The Ashdown Forest has a history of human settlement dating back to the Bronze Age, when people scratched what living they could from the poor soils, and the woodlands had wild grazing animals as well as bears, wolves and wildcats.
The Normans designated the area as a hunting forest for the King, and the Commoners continued to hold the right to use it in their customary way, provided they didn’t hunt the deer. Although ownership of the Forest changed hands many times, its landscape was hardly altered until the Second World War when much of it was used for military exercises.
After the war, the Ashdown Forest Act was drawn up to allow free public access, and to provide a framework for conservation of landscape, wildlife and historical features.
Old Lodge lies in the heart of the Ashdown Forest, and its character is subtly but noticeably different from the true lowland heath of Iping Common. The geology is slightly different, but more importantly it sits about 500 feet higher, and that’s enough to make it markedly cooler. Old Lodge has something of the ‘feel’ of a place one might associate with the north west of Britain.
That’s reflected in one of its specialities – the beautiful and charismatic redstart, which is not so common at all in Sussex. These birds constantly ‘twang’ their brilliant russet-red tails as though they’re attached by springs, and are often easy to see and especially to hear with their distinctive song and rattling calls of their young.
Old Lodge is a wide open landscape of heather and grassland, clumps of gorse and is dotted with birch and oak trees. There are still small plantations of Scots pine where coal tit and goldcrest whisper their thin, reedy calls, but there’s also a good chance of spotting a common crossbill – a rare and curious finch with a bill specially adapted for extracting the seeds from pine cones. In places, some of the pines have been felled to allow more heather to regenerate, which is just the spot to find the huge, bustling nests of red wood ants, constructed from millions of pine needles over which the ants toil constantly.
As always with heathland, grazing lies at the heart of its conservation. But heathland grasses, young gorse and birch seedlings all make for rather tough, unpalatable forage.
So as well as occasional rare breed cattle and even sheep, we also use Exmoor ponies which are perfectly adapted to making the most of what’s on offer.
As the Ashdown Forest is higher than the West Sussex heaths, its climate is cooler and damper too. This gives the heath more of an upland feel, closer to the northern moors and the invertebrate assemblage reflects that too. There are fewer warmth loving species but many species more commonly found in the northwest, such as the striking ground beetle Carabus arvensis. The site is rich in spiders with the luminous green spider being found in the summer among the similarly green leaves of purple-moor grass. The Ashdown Forest is named after the sand that occurs there, the individual grains are very small and greyish so appear like ash. This means they pack very tightly together and almost look like clay which can be harder for mining invertebrates to dig into, consequently those kind of invertebrates are not well represented on the site.
The bog holds some interesting plants scarce in other parts of the county such as marsh St. John’s-wort, bog asphodel and carnation sedge as well as many different species of Sphagnum moss. On the drier heath the delicate flowers of petty whin can also be spotted.
Nearly 250 species of fungi have been recorded including the unusual bog beacon and the rare nail fungus that grows out of horse dung.