Stansted Park Woodland and Parkland
A Brief History
Stansted Forest today is a remnant of the most westerly part of the ancient forest of Arundel and a hunting lodge was probably built for Roger de Montgomery, first Earl of Arundel during the 11th Century. In 1181, the first recorded dwellings on the site of the present chapel were built for Henry II. The 12th Earl of Arundel restored the buildings in 1480 but these castellated buildings were largely destroyed by the Parliamentary General, Sir William Waller in 1644. In 1686 Richard Lumley built the first house on the present site, employing architect William Talman, who is understood to have designed Uppark in the same year.
In 1781 the estate was sold to the Indian Nabob, Richard Barwell who summoned Capability Brown to redesign the park and gardens. The estate changed ownership several more times including a period of ownership by the eccentric Lewis Way before fire destroyed the house in 1900. The house was rebuilt in 1903 and in 1924 the estate was bought by Vere, 9th Earl of Bessborough. In 1983, the 10th Earl of Bessborough set up the Stansted Park Foundation to which he gifted the estate with a remit of the preservation of the estate for the benefit of the public. He lived as a tenant of the charitable trust until he died in 1993.
Records of forest cover suggest pre-Domesday and the majority of the woodland is therefore designated as PAWS (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites) and ASNW (Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland). Landscape plantings were mostly carried out from the late 17th century onwards. Prior to this, the predominant woodland cover is believed to have been oak. Beech was introduced later as a landscape tree, singularly, in avenues and clumps for landscape enhancement and later in commercial forestry plantings. The forest formed part of a large parkland landscape. Subsequent owners have either added to or removed features from this landscape.
From the early 1950’s to the late 70’s mixed and pure commercial plantings were established in the areas of low standing timber volume or low value scrub as part of the national drive to create a strategic timber reserve. New plantings of predominantly broadleaves have taken place since 1990 mostly in response to the damage caused by the storms of 1987 and 1990.
The woodlands totalling 480.55ha, (1187.46ac) are now split between broadleaves (49.74%), commercial, predominantly conifer plantations (23.83%) and coppice (21.96%), predominantly chestnut but with substantial areas of hazel. The majority of the woodland is growing on a slightly infertile, acid sandy clay with flints over the Upper Chalk but in the south, the woods lie over the Reading Beds, a complex mixture of mottled clays and sands. The woodlands are very varied, often within individual compartments and this is being further enhanced with some early experiments at converting suitable areas to CCF (Continuous Cover Forestry) where it is thought desirable, achievable and sufficient natural regeneration occurs.
The main broadleaved species are pedunculate oak, beech, sweet chestnut, ash, sycamore and birch with smaller numbers of field maple, whitebeam, rowan, aspen, and cherry. There are large numbers of Turkey oak in the park and this species has spread into many of the woodland areas. The main conifer species are Douglas fir, Japanese larch and Scots pine with smaller volumes of Norway spruce, western red cedar and Corsican pine. Large yews are scattered throughout the majority of the woods and especially along the escarpment. A full range of woodland products are marketed from quality hardwood and softwood saw logs, cleft chestnut stakes and rails to firewood. There is a network of tracks and paths, which give approximately 20 miles of permitted routes in addition to 12.3 miles of public rights of way. This provides a major recreational opportunity, attracting in the region of 100,000 visits annually. The ongoing management aims to create and maintain a diverse forest producing much needed timber for the Nation’s economy whilst retaining its importance for biodiversity, landscape and public access where appropriate.
The forest is at present being severely impacted by ash dieback disease and we regrettably will have to fell large numbers of this iconic species for safety reasons. This has affected our long-term forest plan and creating a large replanting commitment not originally planned for. Replanting will consist of predominantly native broadleaves but will include some from seed sources a few degrees south to potentially mitigate against climate change and a number of more ornamental species to add interest and diversity to the forest and assess their potential use as timber species in the future.
The Park and Farmland
Over the last twenty-five years, considerable investment has gone into the restoration of aspects of the Grade 2* Historic Park informed by two parkland surveys and part funded by grant-aid from Natural England. This has focussed on the opening of vistas, removal of unwanted features, tree planting and returning the farmland around the mansion to permanent grass under non-intensive management. This grassland is managed in-house with a grazing tenant and his popular herd of Highland cattle. The remaining balance of farmland, mostly arable is on long-term lets to tenant farmers, mostly producing combinable crops such as wheat, oilseed rape and barley.
The woodlands and park are rich in wildlife, with a wealth of veteran trees scattered throughout. Decaying wood habitat is a major feature and supports many specialist insects such as the tanner beetle and a host of fungi which includes several red data book species, some nationally rare. Plant-life is diverse and abundant with six species of orchid that occur in the woodlands out of twelve found across the estate. Moths and butterflies are well represented with the scarce mervielle du jour and purple emperor being notable species. The secretive and fascinating nightjar breeds when suitable large open areas are created by coppicing or clear-cutting. Most gratifying of all has been the return of barn owls to breed in the park after an absence of over thirty years and the successful reintroduction of pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly since it disappeared in the late 1990’s.
The Woods and Park Department staff comprise of a working Head Forester, one full time Forester and two contractors when finances allow. Most tasks are carried out in-house but other specialist contractors are now used for tree surgery work, large planting and spraying operations and the larger timber harvesting operations. The department also manages a small syndicate fishery and carries out the squirrel and deer control across the estate.
“Editorial. Michael Prior is the Head Forester for the Stansted Park Estates. In normal times, he leads informative walks across the Estates which are well attended by members of ‘The Friends of Stansted’.”