How a group of friends stepped in to breathe life into a Brighton woodland

Members and volunteers, February 5 2022. From left: Gill Taylor, Secretary; Jill Spedding, Treasurer (blue hard hat); centre: Peter Jarman, Chair (with cap); to his left Lesley Brown, projects manager.
Members and volunteers, February 5 2022. From left: Gill Taylor, Secretary; Jill Spedding, Treasurer (blue hard hat); centre: Peter Jarman, Chair (with cap); to his left Lesley Brown, projects manager. Photo credit: Ian Cairns

Gill Taylor from Friends of Hollingbury and Burstead Woods talked to Sussex Bylines about their work in looking after the woods over 30 years.

Storm Eunice has recently caused widespread damage in Sussex and across the UK, with wrecked buildings, trees blown down and thousands of homes left without power. But this is nothing compared to the destruction wrought by the Great Storm over 30 years ago.

In October 1987, the worst storm in living memory hit Sussex and the south coast, with devastating results to nature as well as buildings. Gale-force winds greater than 100 mph battered renowned gardens such as Nymans and Wakehurst, which lost more than 25,000 trees, and destroyed huge tracts of woodland in Stanmer Park, Borde Hill and Chanctonbury Ring. A lesser-known loss was the woodland bordering Hollingbury Park on the northern outskirts of Brighton. Originally a beech wood planted by the Roe family in the 1700s, most of these shallow-rooted trees were uprooted by the gales, leaving a gaping hole in the landscape.

When Brighton council (then a borough council under East Sussex) started to clear the fallen trees and debris in Hollingbury Woods, a group of concerned local residents persuaded them to leave some of the felled trees. Gill explained: “We recognised the importance of dead wood as part of the food chain, and the need to encourage invertebrates and birds.” Today you can still see the remains of some of those veteran trees.

From this, the Friends of Hollingbury and Burstead Woods (FHBW) was set up in 1991 to help restore, improve and maintain the woodland, so that people could enjoy the area once more and wildlife could thrive. The group has been flourishing ever since and celebrated its 30th year in 2021.

Making a difference locally

The group holds monthly work sessions carrying out a range of tasks, including keeping glades cut back to stimulate a greater diversity of plants and encourage bees and butterflies, planting more trees, wild daffodils and other native plants, creating hazel coppices as well as maintaining paths and litter picking. Several members of the group have extensive nature conservation experience and other relevant knowledge of wildlife and the natural world, enabling them to apply this to the group’s work in the woods.

Gill described how the woods have been “recreated” by the group. In November 1992, they added to the woodland area by planting what is known as Triangle copse, which is now fully mature. “This is the most biodiverse part of the woods,” she told me, “containing a broad range of trees such as yew, field maple, whitebeam and rowan, underplanted with native shrubs.” Among other projects, FHBW has planted a snowdrop glade in the middle of the woods, with primroses and wood anemones to increase biodiversity.

Snowdrop glade in the woods
Snowdrop glade in the woods. Photo credit: Friends of Hollingbury & Burstead Woods

The group also looks after two hazel coppices: one planted with the help of the local Cub Scouts and another in the piece of woodland adjoining the golf course, which falls within the South Downs National Park. In addition, members took over a redundant golf tee to create another glade at the top of Burstead Woods, where they planted locally sourced wildflowers and installed a bench. They also created a circular path and formed steps to join the glade to the upper parts of Burstead Woods.

As well as the woodland areas, the group has also developed a long butterfly bank in open land next to the woods, where they are encouraging low-growing downland flowers such as horseshoe vetch and birdsfoot trefoil. Gill told me: “If you let the fertility build up too much, grasses can take over. Oxeye daisies and knapweed (though attractive) are not ideal and more suited to the meadow area in front of the chalk butterfly bank.” Under careful management by the group, the bank is a glorious sight, with an abundance of cowslips in the spring, and numerous butterflies and other insects in summer.

Volunteers raking the grass off the butterfly bank
Volunteers raking the grass off the butterfly bank. Photo credit: Ian Cairns
The butterfly bank in full bloom
The butterfly bank in full bloom. Photo Credit: Friends of Hollingbury & Burstead Woods

Local Rangers’ support

As the land is owned by Brighton and Hove City Council, the group works in collaboration with them and under their insurance, supported by the Ranger Service. Ranger Emma Keane brings a vehicle to help transport tools, supplies safety equipment such as hard hats and high viz jackets, and removes cuttings such as elm which cannot be left to rot on the ground in case of spreading disease. She also helps the group carry out vital risk assessments.

A few years ago, funding shortages threatened to cut the number of Rangers from nine to three. Although normally keeping out of local politics, on this occasion some FHBW members took part in demonstrations to support the Ranger Service and were successful in reducing the number of job cuts. Thankfully, the council is now recognising the importance of the Rangers in combatting climate change.

A pause during Covid

Over the past two years of the Covid pandemic, FHBW had to curtail their activities considerably. Although many more people got to know the woods during the lockdowns, this was rather a mixed blessing and created undue pressures, as Gill explained: “The woods got inundated with people. Kids moved fallen timber and soil to make skateboard jumps and bike trails and teenagers gathered in the woods at night for parties and lit fires. We were lucky that the fires did not get out of hand but a lot of rubbish was left behind.” Although unable to meet officially, some committee members regularly checked the woods on their walks and collected bottles, beer cans and other rubbish.

The group has been meeting sporadically in between lockdowns and under tight Covid restrictions, but since last autumn regular monthly work sessions have resumed as there is a great deal of catching up to do. The numbers of volunteers have not yet returned to pre-pandemic numbers, but attendances are growing and FHBW members have begun again to offer refreshments during the break, served with Covid-safe procedures.

Current projects and challenges

As I discovered myself when I attended the last three work sessions, there are many ongoing projects. Volunteers have been pruning the north hedge adjoining the lane to the golf club, which the group planted years ago. Others have been cutting back the elm hedge alongside the main road to encourage new growth, which is an important source of food for the caterpillars of the white-letter hairstreak butterfly. A key aim of FHBW is to create more biodiversity and encourage different species of both flora and fauna. Some time ago, the group created an easy access path through the woods, suitable for buggies and wheelchairs. This now needs some attention and the Council is providing some funding to help the group repair the footpath.

A path through the woods
A path through the woods. Photo credit: Ian Cairns

The biggest current challenge is ash dieback, which has already affected many ash trees in local woodlands. At the moment, the group cannot safely work near diseased ash trees until a thorough survey of their condition has been carried out. Members of FHBW committee have recently met with the newly appointed ash dieback co-ordinator and walked through the woods to assess the trees’ safety and stage of infection.

Unfortunately, the extent of the infection means that most of the ash trees will have to be felled or pollarded, which will drastically alter the landscape of the woods. The group has, however, been advised that there will be funds for re-planting and the volunteers will be up for the task: they did it after the Great Storm of ’87 and they will rise to this and other challenges again. Indeed, as this article went to press, the group was already beginning to survey the damage done by Storm Eunice.

Damage done by Storm Eunice: path with broken branches
Damage done by Storm Eunice. Photo credit: Friends of Hollingbury & Burstead Woods

From small beginnings 30 years ago, the Friends of Hollingbury and Burstead Woods has grown into a thriving organisation making a real difference to the local woodland landscape. With climate crisis an ongoing concern, groups such as this are vital to help protect wildlife, encourage greater biodiversity and keep the woods accessible to the community.

For further information, find Friends of Hollingbury and Burstead Woods on Facebook or email info@fhbw.org.uk

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