A hilltop meadow of flower-rich limestone grassland in the Cotswolds is under threat, according to residents, after it was divided into four-acre plots for people seeking to buy “leisure land” in the countryside.
The Save Juniper Hill Field campaign wants to list the eight-hectare (20-acre) field close to the poet Laurie Lee’s childhood home as “an asset of community value” to stop it being parcelled up by Woodlands.co.uk, which specialises in buying tracts of land and reselling it in relatively small plots.
Woodlands.co.uk claims it is democratising access to the land, and that the plots are bought by nature lovers and further protected by covenants that ensure the countryside is used for peaceful enjoyment only.
But campaigners say dividing Juniper Hill Field into five plots puts rare plants and animals in jeopardy and restricts public access to the site, which lies between two nature-rich sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).
Over the past 20 years, conservation grazing with a small number of cattle has restored the grassland on Juniper Hill field, with wildflowers including pyramidal and bee orchids and marbled white butterflies flourishing. People have enjoyed informal access over the hilltop for decades.
Since Woodlands.co.uk bought the site, an access track for vehicles has been built and the first fenced 1.6-hectare (four-acre) plot is being offered for sale for £85,000, restricting the permissive pathways across the hilltop.
Joy Elworthy, 87, who walks on the field every day, said: “When I’m walking there I feel I’m surrounded by my friends – the wildlife and nature. I would like to see it protected by some organisation that will look after it, not only for the flowers and the insects but also for people because this is such a peaceful, beautiful place with lovely views.”
Hanny Fox, 88, who has walked over the hilltop for 50 years, said: “There’s an enormous variety of flowers including quite rare orchids. Skylarks nest up there. There are badgers, deer and lizards. It’s a nice open place, and it’s just you and nature and that is very precious. There isn’t a parking place, there isn’t a burger van. These places are rare, they are the lungs of society.”
Madeleine Bunting, a local resident and author, said: “It’s Laurie Lee territory, it’s one of the most celebrated landscapes in the country and it’s crawling with designations like AONB and SSSI. We should be saying: the priority is biodiversity now, and not a private glamping site.”
Campaigners fear that dividing the site will bring damaging 4x4 traffic through the Frith Wood SSSI, and that new owners may not understand how to manage sensitive limestone grassland and use the meadow for pony paddocks or camping, which is permitted for 28 nights a year.
Steve Ferguson, another local resident, said: “The worst-case scenario is that it will end up being five leisure plots where people pursue recreational activities and mow too early [killing the wildflowers] or not mow at all – creating either barren grassland or encroachment of scrub.”
Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog, has attempted to buy the meadow but its offer was rejected because it was considered below the market rate by Woodlands.co.uk.
Angus Hanton, the founder of Woodlands.co.uk, said local fears about damage to the meadow by dividing it up were unfounded.
“It is probable that biodiversity will be increased,” he said. “There is a wider issue here with regard to trusting non-professionals to manage the countryside. Our experience suggests that our buyers can be trusted.
“We have been for many years carefully transferring rural land into the hands of people who put their hearts, their time and their money into managing it – even without grants or subsidies. Whenever we sell land, we add a covenant to protect it, which works in addition to the protection the land has from planning and other legislation. Our buyers do an extraordinarily good job of managing the land and we trust that they will continue to do so. Democratising rural land ownership is at the heart of what we do.”
Hanton said the company had created a new permissive path over the field whereas the previous owner had restricted permissive access. He said selling the whole site to Natural England remained a possibility.
The Juniper Hill campaigners are seeking to get it listed as an asset of community value before it is sold off in parcels to enable its protection by the community.
Roger Mortlock, the chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said it was increasingly worried about resellers dividing land into small plots because it lacked transparency, thwarted attempts to introduce landscape-scale conservation and in some circumstances could be a speculative carve-up for potential housebuilders.
“The vision of democratising access to land in a country where much of our land is owned by a small number of people is very compelling,” he said. “But there’s no accountability, and there are no enforceable obligations to encourage collective use and no incentives to look after the land in a shared way across the piece.”
Mortlock said Juniper Hill Field was particularly unsuited to division into plots. “Limestone grassland is our Serengeti. If it ends up being a camping patch of divided land, that has impacts both for biodiversity and the wider landscape.”
Mortlock said he hoped the land could be bought and protected by the local community working in partnership with environmental experts. “It’s in a very sensitive landscape full of people trying to do amazing things to join up the landscape ecologically and for people,” he said.