Campaign to save Bristol woodland for the community

A crowdfunding campaign to buy and protect five acres of mature woodland that is for sale in Crews Hole in Bristol has been launched.

Protect Earth, an environment charity with strong roots in the Bristol area, is planning to save Blackswarth Road Wood, which comes up for auction on 13th September with a guide price of £50,000, by buying and restoring it “for the long-term benefit of the community, wildlife and the climate”.

Donations are pouring into the campaign and so far £7,895 of a £40,000 target has been reached.

Auctioneers Hollis Morgan say that the woodland, close to the River Avon, offers “amenity/development” use. Planning permission was granted in 1995, and has since lapsed, for a scheme comprising 10 homes forming a community care facility. A subsequent application for 10 for residential units was refused in 2001.

Protect Earth says that as part of a Site of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI) it is a crucial wildlife habitat for deer, badgers, buzzards, red kite, nuthatch, tawny owls, sparrow hawks, swifts, cuckoo, and a plethora of bats, including pipistrelle and possibly myotis. It also helps with carbon sequestration, and reducing particulate matter in the air along the busy Crews Hole Road, and is part of an important wildlife corridor along the Avon Valley, bringing wildlife into the centre of the city.

The charity also highlights the woodland’s rich social and industrial past. The eastern part was a formal terraced garden leading up to a grotto-like bathhouse (now Grade II listed). The garden was laid out in the mid-18th century and some of the retaining walls still exist and the lines of the paths can still be seen. The garden belonged to a house attached to a glass bottle manufacturer and furnace which was at the south-east corner of the wood.

Later, this site was used by Bristol Fireclay Company whose mines extended under Avon View Cemetery on the northern boundary of the wood. In the 20th century, the garden terraces were used as allotments and some corrugated iron edging to the beds, water butts and rotting sheds remain from this time. The Bathhouse itself is in separate ownership and is not part of the sale, but the purchase would allow for continued access and potential collaboration, says Protect Earth.

Since the 1990s, the whole of Blackswarth Road Wood has been left to naturally regenerate into a diverse woodland, with open glades, young and old growth, and full of veteran oaks and enormous hazel.  There has been no public access, so wildlife has been largely undisturbed, but this also means that the wood has not been managed and has lost some of its diversity. Native bluebells, an ancient woodland indicator, are found on the site.

The land has also been used as a rubbish dump. The charity says: “Huge clean-up parties will be required to get this woodland back on track, but working with volunteers and contractors we can remove decades of rubbish and return this space to nature. Together we can rescue the wildlife from having to live amongst this mess and make sure the only changes happening to the woodland are positive.”

Susan Acton-Campbell, chair of the Friends of Troopers Hill, said the group particularly value Blackswarth Wood as it forms part of a wildlife corridor through the Avon Valley conservation area that includes Troopers Hill nature reserve.

She said: “We don’t think there is any realistic prospect of a new owner getting permission to build on the site but we are concerned that someone might cause damage in trying to prove that building is feasible. We really hope that the charity Protect Earth will be able to purchase the site to ensure that it is managed for wildlife and to enhance its biodiversity.”

There is also concern that whilst the land does have conservation status (SNCI), this is not necessarily enough to protect it from damage under a new owner. Bristol Tree Forum said: “The decision to build on Brislington Meadows shows that SNCI status gives no protection. Reserved Open Space land can be sold if it is no longer needed for its open space function.”

As well as the backing of the Friends of Troopers Hill and Bristol Tree Forum for this community woodland acquisition, Protect Earth also has  the support of Forest of Avon Trust, St George Community Association, Barton Hill History Group and the Friends of Western Slopes. Discussions are ongoing with other environmental, historical, and architectural groups and charities to explore potential collaboration.