COUNTRYSIDE campaigners in Wordsley have been left angry and heartbroken at the “horrendous felling” going on in Ridgehill Woods which they fear could be lost forever.

The wood, owned by Clowes Developments, is one of a number of sites on the Black Country/South Staffordshire border put forward as possible development land in a call to sites as part of the creation of a new Black Country Plan.

Stourbridge News: Ridgehill Woods - autumn 2020. Image courtesy of Claire Evans, Winter Peach PhotographyRidgehill Woods - autumn 2020. Image courtesy of Claire Evans, Winter Peach Photography

A Friends group has been keeping a watchful eye on the green belt site since it emerged the landowners had suggested it could be transformed into a new housing estate to help meet the demand for housing in the area.

Politicians have repeatedly stressed they favour a brownfield first policy and say any development on green belt would be a last resort but with the consultation on preferred sites set to take place this summer to determine which ones may be given over for future housing – campaigners and those living near to the much-loved woods have been feeling understandably nervous.

Back in 2018 the News reported on how a large part of the woodland had been chopped down. South Staffordshire Council said at the time that a felling licence had been issued by the Forestry Commission - giving permission for the felling.

In recent weeks, however, residents have spoken of their horror at how much woodland has now been lost – with many sharing photographs of the now barren-looking site on Facebook.

Local resident Linda Williams branded it “horrendous felling” and said: “This cannot be just tree management, absolutely disgraceful.”

Stourbridge News: Ridgehill Woods pictured on Tuesday March 16...courtesy of Claire Evans, Winter Peach PhotographyRidgehill Woods pictured on Tuesday March 16...courtesy of Claire Evans, Winter Peach Photography

Another resident Lesley Gray said she felt "devastated by the unprecedented carnage in what was once a magical place to visit" when she and her daughter took a walk on Sunday.

She said: "There is such a thing as housekeeping and maintenance, this definitely isn't it. It was like walking through no man's land. A place once filled with singing birds, the sounds of woodpeckers and other creatures was now silent."

Another Facebook poster, Jan Hinson, added: "I can absolutely say this is more woodland than the agreed 20 per cent made by the Forestry Commission and Clowes - having walked through these woods and counted trees, what has been removed is totally unacceptable."

A Forestry Commission spokesperson confirmed a felling licence was in place for the woods "which makes clear that tree felling operations should be carried out in a manner that reflects good forestry practice - taking in to account any potential impacts on habitats and species".

The Commission said the first first licence was granted in July 2017 and is valid until July 2022, with a condition to restock the area by June 2023; while the second licence was granted in April 2020 and is valid until April 2025, with a condition to restock the felled area by June 2026.

The spokesperson said the FC has investigated, having received correspondence from members of the public, but the Commission was satisfied the work inspected "had been carried out in compliance with the licence" and promised further checks would be undertaken.

She added: “Any suspected infringements of the licence conditions should be reported to the Forestry Commission and will be thoroughly investigated.”

Stourbridge News: The desolate looking Ridgehill Woods. Image courtesy of Linda WilliamsThe desolate looking Ridgehill Woods. Image courtesy of Linda Williams

A spokesperson for the Friends of Ridgehill Woods, however, said: "We are devastated and disappointed in both South Staffordshire Council and the Forestry Commission who authorised the felling licence of our much-loved wildlife haven and green space, despite strong objections from the local community and numerous organisations such as the Wildlife Trust and the CPRE.

“Whilst the woods were in need of some management, this is above and beyond what was needed for the woods to function and thrive as an important ecosystem, as designated by DEFRA a 'Priority Habitat Inventory for Deciduous Woodland'.

“In normal authority planning applications, these objections are visible but despite requests the transparency of this process has not been possible. We will now take this further.

“We reiterate that the landowner, Clowes Developments, is neither a community or conservation organisation, and while Ridgehill Woods remains on the Call to Sites list as a potential development site for them, we do not accept any rhetoric from the company that their actions are in the interests of anyone but themselves."

Stourbridge News: Before the felling. Image courtesy of Louise HawkesBefore the felling. Image courtesy of Louise Hawkes

Mum Louise Hawkes said it had been "very upsetting to see" the trees chopped down and she added: "I have grown up with these woods, and the memories go back to my mom when she was little who has always shared her stories of how she used to play in them as a little girl with my daughters."

Resident Olivia Cope described what she saw when she visited the woods on Monday as "devastating" and she took to Facebook to implore Dudley South MP Mike Wood to "do something more to salvage what's left of Ridgehill."

Stourbridge News: Workers at the woods. Pic by Olivia CopeWorkers at the woods. Pic by Olivia Cope

The MP, who has shown an interest in the woods and said he favours brownfield development first, said he has been writing regularly to the Forestry Commission about the matter and he added: "They are satisfied the felling that has been done is within the licence that was issued, and is necessary for the proper management of the woods and to support the healthier trees.

"Obviously I’m not a forestry expert but I don’t like trees being cut down, which is why I’ve been contacting them and the surveyors.

"Obviously we need to make sure that, if tree management work is necessary, it doesn’t become a cover for the clearance of the woods to allow for housing development."

He said he does not believe Ridgehill will be selected as a future area to be developed but he added: "We obviously need to remain vigilant."

A spokesman for Clowes Developments, which has owned the woodland for three years, also moved this afternoon to try to dispel fears over the future of the site and told the News: “We have a long term management plan for the woodland which we have been implementing since our acquisition.

“We would like to reassure locals that the works being caried out in the woodland area are purely for maintenance and public safety purposes."