Hosting many thousands of trees within the Country Park, regular maintenance for healthy specimens is important and to safeguard the welfare of its visitor’s.
Over the past few years, invasive deceases have penetrated the park, particularly phytophthora amorim. The Lickey Hills are not alone in having to address this nation-wide issue.
Visitors will have seen the level of wholesale felling undertaken – some may well have been shocked.
It’s not all bad news. Vistas last seen by the Victorians have been opened-up, a substantial programme of new saplings planted and the opportunity to address the Heathland issue.
One concern voice prompted the ‘Letter to the Editor’ published in ‘The Village’ magazine, Sept ’20 penned by Steve Hinton, Head Ranger.
For The Health Of The Heath
“As Mr Moseley was correctly informed by the staff at the Lickey Hills there are several reasons why the work is being carried out. The primary reasons are for the management of the disease Phytophthora ramorum, and the restoration of the heathland associated with the Lickey Hills.
Depending which areas of trees have been removed it will be for either reason or for both. It is probably best to explain and expand on both reasons.
The heathland restoration scheme across the Lickey Hills is part of a much wider restoration scheme that is currently occurring across the country. Heathland is a nationally threatened habitat that contains and supports a unique community of plants and animals.
As an example of how much this habitat has been lost across the country, there used to be more than 600 acres of heathland in the Lickey area, the extent of heathland currently within the Country Park is now as low as 70 acres.
If you think of some of the place names locally, such as West Heath, Kings Heath, Highters Heath, Druids Heath, Balsall Heath, it will give you some idea of how extensive this habitat used to be before the industrial revolution; sadly only a few precious fragments remain.
After the First World War there was a drive for the country to become timber self-sufficient and landowners were encouraged to plant up any available space with quick-growing cash crops of trees. Sadly, previous custodians, not appreciating the value of heathland, planted these cash crops on ground they considered to be waste.
In 1996 English Nature (now Natural England) identified that the heathlands within the Country Park were unique for this area as they are dominated by Bilberry not Heather (hence Bilberry Hill). Typically the heathland found here is normally associated with the North of England, Scotland and the cost of Cornwall and doesn’t resemble nearby heathlands.
The issues identified by Natural England which were affecting our heathlands were the fragmented nature of the remaining heath and encroachment from scrub trees, and plantation (trees deliberately planted on the heathland in the past) which were causing shade and the loss of the heathland plant communities and their associated fauna.
To remedy these issues and to try to conserve the heathland on the Lickey Hills, Birmingham City Council applied for HLS (Higher Level Stewardship scheme) with the support of Natural England. In 1997 the Country Park was granted HLS support and a Heathland Management Plan was drawn up which detailed how we were to go about preserving our heathland.
The plan recommended: “Fragmented areas of heath should be linked together by removing invasive scrub/trees to form corridors, the tree line should be pushed further back where heathland plant communities were still to be found beneath the tree canopy.”
We have been working towards this goal for the past 24 years, when much of the tree removal we have carried out has gone unnoticed as it was done in small sections and spread across the Country Park
And now we move on to the second part of our story, sadly in 2011 the pathogen Phytophthora ramorum was found on the Lickey Hills. This is closely related to algae and can infect a whole host of species. For the Lickey Hills the species of concern are bilberry, rhododendron, sweet chestnut and Japanese larch, as it readily sporulates in these species.
There are more than 20 species of native Phytophthora that live alongside our plants which don’t cause massive problems. (As a side note the Potato Famine was caused by Phytophthora infestans.)
Overnight we went from small scale habitat management to having to aggressively stop the spread of a very pernicious disease. Under instruction from the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the Food and Environmental Research Agency (Now the Animal Plant Health Authority) we had to manage the diseased plants and remove the disease vectors which in this case is rhododendron and Japanese larch and their hybrids.
Sadly Phytophthora ramorum can infect and kill bilberry, which creates an added pressure on our already fragile heathland habitat.
So far to try and slow the progress of this disease we have had to remove more than 1,000 larch trees, six acres of rhododendron and 100sq metres of bilberry.
Where the disease has occurred next to bilberry plants, we have removed the host species which are acting as a disease vector, such as larch and rhododendron.
Sadly, the disease has now spread into our sweet chestnut trees and this autumn we are faced with removing several of our mature sweet chestnut trees which have succumbed to the disease.
As every outbreak of the disease is identified we are under a statutory obligation to manage what is required and often this has meant large-scale and significant works.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. A lot of the trees planted as a cash crop were not suitable for the park and were planted for their speed of growth rather than their wildlife value. With the Charity Birmingham Trees for Life we have re-replanted more than 6,000 trees to replace the ones we have lost.
Rather than replanting with cash crops we have selected species which would have traditionally grown locally such as oak and hazel and will benefit a wider range of animal species found on and around the hills.
Before we get to the point of cutting anything down, we have undergone a great deal of work to ensure we are doing the right thing.
We are looking at managing the park just in the next few years ahead, but we are looking at managing this landscape on a much longer timescale of the next 50 to 100 years in the future.
Much of the work we have undertaken now will be enjoyed by future generations.”
Ranger Services Manager at the Lickey HIlls Country Park