In 2014, Caterham School bought approximately 140 acres of Old Park Wood, protecting it from an ongoing threat of development, and establishing its long-term future as a biodiverse environment and community resource.
Hannah Graydon, director of marketing and communications, explains why the decision was made to purchase the land:
“We wanted to preserve and restore the woodland so current and future generations can benefit from the wonderful opportunities it provides. Our junior pupils have a dedicated outdoor learning space, while senior students participate in many academic and sporting activities, as well as learning skills such as firelighting or bivouac building. We also invite other schools and clubs here to explore and have fun, and local residents can often be seen enjoying a walk, too.”
Comprising ancient woodland dating back to the 17th Century, semi-ancient woodland and areas of what had once been pasture, the site had been left untouched for close to eighty years. It had become overwhelmed with invasive, fast-growing species such as hawthorne, laurel, bramble, and ash trees, meaning there was little ecological diversity.
The management plan
The first step in the school’s ambitious regeneration project was to invite the Forestry Commission in, who helped them create a management plan to bring the woods back to health. This included clearing scrub from the wood and grasslands, and dealing with the risk posed by the large number of trees affected with ash dieback, a highly destructive disease that the Woodland Trust believes will eventually kill the majority of ash trees in the UK.
Head groundsman John Dodwell, who has been at the school for over 40 years, said that safety was the obvious concern:
“Much of the woodland was condemned as being unsafe for access, due to the number of dead or dying trees. We were given a felling licence, so that trees in immediate danger of falling could be removed and the woodland made secure.”
The grounds team later brought a qualified woodsman onboard, a possibly unique role at an English school. On taking up the title of woodland manager, Jay Needham revisited the management plan, again working alongside the Forestry Commission:
“Ash dieback spreads rapidly, and this was found to be the case here in the time since the initial assessment. It was then necessary to revise the plan and refocus our work on the worst affected places.”
The two woodlands are now separated by the Ride, an expanse of land created to encourage biodiversity by creating multiple levels of habitat for resident wildlife, which now includes butterflies, toads, badgers, dormice and deer, among many other species. Coppicing has been undertaken across the site, which lets light penetrate through the trees to the floor, allowing wildflowers and grasses to grow and thrive.
Environmental groups within Caterham School are working to make the establishment carbon-neutral, and John’s team are assuring the woodland plays a part in this:
“The felled lumber wood is turned into logs and charcoal, which we sell to the community, while the diseased and unusable wood is chipped and sent to a renewable energy biomass power station in Kent, where it’s used to generate electricity. Our felling licence was issued to us on condition that we replace the trees that have been removed, and the new ones will be absorbing carbon throughout their lifetime.”
Felling is paused during nesting season, but once it has been completed later in the year, between 50 and 70,000 oak, birch, hazel, beech and wild cherry saplings will be replanted across the site. These native UK trees will help the long-term sustainability of the woodland and increase the diversity of species found there. Approximately 20% of the replanted trees will be grown for logs, ensuring the woodland’s financial viability, while the remaining 80% will be left to mature.
John sees the work they are doing as a valuable learning experience for the students:
“By the time the younger children leave the sixth form, they will have watched the woodland undergo a huge transformation, and will understand how we can work with nature to regenerate a neglected area.”
The school is planning a ‘replanting party’ in the autumn, and would love help from local volunteers. To get involved and discover for yourself what is being done to rescue and rewild Old Park Woods, sign up via the school's website.