Dunsmore Living Landscape: yours to explore

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It’s approaching that time of year again. Winter-still woods erupt with a blaze of colour. First to bloom are primroses, often along sunny wood banks. Then comes the carpet of Wood anemone, Stitchwort, Yellow archangel and finally Bluebell. Frozen, creaking timber starts to whisper in milder winds as bright, caterpillar-laden leaves attract early spring migrants: Chiff-chaff, Willow warbler and then Lesser-spotted flycatcher.

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‘New year, new me!’ we all cry, eager to emerge from our winter hibernation. Whether or not we keep going with the new gym membership or running regime, a return to the woods, meadows and pathways of the great outdoors is always good for body and soul. Whilst many of the nation’s national parks are within a day’s reach, there are natural treasures to be found right here, on our own doorstep.

Large fragments of ancient woodland still survive in pockets around the county. Oases of plant and insect diversity, their naturalness is an antidote to our increasingly hurried lives. One of the greatest concentrations in the county is found in the Dunsmore Living Landscape. Owing their survival to Norman land-rights, sticky glacial clay soils and usefulness to nearby villagers, woods such as Bubbenhall, Ryton and Wappenbury are now owned and protected by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. Others, such as Piles Coppice, are kept by a variety of landowners. One, Brandon Wood, is being slowly returned to ancient native woodland by the Friends of Brandon Wood.

Linking the woodlands, like water droplets in a spider’s web, is a network of hedgerows that, stretched out, would circle the earth nearly twenty times. Planted by communities over thousands of years or etched out of woodland, they are important semi-natural habitats in their own right, providing shelter and food for small mammals, farmland birds such as the Yellowhammer and butterflies such as the late summer Gatekeeper. The time-lapse blooms of cherry, blackthorn and hawthorn are important nectar and pollen sources. Hawthorn alone supports over 300 species of insect, including the caterpillars of its namesake the Hawthorn moth.

The fingerprint of man is evident all across this landscape. The Roman Fosse Way lies to the east of the area, interrupted by the strategic positioning of a Norman motte and bailey castle in Brinklow, now an enigmatic earthwork. Two country estates hold regionally important collections of ancient oaks, chestnut and hornbeam. Once religious houses, their later wealthier occupants employed the horticultural stars of the day to landscape them; Humphrey Repton at Stoneleigh Abbey and ‘Capability’ Brown at Coombe Country Park. Further under our feet, a different story is told in glacial sands and gravels, one of prehistoric hunter-gatherers and extinct herbivores such as the straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus.

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Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, as the lead partner of the Dunsmore Living Landscape scheme (previously Princethorpe Woodlands), is working to restore this ancient, wooded landscape. Taking a landscape-scale approach, efforts will focus on restoring, conserving and reconnecting the natural and cultural landscape. Engaging local communities is the key to success. Fostering a sense of ownership, understanding and pride will ensure a lasting legacy. In 2017, these ambitions were bolstered by a Heritage Lottery Fund award of over £1million.

The funding is already making a difference.

In June last year, 38 dormice were reintroduced into Wappenbury Wood with the help of dedicated volunteers from Warwickshire Mammal Group and staff at People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Nest box checks later in the year revealed new young and dispersal throughout the core of the wood; a promising start for this endangered species.

Work to improve habitat and connectivity for this surprisingly mobile species is also underway. Twenty kilometres of hedgerow around and between woodlands will be replanted or rejuvenated by laying or coppicing over the next three years. Hazel coppice, seven years after being restored, is being cut and layered again, whilst darkened rides are being ‘scalloped’, opening them to sunlight and providing a connected, linear habitat of rejuvenating shrubs and grassland. In time, perhaps even lost species such as the Nightingale may return.

The positive influence of people and communities are essential to any landscape in the UK, who in turn benefit from access to nature. Work is already underway to improve access from Ryton Pools Country Park to the woodlands that lie beyond. When finished, groups such as Warwickshire Disabled Ramblers will be able to navigate around Wappenbury and Bubbenhall Woods. Those with an artistic flair can now enjoy the new woodland sculpture trail in Ryton Wood, the start marked by the intricate chainsaw carved totem of sculptor Lorraine Botterill. Engagement Officer Anna Jennings has been busy reaching out to communities within the scheme area, including some of the most deprived. In Willenhall, a local women’s group have made the link between their allotment and nearby Willenhall Wood, whilst the residents of Bubbenhall are eagerly anticipating the flashes of colour in a new community wildflower meadow this spring and summer.

Author: Chris Redstall, March 2018