Land management allows sustainable tourism to grow
© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2011
Every year, thousands of visitors are drawn to the rugged beauty of north Norfolk's wild woodlands and rare lowland heath.
But it takes a surprising amount of work – and money – to maintain the “natural” allure of this apparently untouched wilderness.
For the industries which thrive on the annual influx of tourists, it’s an investment which must be made in order to safeguard the very thing which attracts their trade.
But beyond the business instinct to preserve profitability, the privilege of occupying such a beautiful landscape also comes with a wider responsibility – to conserve the native wildlife and habitats for future generations.
Kelling Heath Holiday Park is one of those companies facing the tricky balancing act of maximising the area’s economic potential in a way which is sympathetic to its environment.
The park is located amongst 270 acres of woodland and heathland in an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) close to the coastline at Weybourne.
Its countryside team is monitoring the transition between its initial 10-year management plan, and the replacement plan which will govern the way the estate develops in the forthcoming decade.
The idea is to halt the decline of the heathland habitat and to rejuvenate stands of heather to benefit UK priority species such as the nightjar and woodlark.
The last decade has also seen the targeted removal of thousands of non-native trees like dense Corsican Pines to be replaced with a broad-leaf mix to improve the wildlife habitat – and the aesthetic appeal for visitors into the bargain.
Other initiatives include the introduction of a monitored bat box scheme, annual biodiversity surveys, and the release of a predatory fish into a conservation pond to rid it of other fish and encourage invertebrate life.
Michael Timewell, whose family has owned the park for 27 years, said this all came at a “substantial” cost, but was essential if the company was to become a truly sustainable tourism business.
“We have a really wonderful environment of rare woodland and heathland, which is one of the most endangered habitats in the world,” he said. “It is rarer than rainforest.
“We always looked after what we had, but what the first 10-year plan did was really laying the foundations for managing a hugely successful tourism business within an AONB which needed to be protected, and to do it sensitively in a way that was a win/win/win.
“The consumer got to see what was happening, it was good for the economy and good for the environment.
“It is about trying to reduce your impact on the world or, in our case, the bit of Norfolk that we occupy, through the range of activities that we have done.
“It is there for the future, that’s the important thing. We are laying down these plans for posterity, with ten years gone and another ten going down now.
“Is it cheap? No it is not. We tried to work out how much we’ve spent, but we gave up. It is a substantial sum which has been spent on the infrastructure of the park, and doing it in the right way.”
Mr Timewell, a former chairman of Norfolk Tourism, said the financial considerations of his industry were always paramount – but so were its obligations to the environment.
“It is a business at the end of the day and it has to earn a profit, because we need too keep employing our staff,” he said. “If we go back to the beginning it is about the customers who love coming to Kelling Heath because it is a unique natural environment, and it is about us being able to build on that experience for them.
“The way to do that has to be through the continued management of the estate and through sustainability and if that costs an extra buck or two along the way, then so be it. It would be desirable for every company to look at things this way, but it is the consumer who will drive it.”
Large areas of the park estate are dominated by trees, but in the past the majority of land would have been kept clear by commoners grazing their livestock – creating the unique habitat which depends on human intervention.
By the 1950s, large plantations of conifers like the “100-acre wood” were established for timber production while the demise of the farming activities allowed colonising trees like silver birch and oak to grow and spread. David Martin, the park’s countryside manager, said the wood had now been thinned by two-thirds and re-planting of native species had been carried out at an average rate of 500 trees per year, with about 3,000 since 2008.
“We’re removing non-native species like leylandii and sycamores, and replacing them with native species more suitable for our wildlife, like hazel, English oak and beech, which are great for the nightjars, yellowhammers and tree-creepers.
“We also have this really special lowland heath, but it is very difficult to manage. We are constantly cutting it on a rotation, taking out trees and trying to encourage the heather to grow. It is an ideal habitat for adders. Last summer I saw 16 of them all together in a ball, enjoying the sunshine.
“It is a juggling act between keeping it safe as an amenity area while maintaining it as a wild woodland. I would say that’s the main reason people are prepared to spend their money on these plots because it is such a unique place.”
The plan identifies 19 distinct areas of different vegetation and habitat, including areas of long grass and meadows to encourage wildflowers.
The only exceptions to the park’s native trees policy are the 25 exotic species like giant redwood and Tibetan cherry which form the Tree Trail, although these are managed to ensure they cannot spread throughout the wood.
It forms part of a programme of activities and events through which the conservation work is explained to visitors, including pond-dipping, moth-trapping, bug-hunting, cycle trails and the hugely popular bat walks.
The park also became the first in the country to create a “pitch management and design guide” for privately-owned holiday home plots to ensure the individuality of guests could not undermine the overall natural character of their surroundings.
Before the first 10-year plan was introduced in 1998, there had not previously been any management of the heathland for several decades.
Mr Martin said: “Before the management plan there was no clear idea of what needed to happen. There was some gardening going on to make it look pretty, while other areas were being abandoned to do their own thing.
“It could easily have been turned into a pretty garden area with lots of nice flowers and cobbles, rather than the wild woodland we have got here today. If it was left on its own you would just end up with a scrub dominated by birch trees.
“What we’re doing is really important. It is what makes the business tick and it is what makes the place so special. It is one of the main reasons why people want to come here. It is a long-term thing with all these trees we’re planting we are looking ahead to 50 or 100 years’ time. If we do nothing now there would be nothing for the future.”