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The Western Weald seen from Didling Hill
The Western Weald is an area of countryside in Hampshire and West Sussexmarker, Englandmarker, containing a mixture of woodland and heathland areas. Part of the larger Wealdmarker it lies to the south of the towns of Bordonmarker, Haslemeremarker and Rakemarker and to the west of the town of Pulboroughmarker. It includes the towns of Lissmarker and Petersfieldmarker on its western boundary and the towns of Midhurstmarker and Petworthmarker to the south. Natural features include the high point of Blackdownmarker in Sussex and Woolmer Forestmarker in Hampshire; the South Downsmarker lie to its south and west. It is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), administered by the South Downs Joint Committee.

Geologically the Western Weald is a mixture of sandstone and clay strata which lie below the chalk of southern England, and have been exposed by the erosion of a chalk anticline. The resulting soils include acid heathland and poorly draining clay soil which support woodlands interspersed with small irregularly shaped fields, with many surviving medieval boundaries.

It has recently come to prominence as a disputed area for inclusion or exclusion from the proposed South Downs National Parkmarker - the Inspector at the original public inquiry into the National Park concluded that it should be excluded, in large part because of its different geology from the chalky South Downs. This was disputed by a number of organisations, including Natural England, the Ramblers' Association, Sussex Wildlife Trust and the Campaign for National Parks who pointed to the diverse geology of existing National parks of England and Wales such as the Lake Districtmarker and Peak Districtmarker. The Inquiry re-opened in February 2008.

East Hampshire District Councilmarker also supported the inclusion of the Western Weald within the proposed National Park. West Sussex County Council have argued largely in favour of the exclusion of the Western Weald, indeed proposing an even smaller South Downs National Park than that proposed by the inquiry inspector.

On 31 March 2009 the result of the inquiry was announced, with the whole Western Weald area recommended to be included in the national park.

West Weald Landscape Project

An area of 240 square kilometres (nearly 60,000 acres) north of Petworth in the Chichester Districtmarker of West Sussex and the borough of Waverley in Surrey is covered by the project, funded by a partnership of 15 organisations including environmental bodies and local authorities. The partnership undertook a detailed survey of the area in 2006 and aims to maintain and improve biodiversity by encouraging traditional countryside management and linking up fragmented habitats.

Landscape character

The western end of the low weald is of an undulating well wooded character. A patchwork of farmland, woodland and commons, with many hedgerows, form a landscape which has changed little since the middle ages. Almost one third of the area is woodland,and two thirds of that is ancient, including old growth forest at The Mens and pasture woodland at Ebernoe Commonmarker. The area has many man made lakes and ponds, often created to power the wealden iron industry or for water mills, although others were created for sporting purposes. The West Weald has been described as a rare example of a part-functioning forest ecosystem.

Geology and soils

The predominant rock formation of the Western Weald is the Low Weald Clay formation, derived from sandstones and mudstones and in a few places from Paludina limestones. There are also ridges of the Upper and Lower Greensand strata,including Blackdown,the highest point in Sussex. There are patches of drift overlying the clay and some river terrace gravels and alluvium in the river valleys. A generally narrow band of gault clay, immediately underlying the chalk, is found around the edges of the weald. At Alice Holt Forestmarker north of Woolmer Forest a wide outcrop of this blue clay was exploited on an industrial scale for pottery production during the Roman era.

Six soil condition types have been identified by the National Soils Map,the most widespread being slowly permeable, seasonally wet, slightly acid but base-rich, loamy and clayey soils which have moderate natural fertility and impeded drainage. Where groundwater levels are high a wet low fertility variant of the first type occurs. Very acid free draining soils with very low natural fertility occur over the Lower Greensand. Freely draining slightly acid loamy soils are found along the Rother valley where they are used for intensive arable farming and vegetable growing. Freely draining slightly acid sandy soils are found at Cowdray Park and around Hambledonmarker. Wet loamy and clayey floodplain soils of moderate natural fertility are found along the River Arun, where they provide summer grazing for cattle.

Water quality

The Western Weald is drained by the Western Rothermarker and its tributaries, notably the River Lodmarker, and by the River Kird and Loxwood Stream, all of which are tributaries of the River Arunmarker. Water quality is above average for south eastern England, with chemical water quality variable but biological quality good to exceptional in all of the rivers, according to the Environment Agency. Silt from intensivearable farming on silty erosion prone soils on the greensand is a problem in the Western Rother. The Environment Agency is working with farmers to control run off from fields, by using reduced cultivations with less ploughing, having grass margins at the foot of slopes and moving gateways away from the foot of slopes. Flow rates, which are measured for the River Lod and Loxwood Stream, vary greatly with rainfall on the impermeable clay, with a tendency to flash flooding, and this has increased over the last thirty years.

Air quality

The low population density of the Western Weald leads to gaseous pollution levels from fossil fuels being around half those of surrounding districts. Methane coming from ruminant animals and nitrous oxide from soils mean there is less difference regarding these gases.

Noise and light pollution

Low population density for south east England and the absence of trunk roads contribute to low noise levels in the areaSouth east England has the most light polluted skies in Britain, especially in Greater London, with only about 1% truly dark sky. The Western Weald has some of the darkest skies in the region, with 3% of West Sussex being in the darkest category and 11% in the next darkest in 2000, all of it in the western weald. Between 1993 and 2000 the overall situation deteriorated but the darkest areas actually increased in parts of the western weald. As well as obscuring the starry sky light pollution is claimed to detrimentally affect foraging behaviour of bats, frogs and moths, the migration of birds and singing by song birds.

Biodiversity

The range of habitats, broken topography and small field sizes in the Western Weald support a wide range of species.The large fragments of ancient woodland, heathlands and wet meadows are of special conservation value. Buzzards have been breeding in the area for a number of years, but red kites have not yet colonised the area. At least 4,400 species have been recorded, including many priority species for conservation, including 95 listed under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Ebernoe Common National Nature Reserve and Site of special scientific interest, managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust, includes ancient woodland, glades and ponds. It supports a diversity of plants and animals, including 14 out of 16 species of bat which occur in the UK, including the rare Bechstein's and Barbastelle bats. Adjoining farmland has been purchased with a grant from Restore UK which will be allowed to revert to pasture woodland over a long period with managed grazing by cattle. The Barbastelle bats need old dying trees with loose bark for their roosts and travel great distances along traditional flight lines to feed over damp meadows, which may be as much as 20 kilometres from the roost, in the Arun and Rother valleys. Local landowners are being encouraged to maintain and enhance continuous tree cover along these routes so that the bats can travel out on summer evenings, avoiding predation by sparrow hawks.

Public access

There are substantial areas of open access land on commons across the area and extensive footpath and bridleway networks. The Serpent Trailmarker long distance path between Petersfield and Haslemere is designed to pass through most of the heathlands in the area, passing from Haslemere west to Rake, West Sussexmarker then east to Fittleworth, north of the River Rother, and then westwards again, south of the river, to Petersfield. The A272 road is the only major road across the Western Weald, and is nearly all single carriageway, while the A283 and A286 roads provide north-south access. Local roads tend to be narrow and winding.

South Downs National Park Public Inquiry

The historic market town of Midhurst, now to be included in the national park.
The original public inquiry closed on 23 March 2005 after sitting for 91 days taking evidence, and 23 accompanied site visits. In his subsequent report the inspector concluded that the national park should be confined to the chalk downs, excluding the wealden area of East Hampshire and the Chichester District of West Sussex. The inspector claimed new housing developments and intensive agriculture had degraded the Rother Valley so that it was unsuitable to be included. Seasonal use of plastic film on intensive vegetable crops along the fertile valley has a strong visual impact. Critics of the decision countered that there had been only limited new housing, and the area had been an AONB for forty years, showing that it needed the greater protection of being in a national park. After much public outcry and petitioning of government it was decided to reopen the public inquiry to take new submissions regarding the Western Weald and some other areas in East Sussex and south of the chalk in West Sussex. The inquiry re-opened on Tuesday 12 February 2008 at The Chatsworth Hotel in Worthing and closed on Friday 4 July after 27 sitting days.

Local authority positions

West Sussex County Council has consistently opposed the creation of any national park, and has tried to restrict the park boundary to the chalk ridge. The council has argued that the existing AONB status gives an equal level of protection. West Sussex County Council leader Henry Smith surprised many people by telling the re-opened South Downs National Park inquiry that: “there continues to be no support for inclusion of the Wealden area in the South Downs National Park” only two weeks after attending a meeting with a number of parish and town councils in the wealden area who had expressed strong support for inclusion in the proposed park. The council has accepted the enquiry inspector's March 2009 decision, but is now calling for a new type of park in which decisions would still be made by local representatives.

Chichester District Council has also been opposed to the creation of a National Park, which will include two thirds of its area, and to the inclusion of the western weald area. It now hopes that planning decisions within that part of the park will be delegated to the district council planners.

Hampshire County Council and East Hampshire District Council, together with all the parish councils in the Hampshire part of the Western Weald, have taken a positive view of the proposed park and welcomed the public enquiry inspector's decision in favour,

Other organisations

The Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has been campaigning for a South Downs national park since 1929, has vigorously supported inclusion of the Western Weald, fronted by its president Bill Bryson, who said failure to include the area would be a "national tragedy".

The South Downs Campaign, founded in 1990 and now a network of 160 organisations, has refuted West Sussex County Council claims that the present AONB status give as great a level of protection as a national park, pointing out that the present South Downs Joint Committee has to annually negotiate its funding with 16 organisations, whereas a National Park Authority would be directly funded by central government at a higher level. The campaign argued that local democracy would not be undermined because a majority of national park authority members, in practise around 75%, are delegated from local authorities and parish councils. Parish councils do not have any representation in an AONB.

References

  1. Planning Inspectorate report Retrieved 30 April 2009
  2. East Hampshire District Council press release on the re-opening of the Public Inquiry Retrieved 30 April 2009
  3. BBC news
  4. Defra; South Downs National Park Announced Retrieved 30 April 2009
  5. West Weald Landscape Partnership Retrieved 30 April 2009
  6. Countryside Commission & West Sussex County Council Landscape Assessment of West Sussex – Section One (1995).
  7. The State of the West Weald’s Natural Environment 2006 p.3 Retrieved 30 April 2009
  8. Natural Environment Research Council DiGMapGB – Digital Geological Map of Great Britain, British Geological Survey (2000)
  9. http://www.aliceholt.org/roman_history_of_alice_holt_forest.htm Alice Holt Forest website]
  10. National Soil Resources Institute National Soil Map, Cranfield University at Silsoe (2001)
  11. Howorth R & Manning C Land Use Change and the Water Environment of the West Weald over a 30-year period (1971-2001), West Weald Landscape Project (2006)
  12. The State of the West Weald’s Natural Environment 2006
  13. The State of the West Weald’s Natural Environment 2006
  14. CPRE-satellite mapping of light pollution Retrieved 30 April 2009
  15. The State of the West Weald’s Natural Environment 2006
  16. Sussex Wildlife Trust Retrieved 30 April 2009
  17. Restore UK Retrieved 30 April 2009
  18. Planning Inspectorate report
  19. SouthdownsCampaign document; A Slap in the Face for Parishes
  20. West Sussex Gazette report Retrieved 30 April 2009
  21. Chichester District Council report from July 2007
  22. Chichester Observer report Retrieved 30 April 2009
  23. Hampshire County Council press release Retrieved 30 April 2009
  24. Telegraph newspaper report of Bill Bryson's comments Retrieved 30 April 2009
  25. CPRE press release
  26. South Downs Campaign Reasons for a national park


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