KIDLAND –MORE THAN JUST A DEEP DARK FOREST

 

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tanding just off the summit of Cushat Law, looking south towards distant Alwinton, it is difficult to image this same view sixty years ago. Once open country, now the vast swathe of the Kidland Forest conceals a complex system of sikes, cleughs, slacks and burns which feeds the twisting River Alwin and drains the high horseshoe of hills that surrounds this huge blanket of trees.  Described by David `Dippie` Dixon, in his authoritative 1903 book, `Upper Coquet dale`, as “…..a wide sparsely inhabited waste of steep and lofty hills divided by narrow winding glens or hopes “, this area of the Cheviot Hills is much more than just a deep, dark forest.

 

Planted between 1953 and 1987, the Kidland Forest extends to some 2,100 hectares (5,190 acres) of land, of which 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) are in the ownership of the Forestry Commission, with the remaining hectares being in private ownership.

 

 

The Kidland Forest (2005)

 

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ominated by Sitka spruce, the forests main stock is supplemented by species such as, Scots pine, Japanese larch, Norway spruce, Lodgepole pine and European larch. Whilst the main species will continue to remain much the same on replanting, it is intended that the present low level of native broadleaved trees together with the amount of open ground will be substantially increased in the future.

 

Harvesting of trees, both thinning and clear felling, began in the mid-1990`s and replanting has started. Some slower growing first rotation crops will still be standing in 20 years time and, therefore, the felling of first and second rotation crops will overlap. The trees are currently sold standing to timber merchants who are responsible for the harvesting and marketing of the timber product. Typically, the timber will go to a number of companies across the north of England ending up as fencing, pallets, packaging, flooring, chipboard worktops and construction timber.

 

The forest is home to a population of the fast disappearing red squirrel and is one of only a handful of large conifer areas in England with the potential to make a major contribution to red squirrel conservation. In order to assess the viability of the forest as a long term habitat for the red squirrel, the Centre of Land Use & Water Resources at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, an organisation with considerable experience in red squirrel research, was commissioned to carry out a study within the forest.

 

The study concluded that, whilst the forest was capable of supporting a viable red squirrel population, the proposed tree felling plans would cause a significant drop in the future population, thereby affecting its long term sustainability. The study further concluded that the proposed inclusion of large seeded broadleaved trees, at second rotation planting, would allow the grey squirrel to colonise the forest and displace the current red squirrel population. In a nutshell, the Kidland Forest, as a whole, needed to be carefully managed with red squirrel conservation as an important objective.

 

Consequently, landowners made significant amendments to their tree felling and restocking plans so as to delay clear felling in certain areas, in order to maintain a red squirrel food source, and by including, at restocking, the planting  of small seeded species such as, birch, willow, alder and aspen. These amended plans excluded the planting of large seeded broadleaved species. It is hoped that by adopting this proactive approach, the long term future of the red squirrel, a species protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, can be assured within the protective green cloak of the Kidland Forest.

 

 

Late winter in the Kidland Forest

 

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he black grouse is a bird which has a preference for the transition zone between forest and moorland. Here it can shelter in the forest in the worst winter weather, feed on tree buds in spring and, in summer, nest on open ground and forage with its chicks among grasses and moorland shrubs. It has a spectacular communal breeding system. At dawn, in spring, the males congregate on traditional display grounds known as leks, where they stake out small patches of ground onto which they entice females for mating.

 

In 1996, a nationwide study of black grouse numbers estimated that there were as few as 6,500 displaying males in Britain, with the population centred on a few key upland areas in Scotland, northern England and Wales. The decline and contraction of range began at the beginning of the 20th century following gradual improvements in farming and, with this decline and contraction continuing at a rate of 8-10% a year, the black grouse was, in 1999, designated a Biodiversity Action Plan species.

 

Whilst the black grouse population is not high in the Kidland Forest area generally, lekking males have been seen in the nearby Uswayford and Threestoneburn Forests. In order to help in the conservation of the black grouse, the Forestry Commission has recently made a further amendment to its felling and restocking plans. High on the slopes of Cushat Law, towards the northern extreme of the forest, the Forestry Commission now intends to widen the spacing between the trees, a technique known as feathering,  to provide a transitional edge habitat more suited to the black grouse. Once again it is hoped that, by adopting a sympathetic approach to conservation, the decline in the local black grouse population can be reversed.

 

The conifer covered landscape of Kidland would now be totally unrecognisable to those who lived and worked in this remote upland area of Northumberland in times gone by. Now mainly a commercial forest, this area was, during the monastic age, part of the possessions of the Morpeth-based Monks of Newminster. Founded in 1137 by Ralph de Merlay as a Cistercian order, the Monks held the extensive Lordship of Kidland from 1181 until 1536. During the greater part of this period the pastures were let to border men on the English side of the Cheviot Hills although, for a period, the Monks were forced to use the land for the grazing of their own cattle and sheep because of the scarcity of tenants and a decline in rents.

 

Deep in the forest, where the Yoke and Sting Burns collide, lie the bare remains of Memmerkirk, a chapel built for the Monks of Newminster to use whilst summering their sheep in the lonely hills of Kidland. There is a story, recounted in  William Weaver Tomlinson`s  1888 “Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland”, of one particular monk who, finding time hanging heavy on his hands, occupied himself by making bee-skeps (hives). He completed a skep each day of the week so it was easy for him to remember which day it was and to tell when the Sabbath came along. However, on one occasion he misplaced a skep and when he should have been ready to celebrate mass he was hard at work He was astonished, therefore, when his little congregation from the hills arrived at the chapel.

 

For centuries the hills continued to be used for sheep grazing and many reminders of those harsh, lonely days can still be found scattered throughout the forest. The former shepherds cottages of Milkhope, Whiteburnshank and Fairhaugh  are still standing, with Milkhope and Whiteburnshank now acting as outdoor centres for young people. The recently renovated Fairhaugh, nestling beside the Usway Burn on the western edge of the forest, is currently a holiday let and is possibly Northumberland`s most isolated. The bare bones of Heigh, hidden deep in the forest between the Lindhope and Yoke Burns, are now barely discernable whilst numerous drystone sheep stells, circular to prevent snow drifting, are dotted about the forest.

 

 

Whiteburnshank

 

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he working farm of Kidlandlee stands at an airy height of 1261 feet above sea level and was, until  demolished in 1956, the site of the former and very grand shooting lodge of Captain Leyland of Haggerston Castle. The site was also home to one of the most remote schools in England, providing education for the majority of the children of the Kidland area, together with Puncherton, Old Rookhope and Wholehope. The school finally closed in 1957.

 

High above the remote northern edge of the forest stand the summits of two of Northumberland`s highest hills. Climbing to a height of 615 metres, Cushat Law is one of only six Cheviot hills to top the magical 2000 feet mark and is often referred to as the Monarch of Kidland. At 610 metres, Bloodybush Edge is the sixth highest of the Cheviot Hills and it was here in 1585 that the English defeated the Scots at the Battle of Bloodybush Edge. Together, these two hills form the testing middle section of the classic annual 14 miles Alwinton Fell Race.

 

First run in 1986, the race heads out of the tiny village of Alwinton up the ancient drove road of Clennell Street, along the western edge of the Kidland Forest and across the open fells. It then tumbles down into the depth of the forest, tracking first the Sting Burn and then the River Alwin before emerging out of the trees, some 3 miles later, at the foot of  Kidlandlee Dean. A stiff climb follows, leading the runners back onto Clennell Street for the final fast and exciting descent to the finish at Alwinton. 

 

In 1996/97, as part of a Forest Trails project, undertaken in conjunction with the Northumberland National Park Authority and Northumberland County Council, the Forestry Commission together with the various private owners carried out a programme of works to re-align and reopen the public right of way network throughout the Kidland Forest. Future works of improvement are planned. For the most part, these footpaths are many miles from the nearest public road through Upper Coquet Dale and, as a consequence, are likely to be used by only the more adventurous walker.

 

However, for the casual stroller, less inclined to venture so far afield, an easy 3 mile out and back walk from Clennell, along the banks of the delightful River Alwin as far as the afforested  Kidlandlee Dean, will offer a close up glimpse of the southern fringe of the forest.

 

The River Alwin is one of the many tributaries of the 50 mile or so long River Coquet, a river designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The SSSI, which also includes the River Alwin together with parts of the Allerhope, Yoke and White Burns, enters the Kidland Forest at Kidlandlee Dean. A wide range of flora and fauna, characteristic of a relatively fast-flowing upland river complex, is supported by the River Coquet and its tributaries. The fish species are particularly diverse with the River Alwin itself acting as an extensive sea trout spawning ground.

 

 

A reminder that this was once sheep country

 

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tanding on the banks of the cool, clear River Alwin, watching the fish swim upstream and listening to the sound of birdsong, it is easy to believe that this huge, green blanket of trees is much more than just a deep, dark forest. 

 

 

The author would like to thank the Forestry Commission for providing so much useful and interesting information. Please remember that this is an ever-changing environment and the photographs seen here may not necessarily now represent what you will encounter when exploring the forest.

 

NEXT: AUCHOPE CAIRN: NORTHUMBERLAND`S FINEST VIEW?

POETRY GALLERY

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Written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2005 (amended 2017)