To the west of the Medway gap in Kent, an untidy patchwork of woodlands between Cuxton and Trottiscliffe covers the steep, downland slopes and plateaus; much is designated as one large Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and select parts as one half of the North Downs Woodlands Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The latter recognises that the habitats are important enough to be part of a network of protected sites across Europe; the SAC therefore includes the best sections of ancient woodland and orchid-rich chalk grassland either side of the Medway Valley.
Crookhorn Wood, located between Halling and Holly Hill, is part of both the SSSI and the SAC and has long been recognised for its ancient beech and yew woodlands and associated flora, being listed in the Nature Conservation Review (1977), as a Grade 1 site. This stated that “The safeguarding of all grade 1 sites is considered essential if there is to be an adequate basis for nature conservation in Britain“. The huge old beeches and ashes, peppered with dark green yews on the north face of a dry valley in the North Downs remain a fine site from the narrow lane leading to Holly Hill.
North facing woodlands, such as Crookhorn Wood, are cold as the sun struggles to warm the ground for much of the year but their unfavourable aspect preserved them from the worst of the great storm that roared up from the south in 1987 and devastated woodlands and hedgerow trees across Kent. Crookhorn Wood has some magnificent beech trees under which there is a carpet of dog’s mercury and bramble but also patches of leaf litter where the light levels are lowest. Here, there is a scattering of elegant, white helleborines that are easily overlooked on the forest floor.
Small patches of chalk grassland are present with common spotted orchids, twayblade as well as fairy flax. These are heavily invaded with bramble in places. Access here is strictly limited to the footpaths with many signs stating that the rest of the woodland is private.
The bottom edge of the woodland is managed as part of a large pheasant shoot with a release pen and neatly mown grassland along each side of the main gravel track. The effects of releasing large numbers of these non-native omnivorous birds on the flora and fauna of Crookhorn Wood has probably never been assessed but should be; how many rare beetles are eaten or plants pulled up by the birds, or mown down or cleared under inappropriate management? Fortunately, nature conservation legislation provides strict protection for all Special Areas of Conservation; so, for example, if an effect of an annual project such as game-rearing is considered likely to be significant in an adverse way and that after an ‘appropriate assessment’ that this proved to be so, then mitigation is required. If there are no effective measures to be found, then the law would demand that alternative locations should be used for the shoot; the outcome of the so-called Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) process seems both reasonable and easily achievable by shifting operations to unprotected woodlands. After broader arguments, but along the same lines, were presented by Wild Justice, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced last year that a review of game-rearing on protected site is to be conducted. The North Downs Woodlands SAC and especially Crookhorn Wood would be a good place to start.