Rhododendron – Beauty or Beast?

Rhododendron is a large genus of flowering shrubs, so long regarded as beautiful that they earned a name that means “rose tree” in classical Greek.

Certainly, there are many beauties that make spectacular and well-behaved garden plants. Unfortunately, one species, Rhododendron ponticum, is far from well-behaved.

It’s not native to the British Isles but was introduced in the mid-18th century. At first, it was a novelty for gardens, but some landowners planted it as cover for game birds.

It liked our climate and took off with a vengeance, spreading by seed and by rooting wherever low branches touch the soil.

But the dense, spreading canopy casts so much shade that it stops the germination of our natural woodland plants, even the trees that are necessary to replace those lost to storms. Given time, it will destroy the wood completely.

So, Rhododendron ponticum isn’t a beauty, it’s a beast.

The leaves are toxic to herbivores, so it can’t be controlled by grazing, and the leaves’ waxy coating prevents the effective use of herbicides.

Physical removal is the only option, and if you’d like to see Fox Hill preserved for future generations, why not come and lend a hand. Visit our Events calendar for registration details.

Walk This Way

By Tony Delliston

Friends of Fox Hill are very pleased to announce that final approval has been confirmed for a new Public Right of Way within Fox Hill. The new Public Footpath starts as the existing Public Right of Way from Limmerhill Road to Highland Avenue at the point where it crosses the pylon lines. It then runs down the hill until it meets the footpath from Dorset Way, here it turns right and follows this footpath until it meets WBC land where you can continue unhindered to Dorset Way. We are planning to walk the new Public Footpath as part of the guided nature walk on the 8th June.

In 2018 when 19 Hectares of Fox Hill woodland was put up for sale, Friends of Fox Hill decided to research then apply for footpaths historically used by members of the public to become recognised as Public Rights of Way, thus protecting them for future generations. In working with the Public Rights of Way Officer, within Wokingham Borough Council, it was established that we would have to provide historical evidence that routes had been walked for at least 20 years.  He asked for evidence, and so we produced a carefully worded guidance on how to complete the required forms and map. We had to be careful because we were not allowed to actually suggest routes at all. Forty-five people who had walked the woods, both past and present, kindly completed evidence forms and that is where the work really began.

A small sub-committee began matching the routes drawn to see how close they were and also the number of years walked to ensure the 20-year criteria could be met. Each route was then walked, photographed and co-ordinates taken. This resulted in several routes being identified and, following discussion with the Council, we were advised the best course was to submit all the routes in one application. Besides submitting the application, we also had to identify all the land owners where paths crossed their property. The Council was very helpful with this, and, of interest, there are pockets of land where there are no registered owners.  This did mean a delay in progressing the application whilst owners were identified. This all culminated on the 31st October 2019 when the full application was submitted to the Council.

We were aware that during the same period of making our application another application was being prepared to recognise Public Bridleways in the same area and the Council decided to work on the two applications together. The work was significant enough for the Council to employ a contractor to examine the applications and come up with recommendations to accept or decline routes with reasons. Unfortunately, COVID-19 unsurprisingly delayed the application further but in October 2022 the Council informed us that all but one route had been declined and reasons were given for each. The decision report provided contained 35 pages, 13,000 words, and 16 appendices. Having examined these, Friends of Fox Hill, following discussion with the Ramblers Association, decided to appeal some of the decisions via the Inspectorate. Unfortunately, there was a speedy response the following month informing us that we could not appeal due to one of the routes being accepted.

There then followed a lengthy public consultation period required by law, but with no objections we were finally informed last month that the one route has been fully confirmed and is now a Public Right of Way. It was also declared that the eight footpaths that were on Council land are actually covered by Right to Roam legislation and therefore did not need to be recognised as a Public Right of Way. These are the main reasons for refusal: –

  1. Routes drawn on evidence maps were not close enough to accept one route.
  2. Footpaths not connecting to a Public Highway as per Kotegaonkar legislation.
  3. Insufficient evidence numbers.

So, what next? We are planning on re-applying for some of the routes previously denied ensuring we answer the reasons previously given. 

Lessons have been learnt from the application: –

  1. Make a separate application for each footpath.
  2. Ensure each end of a route either joins an existing Public Right of Way, road, or Council land. (It is of note that some of the entrances from Woosehill such as Kent Close and Dorset Way are not Public Rights of Way. Indeed, the one in Kent Close is registered to a division of Bryant Homes who went into liquidation in 2002).
  3. Try to use a more informative evidence map including points of interest to assist drawing accurate walking routes.
  4. The 20-year rule for continuous use of a footpath does not have to be by one person, i.e. one person could be years 1-12, another years 11-20, or even a combination of more than two people.
  5. Establish the actual legal number of people required to give evidence to historical use. We have taken advice from the Ramblers Association who advised us that only one person is required.  However, the Council has taken a stance of a minimum of seven. This may have to be finally established on appeal if a route is declined solely for this reason.

Friends of Fox Hill will shortly be asking residents to assist on providing the necessary evidence of using certain routes over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, the clock will have to start again as we cannot re-use evidence provided in 2019 that 45 residents kindly provided. We know the Council has received a large number of Public Bridleway applications and has limited resources, especially as the very knowledgeable officer who provided original assistance has now moved on. However, we can use the consultant report findings to ensure we answer the issues raised on specific routes and re-apply.

Below is the Council decision map and I have highlighted the WBC land where there is a Right to Roam.

Conservation News from Friends of Fox Hill

Our conservation Working Parties take place every month and are open to all as we use traditional hand tools, and no prior experience is needed.

The aim of the session is determined by Wokingham Borough Council Countryside Services.  We are also governed by the tree protection order on the woodland.

The main tasks are…

Rhododendron Clearing

Clearing Rhododendron Ponticum as this is an invasive species.  It grows so densely that all other tree species have to fight to survive.  

Once an area is cleared, we are replanting with small native tree species to create a more even middle woodland canopy. 

You might see areas where we have edged a suggested pathway.  The aim of this is to reinforce walkways allowing the plants at ground level on either side a chance to thrive. Above: Wild Garlic.

In the Autumn and early Spring, we planted native Snowdrops, Bluebells and Ramsons (Native wild garlic).

Digging Ditches

When we began our management of the woodland the main Dorset Way footpath was often flooded and this was damaging the vegetation. Some of the trees were stood in water and all the existing ditches were in need of maintenance.  Digging out the ditches has made it easier to maintain the pathways and provided better drainage for the trees. 

Maintaining Paths

We are clearing the mud and leaf mulch off of the hardcore path that runs parallel to Dorset Way. This helps to keep the path clean and we have created culverts to channel the water across the path to maintain drainage. This also creates new habitats of temporary water pools for various insect and amphibian life.

In other areas of the woods, we are placing wood chippings created from the cleared rhododendron onto the existing pathways to absorb the excess water and hopefully make the paths less muddy.

Some of the cleared rhododendron is stacked at the lower Dorset way entrance ready to be chipped and used for path maintenance.

AGM Minutes 2024

I would like to thank those who were able to attend our Annual General Meeting, which was held on Sunday, 24th February 2024, and the Committee who put in a lot of effort to make it happen.

The minutes include an update on our achievements, an update on our footpaths application, and the talk given by our guest speaker, Christine Harvey from Ramblers Loddon Valley.

We look forward to seeing you during the year on one of our activities in Fox Hill.

Please find the link to the minutes here: 2024 AGM Meeting Minutes.

Public Right of Way Application Update

As 2023 comes to an end, we thought we should give an update on the progress of our application for a Public Footpath within Fox Hill that was submitted to the Council at the end of October 2019.  The order, if granted, is known as a Definitive Map Modification Order (DMMO).

Earlier this year, notices appeared at both ends of the path route asking for any representations or objections to be sent to the Council by the end of July 2023.  WBC have informed us that one communication was received but they have been unable to ascertain if this was a comment or a complaint.  They have written to the correspondent, but the last information we have been given is this has not been responded to, so the Council have sent another letter to them.  If no representations or objections are outstanding the Order can be confirmed.  However, if one or more objections are received, the matter must be submitted to the Secretary of State for a possible hearing.

In general, the Council have been receiving several applications, especially for bridleways which are slowing the process down.  It is not just Wokingham experiencing this, councils across the country are.  This is due to the Government placing an end date of January 2031 on when applications can be made.  Groups such as The Ramblers and The British Horse Society are working hard on making submissions caused by this.  Two local examples are an application for a Public Footpath along Chestnut Avenue between Northway and Bearwood Road and making a Bridleway between the Barkham Road and Limmerhill.

Friends of Fox Hill are hoping that if our application is approved, we can explore applying for other routes which failed in our earlier application as they did not connect to a Public Right of Way or Road at both ends; the new route would answer this for some.

Conservation Report – October 2023

Our monthly conservation session had a great turn out considering the weather.  Twelve adults and two children attended.  The children who came to help planted some wildflower bulbs.  We wore our new Hi-Viz tops which show the FOFH logo!

Left: As usual, the pathways needed clearing of leaves and mud, so we worked on the section which runs parallel to Dorset Way.

Right: At the main entrance to the woods, there was a large pile of rhododendron chippings waiting to be moved onto the soft surface pathway.

There were enough volunteers to continue with one of our major tasks of removing rhododendron.

The rhododendron is left at the Dorset Way entrance to be chipped.

We edged one of the paths and planted bluebell bulbs, lesser celandines, snakehead fritillaries and wood anemones.  This is an area previously cleared of rhododendrons.

In the wetter areas, we planted ramson commonly known as wild garlic. All the plants are native to the UK and were suggested by WBC Countryside Service in their management plan for the woodland.

The rhododendron is removed because it is an invasive species, and it stops a greater variety of woodland trees from establishing.  Where we have cleared thick sections, it is already lighter and the smaller native trees that we planted are growing well.

We clear the pathways which have a hard surface of mud to aid drainage and use chippings on the paths that are softer to help them remain usable.  Edging popular routes helps to guide walkers to stick to the pathways and so less of the woodland is trampled on.

Please come and join us next time.

Stephanie McKay

Fox Hill Information Boards

If you went into the woods on Wednesday 9th August, you would have been in for a great surprise.

Sally Gurney, the Mayor of Wokingham unveiled Friends of Fox Hill’s new information board at the Dorset Way entrance to the woods.  This is one of two; the second can be found at the Limmerhill Road entrance.

This was a great community project, 2 years in the planning, led by our Chair, Tim Lloyd, with financial support from Wokingham Town Council.  We are grateful for the illustrations created by local artist, Vic Delaney, craftsmanship from our local branch of Men’s Shed, and WBC Countryside Services for the installation of the boards.

These boards will be a useful introduction to visitors of the woods, offering information about location, wildlife, and activities.

After the unveiling, refreshments were provided, and enjoyed by everyone on the day.

Pop down to the woods to see them and look out for the news article in the next issue of Wokingham Today.

Bird Walk Report

0800 Saturday 15th April saw an enthusiastic group of Friends of Fox Hill members meet with Friends of the Emm Brook’s Eddie Napper for a bird/ nature walk in Fox Hill woods.

Eddie’s appreciation of the natural world stemmed from growing-up on a local farm, where a consequent daily exposure to the sights and sounds of the countryside led to an ability to recognise the calls of many different birds from within the cacophony of the early morning avian chorus (as he amply demonstrated).

So, what did we see, or rather (mostly) hear as visually, birds can be quite elusive?  Claire, our resident photographer, managed some shots of the Robin, Jay, Great Tit, and Chiffchaff –

followed by a great sequence showing the distinctive forked-tail of the Red Kite, (a feature so useful to distinguish from the similarly sized Buzzard with a fan-shaped tail).  

In addition, we heard Blackbird, Song Thrush, Wren, Wood Pigeon, Stock Dove, Collared Dove, Jackdaw, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, and Blue Tit.  Perhaps, rather surprisingly and possibly indicative of wider trends, there was an absence of Starling, House and Tree Sparrows, each so numerous just a few years ago.

Among the numerous flora and fungi seen, as shown below, and which included Wood Anemone and Bluebell shoots ….

Lesser Celandine

Native Garlic Mustard

Few-Flowered Garlic

Sweet Violet

Silver Leaf Fungus

Oakmoss Lichen

Common Hair Cap Moss

Cushion Moss

the standouts were the Turkey-Tail Fungus and Snakes Head Fritillary.

So, what was the abiding memory from our early (ish) walk?  For me, it was Eddie’s enthusiasm, and insistence that even without any technical kit – binoculars, camera, or bird/ flora identification apps – so much can be gleaned from just being aware and absorbed fully in the sights and sounds of the woods, or indeed any natural surroundings.  Over time, and at different times of the day, in different weather and in different seasons, the collective experience and growing appreciation for, and knowledge of, the surroundings will provide enormous satisfaction, and enrichment.  Right, perhaps it’s time to re-read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden … “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…”

Grateful thanks to Eddie and to the organisers.

Graham

Conservation Report – April 2023

Sunday 16th April was a lovely morning for our conservation session in the woods.  Nineteen volunteers attended and our focus was the footpath running parallel to Dorset Way.  Due to the recent heavy rainfall the pathway had become quite muddy.

When the paths are flooded, walkers meander into the undergrowth to find a drier route.  While this helps to keep feet dry it can also damage young plants such as bluebells or lesser celandines which grow on the margins.

The lesser celandine is a native wildflower from the buttercup family and is now flowering in the woods.

Our aim was to improve the pathway so that everyone can use it, and the undergrowth on either side is left to grow and is less trampled.  We watched how the water flowed, dug additional drainage channels, cleared some of the mud and edged a section of the footpath.

This bill hook is a useful tool for splitting wood into pegs.  The pegs were then used to hold the pathway edging in place. It was great to have children join in with the conservation work.

Richard from WBC Countryside Service dropped in with some left-over field maple saplings and, although it is a bit late in the season for tree planting, we gave it a try.

A lovely sight was a pair of nuthatches spotted nest building in the trees that were planted in the area where we have previously cleared the rhododendron.

Stephanie Mckay (Conservation Team)

Bird Watching Walk – Saturday 15th April 2023

All are welcome

Come and join us at 8 am

We are meeting at the Dorset Way entrance to Fox Hill woods at the end of the path opposite Heron Park.

Eddy from Friends of the Emmbrook will be leading the walk. 

We are asking for a voluntary contribution of £3.00 per family.

Please be considerate if parking along Dorset Way.

 

For more information contact events@friendsoffoxhill.org 

This activity is suitable for all ages. Under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.