I started visiting Stoke Park Estate in Bristol when my daughter was 4 years old. I was a lonely, isolated, single parent experiencing depression. I lived locally to the park, but didn’t know my community at all. For those unaware of what Stoke Park is, it’s an area of parkland set alongside urban areas of Bristol. My induction to the estate was helped along by Naturalist Steve England who led walks and talks in the park and taught us all about the nature and history we would come to observe over the years. His walks and talks helped with my confidence and helped me to get to know other people in my community, my symptoms of depression lessoned, I felt less alone. I found having an open space to visit and learn about nature really helped my mental health. Over the years as I’ve grown in confidence I’ve helped to set up a litter picking group which has now been picking litter in the park for 4 years, I obtained grant funding for benches, a pond dipping platform, a sculpture trail and a series of events which Steve England led. For the past 2 years we have also had a Christmas event in the woods where we have had free food, music and a campfire. A friends of Stoke Park group was set up which I am also a member of.
To an outsider it’s quite hard to describe what I love about Stoke Park, without being able to physically show someone what that is. I think the beauty of it is the mixed wildlife habitats. The grassland meadows which fill with butterflies and insects in the summer, the ancient woodland which in my view is the best place in Bristol to see displays of wild garlic and blue bells. The ponds and wetland habitats which support Great Crested newts, grass snakes, dragon and damsel flies, kingfishers, snipe and woodcock. Sitting at the pond for an evening is a feast for the eyes as you watch the swifts feeding and later on the daubenton’s bats soaring all around. Then there’s the young woodland which in part is what this blog is about. Through the young woodland runs natural springs which give it it’s character, there are winding paths edged by gnarled hawthorn trees and the level of fungi supported in this specific part of woodland is far greater than any other open space I have explored in Bristol. The ferns which line the paths give it a jungle feel and the scrub which surrounds it helps to support the bird life and the deer which have been gradually losing more and more of the habitat due to Metro Bus and new housing. The excitement of there always being some new to see and discover in the park never lessons.
Last year we were given the news that the local council had received funding for works in Stoke Park. The funding is partly made up of a Countryside Stewardship grant which is provided by Natural England. Details of the improvement works can be located here. The works began at the end of last year. There will be grazing introduced in the park, which means increased fencing. I kept an open mind about the works, I attended a walk and talk in January and also a drop in session in March. The initial works which took place were to remove a large area of scrub on Purdown which sits alongside Stoke Park. I regularly walk in this area and was appalled about the care taken during the works, sharp items exposed were left out without being cleared away, works weren’t fenced off, it took weeks of raising these issues for them to be fully addressed.
From what I can understand from enquiries made full surveys weren’t carried out prior to the works. Little scrub was left for bird life and there’s now far less bird song than there used to be. I used to love walking through there and listening to the bull finch and song thrush, which I now no longer hear. I avoid this area now as it feels like a wasteland.
The next part of the plan is to thin the young woodland and turn it into woodland pasture. As far as I understand it this means removing a great deal of the scrub and taking out a large proportion of the trees including established healthy trees. Local people want the young woodland to be maintained, but they do not want it turned into grazing pasture. As far as I understand it despite the local opposition the Council are bound by their grant conditions to carry out the works as their funding is based on them being able to use the woodland for grazing. I have attended consultation events over the years and also completed a written consultation in more recent times. Nowhere in the consultation were these plans properly set out or described. Consultation responses indicate that local people like the ‘wild’ aspects to Stoke Park and value the diversity of the estate. The councils aspirations to open up ‘historic views’ are not shared by local people. Back in time the ‘historic views’ would have been over fields, now the views look over the motorway. The woodland provides important screening from this intrusive eye sore including a sound barrier to local residents. In other area of the park less invasive management is taking place – volunteer days manned by students from the local university – this is the type of treatment we’d have liked to have seen for the young woodland. There is plenty of meadow which can be used for the grazing, the woodland did not need to be included in the plans.
When I attended the first walk and talk about the planned changes in January I raised the question about the Crested Newts having seen them in the park myself. 6 months on and 4 months before the work starts it still appears no surveys have been carried out. I noticed this week that survey boxes for dormice have been placed in the woods, again this doesn’t appear to cover the full survey period required if work is due to start in September: Link to government guidance
In January we were told there would be a public meeting to discuss the plans. We have been advised this will take place in July. This seems rather backwards given that plans have been agreed and started without local support. I am not an expert or an ecologist, but I have been exploring, learning and visiting Stoke Park for 10 years which I feel gives me a reasonable understanding of what people enjoy about the estate and what different parts of the estates can offer people. The young woodland in question is the part of the estate my daughter has enjoyed the most, splashing down the streams in her wellies, making woodland art, stirring the foam created by the natural springs like a witches cauldron, photographing fungi, listening to the tawny owl hoot at night, teddy bears picnics, bark rubbings – the list is endless! This part of the estate is where I often go to practice mindfulness which really helps my mental health. I have a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and sitting in woodland is one of the few things which helps calm the daily anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.
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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
By Wendall Berry