The Work of the Friends of Cannock Chase

We all live close to Cannock Chase. Many of us may drive through it regularly. Some perhaps enjoy walking there. So it was a pleasant surprise to listen to our October speaker, June Jukes from the Friends of Cannock Chase, who gave us fresh insights into this area of lowland heath, one of Britain's rarer habitats.

June reminded us of the Chase's past. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), the area between the Rivers Trent, Sow, Penk and Tame was known as Cank Forest and managed for royal hunting. The term "Forest" is a misnomer, for even at that time, it contained many tracts of open land, a little like Hampshire's New Forest today. By the late thirteenth century, the hunting rights had been vested in the Bishops of Lichfield. Small industries were also developing, such as ironworking, mining, quarrying and charcoal burning. Meanwhile, the bishops resided at Beaudesert Hall. Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries led to the sale of the Hall to Sir William Paget, his family later being elevated to the title of Marquis of Anglesey. The Pagets and the Anson family from Shugborough Hall, became the main landowners of the Chase. The eighteenth century saw further industrial activity, particularly mining, on the periphery of the Chase, whilst the principal landowners re-introduced extensive areas of tree-planting, much of which was to be felled during World War One, subsequently to be re-introduced on a commercial scale by the Forestry Commission. Both World Wars saw extensive military control over parts of the Chase. Training camps sprang up at Brocton and Rugeley, as did military hospitals to tend repatriated wounded soldiers.

Military involvement ceased immediately after World War Two, but the Ministry of Defence eyed the land as a future training ground, much to the consternation of local residents, who saw themselves being banned from access. The formation of The Friends of Cannock Chase was prompted in an attempt to save Cannock Chase as publicly available open space and prevent it from being controlled by the Ministry of Defence. There had been a similar Friends organisation formed during the inter-war years, chiefly with the aim of saving Beaudesert Hall from destruction, upon it being vacated by the Marquis of Anglesey, but their attempts were to no avail. Today, a few walls are the only reminder of this stately house, although the landscaped ponds still survive.

The Friends may have lost that battle, but the reconstituted post-war Association, having successfully saved the Chase from use for military exercises, fought to ensure that the construction of the M6 Motorway did not encroach into the area and also worked with the local councils to obtain the Area of Outstanding National Beauty designation for the Chase in 1958. With this comes special recognition of its visual and ecological value and stronger protection from inappropriate development. The Friends like to think that they work with the local councils as their "watchdogs on the ground". We must also remember that besides the AONB designation, there are Sites of Special Scientific Interest on the Chase which protect nationally important habitats. They, in turn attract a wide range of birds, mammals and insects, some nationally rare or under threat. The fact that the Chase has a myriad of different habitats is very important and walkers will be able to observe this variety as they take a stroll across the area. Conifer woodland may merge into deciduous, or to ancient woodland populated by venerable oaks. Even the flooded worked-out sand and gravel pits offer a variety of habitats. The Friends also promote a programme of walks as well as talks with occasional one-off activities such as bird ringing and moth trapping. They often work in partnership with the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust.

The second part of June's talk was a slide presentation, which took us on an extensive journey around the Chase, looking at the scenery, flora and wildlife. From it, we could fully appreciate the area's rich variety of habitats supporting not only deer, but adders, the illusive nightjar, cuckoos, an amazing range of mushrooms and toadstools and the rare Cannock Chase berry, a natural hybrid of the bilberry and cowberry. Why travel far to other parts of Britain to enjoy these delights, when they are on our doorstep!

Roger Hockney
October 2019