A nature reserve on Park Walk, feature trees to ‘frame’ views from Jubilee Steps and a more natural children’s play park are ideas proposed for Shaftesbury’s southern slopes. Alfred found out more about the Town Hall’s plan.
In November, councillors on Shaftesbury Town Council’s Recreation, Open Spaces and Environment Committee discussed a blueprint for determining how some of Shaftesbury’s most treasured areas will appear and evolve in the years to come. The Southern Slopes Management Plan suggests a longer-term strategy for managing our special landscape.
“This is about how we’re going to look after this land, rather than just getting on and doing it. It’s having that big picture in mind,” said the author of the proposed plan, Town Clerk Claire Commons. Claire says it’s important to set a policy for the green spaces linking St John’s Hill with the edge of Gold Hill, including St James’ Park.
“This is the area that is most visible to visitors who come to the town and which isn’t currently with a management plan. That seemed the best place to start,” explained Claire, who added that procedures for managing Castle Hill are already in place.
John Parker, chairman of the Open Spaces Group, said he was pleased that they are ‘grasping the nettle’. “The whole thing has been unmanaged for so long,” said John. “There have been lots of ad hoc things put together, but this will now put the whole lot into a good framework.”
It’s not the first time policies for this space have been written. Swan’s Trust once drafted a blueprint, but Claire says the council didn’t adopt the plan. These new proposals divide the slopes into different zones, each with its distinct identity. The Rose Gardens are excluded for now. “I’ve done a small litmus test with the people that use it and some of the Open Spaces Group members and the feeling was that it does its job at the moment and radical changes are not needed there,” said Claire.
A ribbon of green space stretching from Stony Path, past the Jubilee Steps and the Park Walk War Memorial will be a place for nature under these proposals. Claire says it is a positive climate change action and it should increase the range of wildlife and improve the visitor experience. “We would have information boards so people would know that there was a certain type of newt, butterfly or grasshopper,” said Claire. “We might be able to enhance it with the addition of plants like red campion and cowslips, which would naturally find a home if allowed to.” Aconite, bluebells and snowdrops are also proposed for planting here.
Claire is in conversation with Dorset Wildlife Trust about the process for formalising this area into a small nature reserve. She is mindful that that status might bring extra complications. “It could outweigh the benefit it brings,” she warned.
The Town Council will ultimately decide whether there is support for designating the land as a Special Area of Conservation or a Site of Nature Conservation Interest. But John Parker is worried that could add too many restrictions. “You already have the bureaucracy of the Conservation Area and that means you can’t chop down or prune a tree before you get someone else to agree to it. We could restrict the future management and decisions that the Town Council might make in the future.”
Whatever happens to this part of the slopes, they can’t be left entirely to nature. Work is required to prevent trees from blocking the view or invasive species like Japanese knotweed and bracken from taking over. But John says the community needs to define what it actually means by ‘nature’.
“If it is left completely it will gradually develop into woodland,” said John. “Seventy years ago, that bank was grazed, and it was south-facing grassland. Twenty years ago, there was still a lot of that grassland remaining and there were very good displays of spring flowers. It was more attractive looking than it is now. It was a different sort of nature conservation. We have to decide what sort of ‘natural’ we want. Do we want grassland, woodland or something in between?”
John would prefer a grassy bank with spring flowers. “It looks attractive during the whole year, particularly through the winter. It looks drab at the moment.”
Managing the trees will be critical, so the scenery can be enjoyed. “It’s an important thing and we’ve done quite a lot of work on that in the past, having to take down quite big trees that were obscuring the view. Keeping the view open is important, particularly where people sit on the zigzag steps to it. At the moment they can’t. You always have to remove a few trees because they will grow in the wrong places,” said John.
“We are planning to have some of the trees identified as feature trees, ones which frame the view as you stand at the top,” added Claire, who says that taller trees could be planted down the slopes with shorter trees added towards the top. “Or we could just keep them reduced.”
One of the earlier jobs, if the plan is adopted, will be to survey existing trees. “The first thing to do is to identify what we have there already. Maybe some of the saplings have self-seeded. The best thing for this area is having trees that naturally find a home there because they will be the strongest,” said Claire.
John would like the policy relating specifically to Pine Walk to encourage replacement planting. “The Pine Walk woodland is, at the moment, dominated by very old trees. It’s very attractive but some of those trees will fail over the next ten or twenty years. If you are going to call it Pine Walk, it’s important to get more pine trees growing because there aren’t many pines there.”
Trees will only be removed from Pine Walk if dangerous. “We are aware that, in high winds, some of the larger trees are causing movement. We have got a really good arborist monitoring the trees to make sure they can carry on being part of that feature,” said Claire.
The draft plans suggest that the southern slopes adjacent to Gold Hill remain inaccessible, with natural barriers like bramble, hawthorn and holly being encouraged. “There were thoughts about cutting a drop before the wall to stop people from being able to get to the edge but that would come with its issues, as it would create a trough for rainwater to flow to the bottom and could cause erosion of its own. At the moment, making the edge of the wall inaccessible at the top is the priority for safety reasons,” said Claire.
Apple trees are sandwiched between the top of Gold Hill and St James Park. Claire and John hope that brambles could be cleared from the area around established trees to allow community access. “They are fairly well hidden at the moment and they were planted approximately six to seven years ago. The plan aims to make these more accessible so people can pick apples or pears,” Claire said, adding that the space would act as a community orchard.
Claire and John understand that it’s important not to plant cider apples. “You have to be careful to get the modern varieties rather than some of the old-fashioned varieties, which are not nice to eat at all,” said John. Brambles would be encouraged as protection around new trees.
The proposal would set aside £52,000 for all of this project and that includes council workers’ time. “This is a significant amount of work we want to do,” said Claire. Around £25,000 of that sum will fund new play equipment in two areas of St James Park. “At the moment, we have a wooden play trail which needs re-doing. We would revamp that with other wooden equipment. In the other area, there’s metal play equipment which is very good quality, so we would look at relocating that and putting something more natural back, still aimed at the younger children.”
Claire hopes that youngsters will be playing on the new equipment within the next six months. “I would love to see this going in before the summer holidays but this will depend on the council setting this is a key priority.,” said Claire.
Councillors will decide whether to adopt, reject or amend the proposed plan within weeks. Claire says key stakeholders and expert have shared their ideas and have helped formulate the plan. “We’ve worked with Open Spaces, the Tree Group, Dorset Rangers and also Brigit Strawbridge, to look at the biodiversity and the bee-friendliness of it,” she said.
John says he’s supportive but thinks that the wider community also should also be consulted. “The Open Spaces Group are people who are very concerned about this but don’t necessarily represent the whole of the population’s views. If there is going to be real consultation people have to be able to see what the options are. Perhaps a series of photographs can ask, ‘Is this you want?” suggested John.
When a plan is adopted, in whatever form, John believes it is important that it can be updated and can react to changing tastes and opinions. “Even in five years’ time, we might want to look at it again and say that we don’t like what is happening now and change it. We must leave that option open,” he said.