• Not seeing the Wood for the Trees?

    • The Facts about Ancient Woodland at Tortington Common


      Outside the picturesque town of Arundel in West Sussex, there lies a National Park and in that Park lies an area of woodland called Tortington Common which has become the focus of much debate recently. Depending on the outcome of that debate, Tortington Common will either be left in peace or it will have a new dual carriageway bulldozed through it to create an Arundel bypass on the A27.

      Now I cannot remember the number of times I have been told that Tortington Common is not in fact Ancient Woodland, but rather some worthless bunch of conifers that almost deserves to have a road put through it. I have heard it from my MP, from a county councillor, from a couple of district councillors, from a team of town councillors and from a whole gang of parish councillors. In fact I have heard it from so many different people, on so many occasions and with such conviction that if I didn’t know better I might even believe it to be true.

      Sadly for them, it is not true, but as always we need to start at the beginning so ….

      Ancient Woodland is defined as “An area that has been wooded continuously since at least 1600 AD.” That is Natural England’s own definition, not mine or the anti-roads campaigners’, and Natural England is the Government’s adviser on the natural environment. Quite straightforward really.

      The woodlands are then categorized into “ancient semi-natural woodland” or “plantations on ancient woodland sites”. Both types are classed as ancient woods. The trees and shrubs in ancient woodlands may have been felled or cut for coppice at various times since 1600, but as long as the area has remained as woodland, i.e. the coppice stools have regrown or the stand has been replanted soon after felling, then it still counts as ancient woodland. The floral seed bank, fungi and insects are as much part of ancient woodland as any parrticular trees.


      Ancient woodland is not about the age of individual trees but about the age of the whole complex of woodland soil flora and fauna; such as in this bluebell wood


      And finally, because they may have been cut over many times in the past, ancient woodlands do not necessarily contain old trees, and therein lies the rub for the ancient wood deniers. Theirs is a Walt Disney world where ancient woods must have ancient trees, preferably with wolves and witches no doubt, and if it doesn’t, why then it can’t be ancient!

      So can we say this sorts out the woods from the trees ….

      The next step must be to somehow prove that Tortington Common has had woods on it since that all important 1600 date. Just because we can now all agree on what makes a woodland ancient doesn’t necessarily mean Tortington Common is one of them, and besides I hear you say surely somewhere called a Common can’t have had woods on it for very long. A fair point, but sadly again not true.

      As it happens, historically a Common can be wooded rather than open ground; and deep in the bowels of Arundel Castle hangs a map, an early 17th century map in fact, and on that map you will find Tortington Common, clearly stated, and equally clearly covered in trees. An inconvenient truth perhaps, but then that’s history for you.

      If you won’t take my word for it, read the report by SGS Environment written in 1993 when the company was commissioned by West Sussex County Council to undertake an archaeological assessment along the route of the then proposed bypass. They trawled through the complete Castle archive and concluded about this map that –

      “Due to the stylised nature of this map it is not possible to make very detailed comment upon it. What is clear, however, is that Tortington Common was wooded and that the external boundary of the woodland was probably as it is at present. Documentary sources strongly suggest that this area was already woodland by the end of the 16th century and is probably mediaeval in origin.”

      Further maps from the same archive dated 1771, 1776, 1842 and 1861 up to the present all show the same thing. So there we have it, Tortington Common has been wooded for over 400 years, surely long enough for even the most hardened deniers?

      But wouldn’t it be nice to have an authoritative, up-to-date map that neatly shows our little Tortington Common as ancient woodland, no argument, no opining, just fact. And of course it exists ….

      In January 2010, the Weald and Downs Ancient Woodland Survey published the definitive Ancient Woodland Survey for West Sussex based on 3 years of work. It worked in partnership with, was funded by and is endorsed by Adur District Council, Arun District Council, Chichester District Council, Crawley Borough Council, The Forestry Commission, the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Unit, Horsham District Council, Natural England, the South Downs Joint Committee, the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, the Sussex Wildlife Trust and West Sussex County Council. In fact more government bodies than you could shake a stick at, all falling over themselves to say what a great piece of work it is.

      And there it is on page 61, Map 12, Tortington Common clearly shown as part of that great sweep of Ancient Woodland, starting on the crest of the Downs at Houghton Forest, rolling down the coastal slope through Rewell Wood and Binsted Wood, and enveloping the western edge of Arundel.


      Map showing ancient woodland areas around Arundel including Tortington Common


      Can we move on now please?

      Bill Treves

      Binsted resident


      Archaeological Assessment

      Ancient Woodland Survey for West Sussex

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