A vast newly-planted forest and enchanting wildflower meadows are growing alongside pockets of ancient bluebell woodland and old hedgerows near densely populated areas in Hertfordshire.
In the spring and summer, fields after fields are covered with blue, yellow, red, pink, purple and white wild flowers, undulating in the wind. There are tracks for horses and bicycles and even a yoga grove, but also miles of solitary muddy paths. It is a haven of peace and beauty for wildlife and people.
Ten years ago, none of this was there: low-grade farmland stretched as far as the eye could see.
In 2008, the Woodland Trust acquired 347-hectare of arable land in Sandridge with an ambitious plan to launch the largest tree-planting scheme in the country.
Louise Neicho, who has been the Woodland Trust’s Site Manager from the start of the project, said that Heartwood Forest is “the fulfilment of a dream for us – to create England’s biggest new native woodland. We wanted to plant a forest of trees on a truly landscape scale and make a difference to wildlife and nature – but also to the hundreds of thousands of people we could inspire.”
Some 140,000 people per year are now visiting the forest and Heartwood Forest has been selected as one of the trust’s Top Ten Destination Sites.
Each of the 600,000 trees there has been planted by some 45,000 volunteers, including more than 17,000 school children. Neicho said: “So many people have been involved from the local community and further afield - school children, businesses, religious groups, the public and our very own volunteers."
They have also planted new wildflower meadows, open grassland and a 600-tree community orchard, which includes many old Hertfordshire varieties of apple, pear and cherry, as well as plum, medlar, apricot and quince. An arboretum has also been created - the only one known in the UK to contain all 57 of our native tree species.
The trees have had remarkable effects on wildlife – including doubling bird numbers and increasing butterfly populations by 160 percent, as well as encouraging the arrival of new species such as the water shrew, barbastelle bat, common lizard and grasshopper warbler.
To date, 27 species of butterfly have been recorded and 87 species of bird, including owls, linnets, skylarks, buzzards, kestrels and a rare sighting of a great grey shrike. The linnet is one species that particularly thrives there – in six years linnet sightings have increased by 250 percent, bucking a national trend decrease.
Surveys have also recorded 62 species of woodland mammals such as voles, badgers, deer and mice. In the insect kingdom, the exotic-looking but non-poisonous wasp spider is new to the site.
These regular surveys are conducted by volunteers from the Hertfordshire Natural History Society to enable the Woodland Trust to chart populations of plants and wildlife during changes to the site.
Neicho added: “These surveys illustrate the impact that planting new woodlands can make, even in short space of time. [The Woodland Trust] has achieved something amazing, a green and natural place where everyone can find space, peace, wildlife and miles of beautiful young woodland to explore.”
Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist writing about the environment, international development, human rights and social issues. She blogs at The Right Human and she tweets at @VeroMistiaen.
Image: Judith Parry.