The forest, also a valuable nature conservation site, needs around £1m per year to manage and protect it, but its main source of EU funding is under threat.
An estimated one million people take to its scenic trails each year. It was particularly well-visited in the latter part of Covid-19 lockdown by families, dog-walkers, runners and bird-watchers – playing its part in supporting mental health and wellbeing at a stressful time.
Only a small team manage its 6,500 acres of forested countryside and they rely on teams of volunteers to help repair and upkeep paths and bridleways, and manage heathland and habitats.
Crucial for the forest’s survival is an EU grant of around £500,000 a year for preserving wildlife habitats and endangered birds such as dartford warblers and nightjars. These funds, around 50 per cent of the total budget, were originally awarded as a 10-year grant until 2026 and paid via Natural England and the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, but after Brexit the funding will depend on UK government policy.
Promises from Michael Gove, when Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), to honour existing EU nature payments could turn out to be hollow, as the forest’s contract can be legally suspended via a break clause from 2021 onwards. With the double economic impact of Covid-19 and the Brexit loss of trade with our EU neighbours, there are understandable concerns that a cash-strapped government might prioritise other ways to spend its money.
The forest’s owner, East Sussex County Council, has successively reduced its financial support as cuts in local authority funding take their toll. It contributed only £80,000 in 2018 and will pay nothing from this year onwards.
Without sufficient funds, the forest will increasingly rely on donations to supplement the other smaller income streams from Commoners, land rent, horse-riding permits and grazing. A fundraising charity, The Ashdown Forest Foundation, was launched this year and the public can support it by donating £25 for a car sticker via the Ashdown Forest website.
But welcome as these donations are, they will not make up for the loss of grant income and it could well spell the end of Ashdown Forest as we know it.
So what more can we do to help save this huge asset which is also a ‘lung’ for clean air for London, just over 30 miles away?
We can urge all our Sussex, Surrey and South London MPs, including the forest’s Wealden MP Nus Ghani, to press the current Environment Secretary, George Eustice, and his colleagues for a specific government commitment to continue funding the forest until 2025. That would give those fighting to save the forest a breathing space to plan and obtain other secure funding for the future.