Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Our April meeting saw Emma Bearman, one of the three Cannock Chase AONB officers, give us an information-packed talk on Cannock Chase. At just 26 sq. miles, Cannock Chase is the smallest of the 49 AONBs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Emma just one of three staff. It was designated in 1958 and extends from the grounds of Shugborough Hall in the north as far as Gentleshaw Common in the south. The A34, Stafford to Cannock road, forms its western boundary; whilst to the east, Beaudesert and Brereton are included. Interestingly, Hednesford and the area around the Museum of Cannock Chase are omitted. A large proportion of the land is owned by the County Council which operates it as a country park; a further large tract is owned and managed by the Forestry Commission, with selective public access. Finally, the National Trust operates the Shugborough estate in partnership with the County Council. In total, taking all private owners into account, about 60% of the area has the benefit of public access. The overall AONB Management Strategy is overseen by a Committee formed from these organisations and the local authorities in whose area Cannock Chase is situated.

So why the AONB designation? It is a precious landscape with a distinctive character, being the largest area of lowland heath in the Midlands and one of the largest in Northern Europe. An internationally scarce wildlife habitat, it is also the location of five 'Sites of Special Scientific Interest'. In addition, the Sherbrook Valley is designated as a 'Special Area of Conservation' because of the extent and type of its lowland heath; and there are also a number of local nature reserve designations. Such a habitat supports a wide range of bird life, hosting species such as nightjars and ground nesting birds including the skylark and the rarer woodlark. The heathland contains a rare mosaic of heathers, bell heathers, crowberries and cowberries. There is even a hybrid of the bilberry and cowberry, only found on the Chase, predictably called "the Cannock Chase berry". The semi-natural ancient woodlands which dot the area, contain oak, birch and holly. This is another important habitat which covered most of Britain before human intervention. In particular Brocton Coppice extends to over 85 hectares, embracing a stand of over 600 sessile oaks which are between 200 and 600 years old. Of course, the Chase is also well known as a home for invertebrates and adders.

The work of the AONB officers, with support from the local authorities, is to raise public awareness, manage the recreation pressures and undertake projects to protect and enhance the area. They have to meet the challenge of balancing nature conservation with recreational pressures. A budget of 168,000 per annum from Defra (75%) and the Local Authorities (25%) has to stretch a long way to meet all the challenges faced by an AONB located adjacent to a large urban area and receiving 2.3 million visitors annually. The Sherbrook Valley's international importance is recognised by a grant of EU funds for its management. Not surprisingly, Emma finds herself organising volunteer groups to manage the habitats as well as tackling the issues arising from the vast number of visitors - most often concentrated in specific, pressured, areas of the Chase. So Emma offered no apologies for explaining to us the problems created by dog poo. Rich in nutrients, it effectively fertilises a soil naturally low in nutrients and kills off those plants, notably heather, which thrive in low nutrient conditions.

Partnership working with the local community is essential if the Chase is to be managed for wildlife and nature as well as serving as a source of recreation for nearby residents and visitors from further afield. Emma and her colleagues have established an organisation, The Friends of Cannock Chase, for those who wish to give something back to the Chase, whether through the 24 annual membership fee or by volunteering to assist in working parties dealing with woodland and heathland management. They are also making efforts to develop a number of World War One initiatives, since the Chase played an important role both as a military training ground and as a site for a hospital. As well as guided historical walks attempts are being made to open the World War One memorial hut at the Marquis Drive Visitor Centre for greater periods of time. The Heritage Lottery Fund has made an award of 10,000 to fund a First World War project setting out the story of Cannock Chase's role in the War. Again, Emma is looking for volunteers to help her develop this project. Much more information about volunteering for this and other activities or about becoming a member of the Friends of Cannock Chase can be found on their website at: www.cannock-chase.co.uk

Roger Hockney
April 2015