The beauty of the High Weald

The High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a historical countryside of rolling hills draped by small, irregular fields, abundant woods and hedges, scattered farmsteads and sunken lanes. It is a unique landscape full of surprises.

A closer look reveals flower-rich meadows, patches of heathland, hop gardens, orchards, sandstone outcrops, steep, wooded ravines (called gills) with their secret streams and ‘hammer’ponds – remnants of the Wealden iron industry. It comes as no surprise, then, that this intimate, diverse landscape supports a wide variety of wildlife.

The word ‘Weald’ means wilderness or forest: the High Weald was once an untamed, wooded area, with patches of wild grassland and heathland. By Domesday (1086) the High Weald remained the most densely wooded area of England and now boasts the highest proportion of ancient woodland in the country.

The constantly changing height and terrain give an ever-changing view of this patchwork countryside, created and maintained by traditional farming. The picture has remained almost the same through the last five centuries: the High Weald is, essentially, still a medieval landscape. This can be said of few other places in the country.

Materials and landscape

Underneath the patchwork landscape of the High Weald lie bands of sandstone and clay. Originally formed by water and sediments, then folded by earth movements and finally carved by rivers, these materials give the High Weald its shape. They also strongly influence the vegetation, wildlife, agriculture, industry and even building materials and architecture of the area.

The clay is soft and easily worn away: it forms the low valleys of the High Weald, with the harder sandstone forming the high ridges (Pic 1) which run east-west. There is much iron ore in the ground. Steep-sided, wooded gills are a special feature of the High Weald: they are formed where a stream has carved a deep channel for itself through the clay and sandstone of a hillside. (Pic 2) Gill streams flow into rivers that have formed wide valleys in the eastern part of the High Weald, before reaching the sea.

There is much woodland in the High Weald: trees grow well in clay and also the woods of the High Weald were relatively slow to be cleared because they were a valued human resource. While the surrounding lands (and indeed much of England) were being permanently settled and farmed by agricultural village communities, it stayed relatively uncultivated: by Domesday (1086) the High Weald remained the most densely wooded area of England and even now boasts the highest proportion of ancient woodland in the country.

Because of its vegetation and geology, the area held many riches for our ancestors. As human technology developed, it became an important source of raw materials: people literally made tracks into the High Weald to use its plentiful wood, clay and iron ore. The Romans, for example, built their straight roads across it and mined the iron ore on an industrial scale.

But introducing permanent settlement to the High Weald is not one of the things that the Romans did for us: the High Weald held another important resource – acorns! The practice of feeding pigs on acorns began the process that shaped the High Weald into the distinctive settled and farmed landscape we know today.

As the High Weald’s seasonal woodland swine pastures became permanent farmsteads, people began to claim the wild forest for new animal pastures in a piecemeal way. This created small, irregularly shaped fields, between which were often left distinctive fragments of woodland. You can still see these today.

Because of its materials and landform, the High Weald remains an essentially pastoral landscape: with its sandy soils, heavy clays and steep, hilly landscape, the High Weald has never been a good place to grow crops. The rearing of livestock was (and still is) one of the main uses of the land.

Building materials in the High Weald were plentiful. The local sandstone was used to make churches and manor houses; clay was used to make bricks and roof tiles (Pic 3); wood was used to make timber framed buildings and weatherboarding. Many wood products are still made in the High Weald today.

The materials and landscape of the High Weald offer diverse opportunities for wildlife. Rare ferns grow on sandstone outcrops and the cool, damp wooded gills shelter many animals and plants. Ancient woodlands, having existed for many centuries, enable woodland plants that can only colonise very slowly to thrive. Because many High Weald fields have never been ploughed up, they are often very rich in wild flowers and insects. Heathland areas, found on the sandy ridges, support rare and unusual species with their special conditions.

Wildlife

The High Weald’s diverse patchwork landscape of woods, fields, hedgerows, river valleys, ponds and roadside verges supports a rich and varied wildlife resource. The following habitats are particularly valuable or dominant in the landscape.

Woodland

The Weald is one of the most wooded parts of Britain, with coverage in the High Weald being over 20%. Around 70% of the woodland is classified as ancient (i.e. it has been continually wooded since at least 1600) and is of international importance to wildlife. The linear gill woodlands which clothe steeply incised streams have particularly high conservation value as they represent a relic flora from the forest of the Atlantic period – over 5000 years ago.

Current threats:

  • A decline in coppice management as a result of disappearing markets for coppice products
  • Neglect
  • Overgrazing
  • Agricultural encroachment
  • Creation of leisure plots
  • Over-tidiness

Ponds

The Weald has one of the highest concentration of ponds in the South East. Many have developed as by-products of past human activity such as mining and marling whilst others were created for use as drinking ponds for farm animals. Larger hammer ponds were created to power the bellows and hammers of the iron industry, and mill ponds to power water mills.

Current threats:

  • Neglect and natural succession.
  • Water pollution from pesticide and fertiliser drift or runoff.
  • Sudden and drastic management such as dredging the whole pond or felling complete stands of trees and shrubs.
  • Surrounding habitat loss.
  • Abstraction or drainage affecting water supply and levels.
  • Inappropriate management.
  • Fisheries improvements.

Grassland

Species-rich grasslands, alive with colourful flowers and insects in summer, have evolved from ancient origins and been maintained by a continuity of traditional low-intensity grazing (pastures) or hay making (meadows) by generations of farmers. Sadly many have been ploughed or ‘improved’ with fertiliser. Nationally only 3% of wildflower grasslands remain.

Many of the last remaining wildflower grasslands within the South East are concentrated in the High Weald. Unfortunately they represent an irreplacable and vanishing aspect of the Weald countryside.

Current threats:

  • Conversion to arable
  • Ploughing and re-seeding (with a high yielding grass mix)
  • Use of inorganic fertilisers, slurry, herbicides or excessive lime
  • Silage-making replacing the hay cut
  • Lower water levels through drainage and abstraction
  • Overgrazing
  • Undergrazing
  • Lack of or inappropriate management
  • Planting trees

Hedges

Hedges represent decisions made by our ancestors over hundreds of years. Hedges in the Weald have several functions. They indicate land ownership and parish boundaries, assist with livestock management, provide shelter for farm animals and crops, and would once have been a source of timber and fuel. Hedges are an integral part of the rural character and special distinctiveness of the Weald landscape.

Within the Weald we can find;

Natural and unplanted hedges

In the South East of England many hedges are the remnants of the ancient woodland which once covered much of the Weald. As small fields were cleared from the forest, strips of woodland locally known as shaws or rews were left. Many of these have subsequently been managed to form hedges which are often rich in wildlife. These ancient hedges are most common in the High Weald.

Some hedges have appeared as a result of neglect, developing in areas which are difficult to graze or crop such as along the edges of ditches, streams, fence lines and roadsides. These are a feature of both the High and Low Weald areas.

Planted hedges

Planted hedges are mainly a result of the enclosures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many are straight and were created using hawthorn. These hedges are most common in the Low Weald.

Current threats:

  • Neglect;
  • Overgrazing;
  • Decline in traditional management;
  • Removal as part of farm modernisation and property development;
  • Removal as part of road development;
  • Careless mechanised cutting which hinders regrowth;
  • Replacement with low maintenance fencing and exotic shrubs and trees.

Heathland

Weald heathlands are a unique habitat, occurring mainly on the sandstone ridges that characterize the High Weald AONB. The extensive tracts of heathland that once covered area have gradually disappeared to the extent that Ashdown Forest and Chailey Common (in the Low Weald) are the only sizeable area of heathland remaining. Smaller pockets of heathland are scattered throughout the High Weald and heathland wildlife still hangs on within the more open areas within, and at the edge, of woodlands.

Weald heathlands are characterized by dwarf shrubs like Common Heather (Ling), Bell Heather, Cross-Leaved Heath and Dwarf gorse but are diverse-ranging from dry Ling, Bell Heather and Dwarf Gorse Heaths through to ‘humus’ heath, wet heath (with Cross-Leaved Heath), Bog and Valley Mire. These heath habitats form a ‘mosaic’ with acid grassland, open water, scrub and woodland. It is this diversity of the habitat that attracts so many rare species to our heathlands.

Among the rare plant species are Marsh Gentian, Sundew, Petty Whin and Bog Asphodel. Specialist insects include the Silver Studded Blue Butterfly, Brilliant Emerald Dragonfly, Emperor Moths, Bog Bush Crickets, Green Tiger Beetle and Sand Wasps. Weald Heathlands are also strongholds for reptiles such as ‘Common’ Lizard and Adders who value warm, sandy soils. All of Britain’s amphibians are found on the Weald’s Heaths. The birds which frequent Weald heathlands are among the rarest in Britain; Dartford Warbler, Nightjar, Woodlark, Great Grey Shrike and Stonechats. Heathlands are also important for Deer and particularly Bats.

Lowland Heath is one of the World’s rarest and most threatened habitats, only occuring in parts of Britain and northern Europe. 80% of Britain’s heathland has been lost in the last two centuries. Despite this, Britain still holds over 20% of the World’s Heathland resource. Over 90% of the Weald’s Heathland has disappeared outside Ashdown Forest. Ashdown Forest itself has lost 50% of its Heathland, but remains the most significant lowland heath site in the South East.

This decline in lowland heath is as a result of many factors including forestry plantation, agricultural reclamation, road and house construction, and the decline of traditional management.

Current threats:

  • Scrub invasion
  • Planting with coniferous trees
  • Fragmentation
  • Bracken invasion
  • Uncontrolled fire

Sandrock

Sandstone Outcrops occur in several wooded locations across the High Weald, the most notable being Harrisons Rocks south of Royal Tunbridge Wells. Sandrock is an internationally rare habitat which supports a rich community of Bryophtes including many Atlantic species.

Current threats:

  • Erosion from rock climbing
  • Tree felling
  • Overgrowth

Parkland

In medieval times the wooded Weald attracted wealthy landowners who developed deer parks for hunting. Many of these parks remain today, and although much reduced in scale they still contain relic ancient habitats in particular very old trees known as veteran trees. These often support rare mosses, lichens and insects.

Current threats:

  • Loss of veteran trees
  • Diversification to golf courses
  • Afforestation and bracken invasion

Livestock and landscape

From earliest times, animals have had a hand – or hoof – in shaping the landscape of the High Weald (pic 1). Eight thousand years ago, the High Weald was an untamed wilderness: mainly wooded but with grassland and heathland clearings. These were kept open by the grazing action of large herbivores such as auroch (the ancestor of modern cattle) tarpan (the ancestor of modern horse) and deer.

Over the centuries, the High Weald became an important source of raw materials for the iron, brickmaking and forestry industries – all of which have left their mark on the landscape. However, the woodlands of the High Weald were also used by early farmers as a seasonal source of food for their livestock: during the early autumn months, they would drive their animals (usually pigs) from their settlements on the South Downs, North Downs and coastal plains into the woods to feed on acorns and beech mast. This method of feeding pigs is known as pannage (pics 2 and 3).

We do not know when farmers first began driving their animals into the woodland to feed. Existing research shows that the practice might have started as far back as the Neolithic period (c.4300 – 1400BC) or even the Mesolithic (c.8000 – 4300BC). However, evidence of dramatic population changes in the Late Iron Age may indicate that this was when the practice really started to catch on.

Farmers from a particular village returned with their pigs to the same woodland place year after year. These isolated woodland pastures were called dens. They can still be identified and are the key to understanding how the High Weald first became colonized by human settlers – and why it has such a distinctive, dispersed pattern of settlement today.

As dens were mostly used during the early autumn, the farmers would have built shelters in which to keep warm while watching their pigs. In time, dens became permanent places of settlement.

The isolated, scattered nature of the original dens developed into a pattern of small, individual farmsteads dotted across the countryside: this pattern of settlement is characteristic of the High Weald today. It is also very different to that of most of lowland England, which was settled and communally farmed by village communities, using large, shared open-field systems. In the High Weald, villages developed late – as centres for trade, not agriculture.

Look at a detailed modern map of the High Weald and you will see what remains of the dens – villages, farms, fields and woodland with names ending in ‘-den’. Woodland place names such as Cowden and Shiphurst (sheep wood) also tell us that pigs were not the only animals driven into the woods to feed.

The dens were some distance away from the farmers’ downland and coastal plain settlements – often 20 miles or more. The frequent passage of pigs being driven to and from the dens formed tracks known as droves, connecting the dens to their parent settlements and forming the original links between down and coastal lands and the Weald.

Some Wealden droves are probably extremely ancient: for example, droves in Kent are even seen to cross the prehistoric Pilgrim’s way without faltering, possibly showing that they were there first. Research has also shown that Roman roads were built around an already existing network of droves. It seems likely that the droves actually continued to be in use by farmers – drovers – at the same time as the new Roman roads were being used to transport iron from the High Weald. Roman Occupation or not, for the Wealden drovers and their pigs, it was probably business as usual!

When the dens became settlements in their own right, the roughly north-south routes originally made by pigs hurrying to their acorn feasts remained – and can be seen today in the pattern of our lanes, bridleways and footpaths. The routes are often deeply sunken. (Pic 4) This is due to the action of trotters, hooves and feet wearing the soft ground away over many centuries of use.

As permanent farmsteads replaced seasonal dens, some of the uncultivated scrub, wood and heath came into agricultural use. By the 14th century the Weald had become a landscape of woods, heathy commons, and small fields – looking much as it does today (Pic 5). Pannage had ceased, but grazing animals ensured that livestock continued to play a key role. The rearing of livestock was (and still is) one of the main uses of the land. Today, distinctive conker-coloured Sussex beef cattle (Pic 6) and tough Romney Marsh Sheep form a traditional part of this farmed landscape.

The landscape of the High Weald is essentially medieval: this can be said of few other places in the country. Grazing played an important part in the creation of the High Weald’s character and still plays an important part in maintaining its pastoral landscape today – particularly on our rarer habitats. For example, Hebridean sheep and feral goats are used to eat their way through unwanted trees and shrubs on heathland reserves in the High Weald.