Shrubs Wood in spring, bluebells and coppice… all now under threat
Wye Park was a story of greed or, to use the exact term preferred by those in the business, ‘land banking’. Imperial College had acquired the Wye estate at a knockdown price. It planned to make a £100 million or more by selling the agricultural land as building plots, thereby coining huge profits simply through a change in use.
This is not an uncommon activity in today’s endangered countryside, and we would like to introduce you to an example on your very doorstep, at Shrubs Wood, forty two acres of beautiful ancient woodland which straddle the height of the Downs between Bodsham and Hassell Street, and are now in danger of being parceled up and sold for vast profits in a way which will destroy their unique character forever.
Shrubs Wood is ancient woodland, a shady green place of wonders that has barely changed in a thousand years or more. In its quiet corners you will find a scheduled Neolithic longbarrow listed with English Heritage, ancient coppiced hornbeam boundary trees and a Saxon demarcation ditch. Much of it is chestnut coppice where the regrowth stumps indicate several hundred years of coppicing activity. In spring it is a carpet of bluebells, anemones and occasional orchids. In summer wild flowers dot the beautiful meadows that sit at its heart like two green gems.
It’s been a single piece of land for years, and only makes sense that way. Woodland is essentially uneconomic. Shrubs Wood has not been coppiced for more than a decade and is in dire need of care which it isn’t getting. A new owner who loved forestry would coppice it quickly, making a small profit, then wait another ten to fifteen years to do the same (coppicing, for those who don’t know, is an extraordinarily environmentally friendly activity which is actively encouraged by all naturalists and backed by government grants). It can never make any sense to divide a place of this kind. It would become unmanageable. But this is about growing fat profits now, not sustainable woodlands for generations to come. Click on the map on the right and you will discover what its new owners wish to do to this ancient woodland up the hill: carve it up and sell it to the highest bidder, then walk away and count their astonishing profits.
Extensive coppice regrowth like this indicates centuries of forestry in Shrubs Wood
I have to reveal a personal interest here. My home borders on Shrubs Wood and, at the beginning of this year, its then owner, an expatriate who was looking for someone to take it over and, in his words, manage it properly, contacted me to ask if I was interested. I could, he said, match the price offered by another, outside buyer, £90,000, and it was mine. I didn’t have the money nor was I much in the market for a piece of beautiful woodland that, under normal circumstances, will never offer a financial return. It seemed to be overpriced; the going rate for woodland was no more than £2,000 an acre at best. I was also deeply involved in save-wye. So, after listening to him tell me he was happy the other buyer would care well for this precious piece of history, I passed. If only I’d known…
The ‘caring buyer’ turned out to be a business owned by a family called the Hantons who operate through different companies though their public presence is a website Woodlands.co.uk. If you take a look there, you will find it makes itself out to be a friendly, responsible agent selling woodland up and down the UK to people who normally wouldn’t buy it. The Hantons do this through the simple expedient of purchasing forestry at woodland prices then ripping them up into parcels and selling them on as ‘amenity land’ at a quite extraordinary markup.
Let me give you the figures. When the horror of the break-up of Shrubs became apparent, several local people got together, took a deep breath, and decided to dig deep into their pockets. There was no government money to bail out the village, no rich white knight to write a cheque. In the end this group contacted the Hantons and offered £140,000 of their own money for the lot, to preserve the wood as it is forever for the local community while giving these distant buyers in London a near-instant profit of £50,000 for no work whatsoever.
The Hantons said no.
These local people then breathed even more deeply and offered £165,000, raising the near-instant profit to £75,000, almost doubling the Hantons’ initial investment.
The Hantons said no, and nor, they said, were they interested in selling the entire wood either, only the artificial and highly damaging parcels they had invented out of nowhere. They still, for reasons which locals find deeply suspicious, wish to hang on to the paddocks at its heart, though they show no sign of any interest in using them for the agriculture for which they are intended.
Who are the Hantons? They are a London family of some substance. You may have, inadvertently, bought a product associated with them at some stage, when you wished to do the right thing. The directors of Ownwood are Alastair and Margaret Hanton. Alastair Hanton is a former chairman and director of the Fairtrade Foundation and onetime deputy managing director of Girobank. He is a member of the Methodist Church who has been involved in a number of charities including Christian Aid and been an early advocate of ‘ethical investment’. You can read a recent article from the Financial Times about Fairtrade on the right.
We need your help and support. Here is what you can do.
- We are looking at the registration of the entire wood as a village green, which would hamper or prevent altogether its break-up into portions for profit. If you have used Shrubs Wood regularly over the last twenty years for any leisure activity, whether it’s walking, taking the dog for a stroll, mushroom hunting or bird watching, we need to know. Please detail your usage of the wood in writing and send the letter to the chairman of Elmsted Parish Council: Will Thrupp, Bodsham Lodge Cottage, Bodsham, Ashford TN25 5JQ. Will is also happy to deal with your queries by e-mail (thrupp @ btopenworld.com, please remove the spaces around the @ sign).
- There’s growing concern within Kent County Council and countryside organisations about this practice, which is rampant through the UK now. Write to your councillors and your MP asking them to bring in a law to prevent the break-up of precious woodland. Make sure, if there’s a wood near you, that you know if it is coming up for sale and can alert your neighbours if people like Woodlands.co.uk turn up. If you know anyone thinking of buying woodland plots like this, please tell them the truth: they are helping destroy something precious, and getting ripped off to buy something worthless in return.
- Write to Margaret Hanton at Ownwood Ltd, 35 Giant Arches Road, London SE24 9HP, and ask her why, when Ownwood already has more than £1 million in capital and reserves, which grew by more than £200,000 from 2004 to 2005 alone, she needs to make yet more money by destroying our unique piece of woodland. And why, too, she thinks a near-instant profit of £75,000 on an investment of £90,000 just isn’t enough money to satisfy her needs.
- Write to Alastair Hanton at the same address and ask him why someone who received an OBE for his work on supposedly ethical investments and fair trade wishes to make such obscene profits from destroying our environment through his greed. Has he, perhaps, scratched out Matthew 19:24 from his Bible? The verse that reads, ‘Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’
- Visit Shrubs Wood and report to Kent County Council any obstructions you find on public footpaths and bridleways, any broken fences or damaged gates. These are the responsibility of Ownwood and at the moment they are being ignored. There are, of course, two great pubs in the vicinity, the Timber Batts and the Bowl in Hastingleigh, so you always have a good excuse.
Shrubs Wood has not yet appeared on the Woodlands.co.uk website, although it is many weeks since negotiations, such as they were, between the residents of Bodsham and its owners broke down. We sincerely hope they can be revived and brought to a mutually beneficial conclusion, one in which the Hantons walk away with an extraordinary profit from their brief land-banking venture in our countryside while we see an ancient and historic piece of woodland preserved and placed under caring, responsible ownership for public use in perpetuity.
Lovely vistas such as this hornbeam glade on the right deserve a better fate than to be bought and sold for nothing more than distant, obscene profit. I raised the preservation of the wood personally with Margaret Hanton, as she stood in my back garden surveying, with a very jaundiced eye, the ancient wonder she’d just bought. She gave me a cold stare and said I’d nothing to worry about. Most of the people who bought these plots were from town, and the novelty soon wore off. After a few years, she said, most of the woodland parcels they sold were forgotten. In other words, neglected, abandoned, their phoney profits stripped from them. Exactly what the ancient hornbeams and chestnut of Shrubs Wood do not need.
If this wood does go out onto the market, to be savagely divided for sale to gullible individuals who fail to understand the enormity of what is happening here, our tactics will change. I think you know them by now. There will be a campaign. There will be a website. And there will be printed material everywhere in our vicinity to ensure that all potential buyers thinking of unwittingly taking part in the destruction of this beautiful natural jewel know exactly what they are doing to the environment, and how much profit they are generating for the Hanton family for no work and no industry on their part whatsoever.
One thing we have learnt together these last nine months is this. We don’t like fighting but when we do fight by God we do it well. We need a little of your help now. We may need more of it later.
If the people in Woodlands.uk don’t understand what that means, we suggest they stay and read a little of what has happened here since December last year. Imperial College spent more than £1 million taking on the community of the Wye area and they lost. Do you really want to be next?