Hew Prendergast has lived on Ashdown Forest for 21 years and held a place on the board of Conservators of Ashdown Forest for three years, following a career in plant science, working for Kew at Wakehurst Place, Hew then seized the opportunity to work full time for the Conservators taking the position of Director eight years ago. “Ashdown Forest covers 6,500 acres; it is the largest free public access space in South East England
How did you find your way to this job?
Tell us about your role in managing Ashdown Forest
Where does your funding come from?
What, if anything, has changed on Ashdown Forest in recent years?
What are your hopes and fears for the future of Ashdown Forest?
Why do we see Ashdown Rangers cutting trees down so often?
If you had an audience with government Ministers what would you bring to their attention?
I have lived on Ashdown Forest for 21 years now and I’m sure you’ll agree it’s an easy place to fall in love with. My background is in plant science and I worked for Kew at Wakehurst Place for quite a few years. I was elected onto the board of Conservators by the Commoners and spent 3 years as a Conservator before seizing the opportunity to become involved on a full time basis. I’ve been Director now for 8 years.
Ashdown Forest covers 6,500 acres; it is the largest free public access space in South East England. It receives national and international protection because of its wildlife value; two thirds of the forest is open heathland, a rare habitat of nature conservation concern. Our role as conservators covers all aspects of the care and administration of the Forest.
A large part of our funding is from Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), more than a third in fact. Then there is funding from East Sussex County Council (ESCC), who own Ashdown Forest, the rent from the golf club, licences for people to ride on the forest, support from Wealden District Council and a small fee from Commoners to maintain their rights on the forest.
The Forest has changed a lot in the last few decades, it may have changed more in the last fifty years then it has for centuries. For hundreds, probably thousands of years, the character of Ashdown Forest has been defined by the grazing of livestock. People have exercised their common rights to graze animals for a very long time, after WWII very few people came back to that way of life; a quick read through the historic minutes of the conservators meetings from the late 1880's onwards gives you a feel for how things have changed. Many commoners gave up their rights when the 1965 Act was passed. Today we have just one Commoner grazing a significant number of animals on the forest, unless his son carries on, when he retires there will be no one making their living from the Forest anymore. Grazing livestock is as much a part of the Forest as heather and wide open views! Without grazing animals everything changes. In the 1940s the Forest comprised 15% woodland, it is mainly an open, heathland landscape and always has been. By the 1990s the amount of woodland cover had reached 40%. In fifty years the amount of the Forest covered by woodland has increased eight times! Ashdown Forest is literally becoming overgrown.
Well my biggest fear is that we do nothing. Ashdown is being lost due to a cessation of activity by man. This is working land and always has been, today it is important to over a million visitors a year as a place for leisure and relaxation, but without proper care and grazing it will be lost. People literally won’t be able to see the Forest for the trees! In another fifty years every view over the forest could be lost, its open character could be lost, that is a frightening rate of change. My hopes are that more people will learn to love and respect the Forest. This is a very important landscape steeped in history, it is a part of our heritage and it can provide for us for thousands of years more if we care for it in a sustainable way.
I hope people will recognise that and realise that this open heathy landscape is so special and is not ‘natural’, by which I mean it is not wild, the open heath will disappear rapidly without appropriate management. I hope people will understand this is a working landscape which has the grazing of animals at its heart, a few people get upset when they see our rangers cutting down trees, but clearing encroaching birch trees is not the same as clear felling primary Amazon rain forest. If sheep and cattle were grazing the land in the way they have done for millenia we would not need to clear birch as it wouldn’t be growing. People see our rangers cutting down birch trees and think we are harming the landscape, they don’t understand why we need to do this. Interestingly people also complain if a favourite view becomes overgrown and obscured!
Stewardship is hugely valuable but needs to be rolled out across whole landscape. Put getting into the countryside on the health agenda, realise how valuable it can be as a preventative health measure and fund it accordingly. I would like to see a national campaign to eat venison. The number of deer across the forest, but also much of Britain, are at unnaturally high levels. There is, on average, one car accident involving deer on Ashdown every day! And those are the ones that get reported. Humanely hunted venison, taken by organised and properly licensed stalkers is a very healthy, lean, tastey and genuinely free range meat. There needs to be a market for wild venison in order to support sensible management of our deer population; in doing so we will protect people from death and injury on our roads and protect forestry business and ancient woodland (deer can be very damaging to woodland, especially recently cut traditional coppice).