Heartwood Forest: putting down roots

PUBLISHED: 09:48 20 June 2017 | UPDATED: 09:48 20 June 2017

Open grassland and woodland - just two of the important habitats at Heartwood Forest (photo: Woodland Trust)

Open grassland and woodland - just two of the important habitats at Heartwood Forest (photo: Woodland Trust)

woodland trust

After nine years, 560,000 trees and a huge community effort, a project to create the largest continuous native forest in England is nearing completion. Ben Sneath explores the hugely ambitious Heartwood Forest near St Albans

There are pockets of ancient bluebell woods (photo: Woodland Trust)There are pockets of ancient bluebell woods (photo: Woodland Trust)

There are exciting things happening down in the woods. The Woodland Trust’s new Heartwood Forest is seeing record numbers of wildlife and visitors, and the site is on course to become one of the trust’s most popular sites.

The conservation charity acquired what was mainly rapeseed farmland with pockets of ancient bluebell woodland and old hedgerows between Harpenden and St Albans in 2008 with an ambitious plan to create Britain’s newest forest.

‘We were looking for a site in the south east and this was the perfect opportunity,’ explains Heartwood Forest site manager Louise Neighton. ‘It offered the chance to transform the natural wasteland of the farm into a wooded area full of life.’

Since its foundation, 560,000 trees have been planted, mainly by volunteers, along with new wildflower meadows (blossoming from May to August) and open grassland. These have created multiple habitats, attracting and supporting a wide range of wildlife.

Mice help sustain kestrel on the site (photo: mzphoto11, Getty Images/iStockphoto)Mice help sustain kestrel on the site (photo: mzphoto11, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A community orchard is being planted by local schoolchildren and when complete will have around 600 trees including many old Hertfordshire varieties of apple, pear and cherry, as well as plum, medlar, apricot and quince. And a unique arboretum has also been created with all 60 native tree species.

The ultimate aim is to fully cover the 858-acre site, to create the largest continuous native forest in England – a haven for wildlife and people. The trust plans to plant a further 40,000 trees over the next few years to encourage further species.


The striking but non-poisonouse wasp spider - new to the area (photo: Eileen Kumpf/iStock)The striking but non-poisonouse wasp spider - new to the area (photo: Eileen Kumpf/iStock)

All of the woods that make up Heartwood Forest have been designated County Wildlife Sites – areas recognised as important for their nature conservation value.

‘But what makes this project exciting is that it’s the only Woodland Trust site where all the trees have been planted from new,’ says Louise.

Many bird species are flourishing in the new habitats, including linnets, skylarks, owls, buzzards and kestrels, and there’s been a rare sighting of a great grey shrike.

Surveys have also recorded 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.

To date, 87 species of bird and 27 species of butterfly have been recorded, while the number of small mammal species stands at 62. 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.

‘The monitoring at Heartwood is a unique project for the trust, Louise says. ‘Over six years we have developed a multi-disciplinary team of 40 exceptionally talented and knowledgeable individuals. The data collected by them illustrates the impact that planting new woodlands can make, even in a short space of time.’

Visitor activities

All this wildlife makes the forest an ideal place for bird and animal spotters, as well as for families to connect with nature and those who just want to take in the beautiful scenery. With a network of pathways crossing the forest, including way-marked trails, visitors can access different areas on foot, while there is plenty of access for cyclists and horse riders to enjoy the area too. Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a lead in designated areas. Access is free to all.

There are events year-round, with upcoming attractions include a summer festival, a sculpture walk and a bat walk.

Louise says the team is particularly proud of the sense of community at the site. ‘It’s at the heart of the project – with 35,000 people in the local community planting 560,000 trees. They also make up most of the volunteers.’

Get involved

Much of what this important site does is done with the help of volunteers and there are many opportunities available − from planting trees and maintaining the forest to monitoring wildlife.

Donations, however, are just as important to the project. It costs around £200,000 a year to keep the site running, so donations of any size are gladly received. There are several ways to do this, including sponsoring your own tree.

After the final stage of planting, what’s next for the site? ‘We just want to keep the forest maintained for now and possibly extend our events programme and visitor facilities,’ Louise explains.

To help monitor wildlife at the site, go to hnhs.org/heartwood-project. For more information on volunteering at Heartwood Forest, visit woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer-with-us

Getting there

Heartwood Forest is on either side of the B651 between Sandridge and Wheathampstead. There are multiple entrances linking to either bridleways, public or permissive footpaths. Visiting for the first time? Use the free main car park entrance where there are information boards and a site map. Recommended self-guided walks are available from businesses in Sandridge.

Growth of UK woodland

Between 1905 and 2016 the total woodland area in the UK has increased from 4.7 per cent to 13 per cent.

England: 681,000 ha to 1,306,000 ha

Wales: 88,000 ha to 306,000 ha

Scotland: 351,000 ha to 1,436,000 ha

Northern Ireland: 15,000 ha to 112,000 ha

Sources: Forestry Commission, Natural Resource Wales, Forest Service, National Forest Inventory

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