How Easily can Undesignated Use Land be Converted to Nature Reserve?

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I had a conversation the other day with a person living next to a parcel of partly wooded land with a public footpath going through it. The land, he said, is owned by his local council and is classified as not having a designated use. He asked if I knew what is involved in getting the wood classified as a nature reserve. I didn’t have a complete answer, but I suggested, if he is serious, that he should carry out a fauna and flora survey and approach his council with a costed management plan. By the time our conversation had ended, we had discussed managing a nature reserve, his interest in the project had waned. He liked the idea of proposing the project, but had not realised the full extent of the work involved, nor the demands it would make on his free time.

Undesignated use land has not been allocated a specific function, and there is a lot of it around; some owned by local and central government organisations and others  privately. The reasons land might be classified for undesignated use are varied, but it might be due to its shape, location, or perhaps it’s sandwiched between other plots, or it acts as a barrier/buffet between industrial and residential areas as is the case with Hoo Wood.

Often undesignated use land degrades through insufficient interest and management input and, at some point, unscrupulous people will view it as a rubbish dump and perhaps a source of free wood for their domestic wood burners. It’s unfortunate, but rubbish attracts rubbish.

A nature reserve is a tract of land managed to preserve its flora, fauna, and sometimes physical features.

Hoo Wood is a strip of undesignated use land situated on the west bank of Stour Hill. It runs roughly north to  south along the northern end of Wilden Lane, between Hoo Farm Industrial Estate and the Bovis residential estate. I believe that ownership of this land is split between Wyre Forest District Council and Roxel Limited, and that its undesignated status has existed for almost 40 years.

The wood is predominantly oak, with silver birch being the next most abundant tree species. A few sycamore, beech, elder, holy, ivy, willow, larch, hawthorn and hazel also exist on this site.

Although not comprehensive, here are some of the other common flora growing in the wood: gorse, broom, flowering currant, bugle, hawkweed, comfrey, honeysuckle, oxeye and camomile, red and white campion, columbine, foxglove, hellebore, vetch, periwinkle, mint, celandine, honesty, borage, yellow archangel, ladies bedstraw, stitchwort, bell flowers, willow-herb, purple loosestrife, scarlet pimpernel, forget-me-not, wood avens, cranesbill, St. John’s wort, ragwort, herb Robert, and carpets of bluebells.

My conversation the other day set me thinking about whether it is possible to get the Hoo Wood area designated a nature reserve, and the extent of the process complexity. I have photographed its fauna and flora for the last six years, and roamed it for more than sixteen years. At the southern end is Dark Wood, a marshy area populated with mature silver birch; its east end is bordered by Roxel Limited and its north edge by Hoo Farm Industrial Estate. There are areas within the wood that remain wet throughout the year.

At the far southern end of Hoo Wood (designated Wilden Foreign) is Fox Hollow: a depression populated by oaks, and falling west towards Wilden Lane and the Lagoon Field.

I believe the area deserves nature reserve status because of its proximity to Wilden Marsh and the wide range of fauna and flora it supports. The wood is home to a herd of muntjac deer, hedgehogs, badgers, a fox, polecats, ferrets, weasels, stoats, a wide variety of moths and butterflies, wasps, bees and hornets, speckled bush-crickets, scorpion flies and other flies of various types. It is also a nesting area for buzzards, various owls, bats; great spotted, green and occasional lesser spotted woodpeckers, and a wide variety of smaller birds. The woods have an abundance of standing deadwood, which makes it particularly attractive to woodpeckers, bees, hornets, beetles, grubs, and invertebrates. There is also a growing population of tree climbing slugs, and shield bugs.

The wood works well in support of the Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve and the Lagoon Field a matter of ten metres away across Wilden Lane, as well as serving as a refuge when the marsh conditions are unfavourable for some of the marsh animals; for instance, the marsh badgers move to setts on the hills along Wilden Lane during the summer and autumn months.

I intend to propose the designation of Hoo Wood as a nature reserve, managed by me and local volunteers. Methods of funding might need investigation, but I don’t foresee costs being much beyond the acquisition of basic hand tools, some signage and bird and bat boxes. If Worcestershire Wildlife Trust is interested in managing this wood, I could use the hand tools I have already.

Apart from pathway clearance, removal of Himalayan balsam and general non-organic and synthetic and semi-synthetic rubbish, and the requirements of general site safety, I think a policy of minimum intervention might be appropriate.

There are a few 50 gallon high density polyethylene barrels already on-site that can be positioned and used as rubbish bins.

There is fencing deterioration along part of the Wilden Lane boundary, but this can addressed.

Planning permission is being sought for the building of a small luxury housing estate on the Lagoon Field, so there is the possibility that part of Hoo Wood is being held for residential expansion.

HOO WOOD [4611686018427540629] [4611686018427542445]

In Pursuit of the Hoo Wood Dog Fox. (4 images)

Sunrise: 07.39 Sunset: 05.06

I surveyed Hoo Wood today, an annual activity, to see what has changed over the previous year. February is the best month to do it – when the vegetation has died back as far as it is going to before the new growing season starts. As part of the survey, I tracked the Hoo Wood dog fox to get an idea of his activity. It’s a hard task because he gets to every part of the wood, usually following a tortuous zigzag route up and down steep banks, through masses of tangled bramble, under logs and bushes, and over soft boggy ground. He has a dozen or so lie-ups in the wood that I know of, and there are probably more that I have not found yet. Some of the lie-ups are underground, and others aboveground under trees and bushes. I don’t think he sleeps in the same place two days in a row. Over the years, I have grown familiar with the fox’s favourite resting places and some of his routines.

Hoo Wood’s dog fox and I often find ourselves staring at each other through the darkness; he rarely bolts unless Spike gets too close. I remember one occasion when Spike caught him unawares in the beam of my head torch. The fox, mesmerised by the light, began moving towards us. When within a few feet, Spike, who was sitting patiently at my side, could no longer contain himself; he lunged forward and knocked the red dog head over heals down a bank. By the time the fox had recovered, Spike had turned tail and was hurtling toward him again. Rather than show his back-end to a rapidly approaching dog, the fox launched himself into the air and ran over Spike’s back before escaping up the hill, leaving my dog wondering how Red had disappeared in front of his eyes. Foxes have a tremendous sense of self preservation and are very quick at thinking and reacting to potentially dangerous situations.

The fox is a lazy animal, and the distance it will range depends on the amount of food available. If you regularly feed a fox, it won’t travel very far. If you kill or remove a fox because it is a nuisance, another will quickly move into the vacant territory. The marsh and Hoo Wood foxes are fortunate in there is a fast-food outlet at the northern end of their territories that they make use of. Increasingly, I am seeing foxes return home with a beef burger in their jaws. The kebab shop is just a little too far away for them, and they would need to cross a very busy main road.

These photographs are of various lie ups used by the fox in different parts of  Hoo Wood. I think his favourite is under the log in the fist image, because it is well hidden in a quiet part of the wood.

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Hoo Wood Fox Lie up.

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Hoo Wood Fox Lie up.

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Hoo Wood Fox Lie up.

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Hoo Wood Fox Lieup.

The Wild Side of Withy Wood.

Sunrise: 08.04 Sunset: 03.56

This track leads to the wild side, between Hoo Wood to the left, and the flooded Withy Wood to the right.

The trees grow very close together in Withy Wood. To get in and out I have to turn sideways, force long slender tree trunks apart and ease myself through. There are mysterious things and wondrous places hidden deep within this wood. The trees growing in the mud have not been planted by any human being; they are naturally seeded, and take advantage of nutrients built-up and stored over decades in this once sugar factory settling lagoon. It is not difficult to imagine myself in another part of the world when mooching about in Withy Wood. It’s very easy, though, to lose oneself amongst the tightly packed willow, alder, and birch poles growing out of the shallow lake.

Under murky water, various traps wait to catch the unwary by sucking them down into the fetid mud. It is impossible to walk a straight line, but all too easy to stumble around in circles and wander hopelessly lost for an hour or more.

At night-time the feeling of apprehension can escalate beyond belief; all noises are exaggerated and amplified; the animals appear larger and strangely fierce, and the lake bed undulates, wobbles and threatens to give way with every step – it’s like trying to walk on a rice pudding skin. After spending half an hour in this unholy place, you could emerge a nervous wreck; if indeed you were to emerge at all.

Carcasses float between the tree trunks, a dead deer or a drowned badger, giving off pungent and unpleasant odours when kicked or stood upon. There are many passages between the trees that lead to dead ends; retracing steps is impossible. Unless you have a compass, determining any direction is not an option. So, getting out of Withy Wood might be matter of luck and sheer determination; however, salvation in easier in daytime than at night. I suppose warning signs might be a good idea: BEWARE ALL THAT ENTER HERE!

Well, writing this post is bringing back unpleasant past experiences of Withy Wood and, if truth be told, is putting the wind up me, so I am going to quit whilst there is still a chance of my sleeping tonight.

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