year to just £30,000 per year in 2019, after which they then cut all funding completely. A “one-off” extra emergency payment by ESCC was agreed last year after Covid restrictions cut off fundraising activities and vastly increased the public use of the Forest.
However, there is no Council commitment to any further payments to help the Forest, not even to cover the missing £120,000 that’s needed to cover the running costs for this year alone. And this shortfall would be just to keep the Forest running, it does not allow for any improvements.
A new fundraising initiative, The Ashdown Forest Foundation (TAFF), has just started and is discussing ambitious plans to raise large sums from national and international donors to safeguard the Forest’s future. But it will take time for such significant funds to materialise and meanwhile the Forest’s survival depends on finding more immediate sources.
James and his staff are actively seeking and applying for other grants, and they would welcome any contributions or fundraising ideas from the Sussex community and surrounding areas.
How to help
You can also help by writing to your local County and District Councillors across Sussex to ask them to support some funding for the Forest, at least for the coming 2-3 years.
Local Councillors clearly have a delicate job of balancing support for vital services with many other demands, but the Forest presents a good case for short-term funding: it has played a key role in keeping us physically and mentally healthy during lockdowns; as we face up to the climate crisis, it provides clean air to breathe and its heathlands clean our Sussex water sources; it also holds a cultural place in our hearts as the home of Winnie-the-Pooh and friends, putting it on the international tourism map, which in turn helps the local economy.
Let’s all support the start of this new and promising chapter for the Ashdown Forest and give it the happy ending it deserves – by raising awareness we can all help to secure the necessary funding to help restore and maintain this precious green space for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to enjoy.
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