Gary Marshall decides to wander ‘lonely as a cloud’ on well-trod footpaths and sylvan glades.
Access to woodlands in the UK varies enormously and depends on: use, ownership, size, location, topography and designations such as SSSIs – Sites of Special Scientific Interest, ESAs – Environmentally Sensitive Areas and many other factors. So let’s start very simply…
For a small private wood, with limited management, just a hunt gate may suffice, giving access to informal
paths or tracks, for the owners’ use.
I’m very pleased that an increasing number of woodland owners and organisations actively encourage people into woods. The Woodland Trust has such a policy – also promoting understanding, sustainability, developing woodland skills, crafts and recognising the huge health advantages that are promoted by getting into the woods. Forestry Commission sites are often open access too as with Wildlife Trust sites, Country Parks and other open woodlands. Some access can be by permit only – particularly in sensitive woodlands, easily disturbed or damaged.
Some woods are ‘open’ – with no boundary fences and gates, except where they allow woodland workers access with their vehicles and equipment, the New Forest and Staffhurst woods in Hants and Surrey being two examples. The public have a ‘right to roam’ in many woods – although trampling in the bluebell
or other sensitive wildlife season is to be avoided. Other publicly accessible woodlands may be fenced with access only from designated car parks, footpaths, bridleways or tracks.
Rights of way
Commonly, where public rights of way enter and leave woods – public and private, stiles, kissing gates, squeeze gaps or farm type gates are erected. It’s the owners’ responsibility to keep such access in good order and it is the local County Council or Unitary Authority’s duty to ensure standards of access on public rights of way are adequate. Voluntary organisations often also maintain the access paths, but only with owners’ and the council’s permission. You can help by reporting access problems to the council.
Commercial woodlands, forests and plantations pose their own access problems. They’re usually overcome using civil engineering techniques. Forest roads, tracks, bridges and culverts are built to last for the wood’s commercial life. When felling, thinning and extraction takes place, ‘racks’ are often cut in plantations – rows of trees taken out at intervals to allow forest workers access with chain saws, winches and tracked harvesting machines. These connect with a series of woodland access tracks and rides – contoured in hilly terrain. Timber is stacked in loading areas ready for collection and transporting. Where the public also have access to such sites, extreme caution is called for during such operations and signing, restricted areas and look outs will be in force. The public are advised to avoid areas where harvesting is taking place. The last thing a forest worker wants while operating machinery, or felling, is someone casually strolling or ‘rubber-necking’. Of course, another commercial use for woodlands is shooting, another subject completely, but do beware.
Public access can lead to unwanted problems: littering and fly-tipping, dog fouling, unauthorised vehicles such as off-roading and trials biking, and even travellers’ camps. Car parks will often have height and other barriers – and there’s increasing use of CCTV in some ‘hot-spots’. Another way that volunteer wardens and the public can help is to be the local eyes and ears acting as guardians of the woods reporting issues to woodland owners and organisations.
Scattered throughout this article are photos relating to woodland access. Go and spot some yourself. If you feel so inclined join in with volunteers – making and mending, clearing and managing. If you own woodland consider using local volunteers to help with your access work – contact your local land-based educational establishment or volunteer bureau. Once all counties had their own Agricultural Colleges such as Plumpton in East Sussex, or Hadlow in Kent. Now these often offer a variety of land-based learning – and can have students and tutors looking for suitable sites on which to practise their skills. Get out there and get involved, you won’t regret it!