Here, Retired local horse vet and active wildlife conservationist Philip Glyn reflects on his time on the Board of Conservators of Ashdown Forest:
Some years after my election as a commoner Conservator, one of my fellow longstanding Conservators was asked at the commoners’ meeting why he had been there so long; he retorted: “Because you will keep electing me!”. Having served for 19 years, I have seen many changes, not just in the landscape but in the speed and volume of traffic, numbers of visitors and their dogs and changes of emphasis in the struggle to conserve precious heathland and its astonishing wildlife.
In the 1950s, I saw active commoners putting stock out on to the unfenced forest - at a time when cars were scarce. Then, many farms with commoner’s rights had two farmyard stacks, one hay and the other ‘litter’: bracken, heather and gorse cut from the heath to use as animal bedding. There were almost no trees; they were cut for fuel or grazed off while seedlings. The strong decline in this subsistence farming by commoners has resulted in invasion by birch and oak. This, surprisingly to some, is a headache for the Conservators who have a statutory duty to conserve heathland.
Reintroducing grazing for conservation rather than livelihood has been checked by dog attacks, limitations on fencing and safety concerns. Much of my time as a Conservator has been spent in the rôle of ‘non-exec’, listening to solutions from the professional staff.
Progress has been slow. The future lies in a combination of management tools to emulate hundreds of years of the commoners’ use: mechanical cutting, controlled burning and judicious use of livestock grazing. Changes to the management structure, as Richard Stogdon so rightly flags, are also part of that future. But volunteers are, and always will be, pivotal: many of us devote time, effort and expertise out of love for the Forest. How ironic it is that echoing what commoners once did to survive is now the only way the Forest will survive to retain its singular landscape, highly prized by wildlife, visitors and residents alike.