Nature on the doorstep: Great Ashby Park, Stevenage
PUBLISHED: 09:05 01 April 2016 | UPDATED: 13:55 04 April 2016
The ecologically-important woods and meadow of Great Ashby District Park on the edge of Stevenage are undergoing a five-year plan to enhance their habitats for wildlife and people. Countryside Management Service projects officer Gregory Ault explains
At Great Ashby District Park, just to the northeast of Stevenage, the urban landscape is greeted by the rural with striking views over Hertfordshire countryside. Among the surrounding parkland, meadows and woodlands there are fantastic opportunities to explore nature on the town’s doorstep.
With support from landowners North Herts District Council, the Countryside Management Service (CMS) has begun work on a Greenspace Action Plan, which over the next five years will improve the park’s habitats for wildlife and encourage public enjoyment of them.
400 new trees
Visitors over winter will have seen almost 400 new trees being planted around the edge of the park. Some even got hands on and joined regular CMS volunteers for a community tree planting day. On a rare sunny day in January there was an excellent turnout, and a fantastic effort all round to get 270 trees in the ground.
Over the coming years, trees planted around the northern end of the park will grow to provide a shaded area for people to sit beneath in summer, while newly planted trees at the southern end will grow into woodland copses, interspersed with paths that allow visitors to explore and discover the woodland habitat. When the trees are strong enough, fencing currently providing protection from deer and rabbits will be removed, opening these areas up for public enjoyment.
CMS volunteers turn out on a weekly basis and are vital in delivering the enhancement projects carried out across Hertfordshire. As well as tree planting at Great Ashby they have been hard at work thinning previously planted pines, ensuring that those retained will go on to grow into strong and well-formed trees.
Open meadows extend around the south of the park and as you drop below the level of adjacent houses you can easily forget how close you are to the urban area. Here in the summer months attractive displays of wildflowers create a lovely place for a walk while at the same time providing an important food source for insects. Of particular interest is the high number of butterflies that can be seen here. And keep an eye out for Green Woodpeckers, which can often be seen hopping around areas of shorter grass in search of tasty ants.
Surrounding the park are a number of woodlands, each with its own character. A guided walk leaflet (available from the website, hertslink.org/cms) and interpretation boards in the woods will help you navigate your way around.
Historically, many of the county’s woodlands were managed for timber production using traditional coppice techniques where trunks were cut to near ground level to encourage new shoots. Evidence of this can be seen in many of the woodlands around Great Ashby, but it is most clearly seen in Thirlmere Wood to the southeast of the district park, which displays a number of old coppice trunks, known as stools.
Just a short walk to the west of the play area and main car park is Serpentine Wood, where there are a number of mature elms. These magnificent trees are a rare occurrence nowadays as Dutch elm disease attacks before they reach maturity, but a small pocket has survived here. Head north and you can walk among the towering beech, hornbeam and sweet chestnut around Claypit Hills spring. Continue further north to find Brooches Wood, dominated by conifers and hornbeam coppice.
This is a great time of year to get out for a walk among the trees. The woodland floor is springing back into life with stunning displays of flowers, which make use of the window of warm weather before new leaf growth closes the canopy above.
The woods at Great Ashby have stunning displays of bluebells, one of the many publicly accessible bluebell woodlands in the county. Downloadable leaflets at hertslink.org/cms/getactive/placestovisit outline these gems, including Whippendell Woods on the edge of Watford, Furzefield Wood in Potters Bar, Post Wood in Ware, Bricket Wood Common, Carpenters Wood in Chorleywood and Berrygrove Woods in Wall Hall near Aldenham.