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GUISBOROUGH FOREST by Mark Askew

Mark Askew reviews this large and important site in the southern part of Cleveland, an area he knows very well. The forest holds a number of breeding species that are locally very scarce and offers the best chance of seeing them. It is now the subject of a long-term management plan by the Forestry Commission to improve its value for recreation and wildlife

The area covered by this site guide stretches from Pinchinthorpe to the west of Guisborough to Slapewath to the east, a narrow but steep stretch of around 4 miles along the escarpment adjoining moorland. It includes the 470 hectares of Forestry Commission-managed woods of Bousdale, Hutton Lowcross, Hutton, Kemplah and Guisborough, plus the privately managed Westworth Wood at the southeast corner of the forest. All of the forest lies within the boundary of the North York Moors National Park.

Apart from some older plantations on ancient woodland sites at Bousdale, the majority of the forest was planted in the mid to late 1950s. The planted forest is approximately 85% conifer and 15% broadleaf. Larch predominates in the lower parts of the wooded escarpment, whereas Scots pine is prevalent on the tops and back towards the open moorland. There are some pockets of deciduous woodland that pre-date the plantations, though only in steeper gulleys, for example above Hutton Village. There are significant plots of planted beech woodland and also some oak and sycamore.

The forest is currently undergoing a major transformation, based on the management plan adopted by the Forestry Commission that aims to raise the amenity profile of the forest, creating a more open woodland for leisure use and increasing the proportion of broadleaf to the benefit of wildlife, including birds. This is already yielding dividends, with the recent establishment of Nightjars and a general increase in the diversity of species found.

Location, Access and Strategy

The Forestry Commission-managed woodland has generally open access, although parts may be closed off during harvesting work. Most people access the forest from the north, near Guisborough itself. There is a car park at Pinchinthorpe (NZ 583153) and the visitor centre here is open daily and is a good source of maps and general information. The road to Hutton Village is also popular and, though parking in the village can be awkward, there is usually space on the roadside just past Home Farm on the way up from Hutton Gate at NZ597142. Two roads lead off the housing estate at southern end of Guisborough, giving an easy walk into the central portion of the forest. For Westworth Wood and the eastern part of Guisborough Forest, the best options are either Butt Lane near Gisborough Hall, or from Little Waterfall Farm near Slapewath at NZ633159. A less frequented but interesting option involves a walk or cycle in from the moorland to the south, for example via Percy Cross Rigg or up Sleddale valley.

Once in the forest, there are several ‘roads’ that enable rapid progress and also plenty of paths that get you amongst the trees and hence the birds. The Cleveland Way skirts the western end of forest and enters near Highcliff, exiting at Slapewath. This is well maintained and cuts through some of the most interesting parts of the high level woodland. Vehicular access is refreshingly very restricted, though if on foot on the forest roads it is advisable to be watchful for the occasional forestry vehicle or farmer accessing their land. The forest is popular with horse riders, mountain bike riders and dog walkers; all generally get along together fine but it is worth bearing in mind that whilst some paths are barred to bikes and horses, a few others are meant for bikes alone, so pay attention to any signage.

Birds

Whist much of the original forest is of a similar age, felling in recent years and subsequent replanting or regeneration has created a much more varied age profile and this change will continue for the next few decades. This is having an inevitable effect on the bird population, improving diversity but perhaps reducing the density of some of the common coniferous woodland species, such as Coal Tit. Much of the lower level forest will be kept as continuous cover woodland, with thinning as it matures. There are few real ‘hot spots’ for birds, the most popular parts tend to be closest to the access points but some of the shyer species may be easier to locate higher up away from most visitors. Try any of the following general areas:

Pinchinthorpe Walkway: The disused railway here is good for warblers, most of the regular breeding ‘scrub’ and woodland warblers can be seen along the section leading into the forest but Lesser Whitethroat is more regularly found by heading in the opposite direction, under the A173 towards Nunthorpe. The pools south of the visitor centre sometimes have approachable Kingfisher or Water Rail in winter, but may only be of interest for dragonflies in summer.

Hutton Village: The road to the village and the surrounding land is probably the most popular area of the forest with birders. Approaching from Hutton Gate, it’s worth stopping near Sandwood Park for Nuthatch and Spotted Flycatcher, plus possibly Dipper on the stream that runs under the road. Sadly, Hawfinch seems to have died out here in the last few years. The open parkland/farmland along the road to Hutton Village is good for both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Spotted Flycatcher.

Parking near the turning to Home Farm, you have the option of entering the forest in one of three directions and walking a circuit. The path to the southwest leads into an area with a high proportion of broadleaves, which has held breeding Wood Warbler, but this is a rare bird nowadays; more likely are mixed finch flocks in winter, including Brambling. Blue Lake here is too small to attract much waterfowl but may be worth checking for dragonflies. Continuing up the path you can eventually find Hanging Stone, a distinctive millstone grit outcrop which is a good vantage point for views over the forest. In a Crossbill year, watching and listening from such a vantage point will help pinpoint their feeding areas. There isn’t a great variety of raptors in the forest, but Sparrowhawk and Kestrel are common. Goshawk has been proved to breed but remain rare, the best tactic would be to get to a high point on the moorland to the south and view over the forest in early spring. Common Buzzard sometimes wanders over the forest and should become established in the future.

A little further up the road, at the entrance to the village, a track known locally as “The Unsuitables” heads steeply up into the forest and ultimately out onto the moorland along Percy Cross Rigg. The track passes through the area where Nightjars became established a few years ago; the young plantation here is past the optimum age and there are now better areas for this characteristic nocturnal bird. It isn’t appropriate to be any more specific for such a nationally scarce bird, suffice to say they have quite specific habitat requirements so finding your own Nightjar isn’t too difficult. Woodcocks are more or less guaranteed to be displaying at dusk in summer and in this area they seem to be in particularly high density.

Back on the road through Hutton Village, motor vehicles are restricted beyond the gate at the end of the village. The village itself attracts Nuthatches, finches and Jays. The woodland behind the houses and up the hill occasionally attracts Wood Warbler, most recently in 2008. It is a good area for Spotted Flycatcher and the stream to the east of the road usually holds Grey Wagtail; try the small waterfall down the track at NZ 602138. The track up the hill to the south can be taken to access either Highcliff, by turning left at the top, or “The Unsuitables” by turning right.

Highcliff: This is another well-known sandstone outcrop, situated on the Cleveland Way at NZ 610138. This area can be accessed from Hutton Village as described above, or from paths into the forest off Hunters Hill estate in Guisborough, for example via Silverton Road at NZ 616147. As well as affording stunning views of the forest and out to the coast, the storm-damaged woodland behind here towards Highcliffe Farm seems to attract more than its fair share of interesting birds. Examples include Tree Pipit, Spotted Flycatcher and Redstart. The moorland in this area can be productive, especially in winter, with occasional Short-eared Owl, Hen Harrier and Merlin. Breeding birds on the pasture and moorland here include Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe and Golden Plover, plus well scattered pairs of Stonechat. Cuckoos continue to haunt the moorland/woodland border areas. The scrub below Highcliff holds breeding Garden Warbler and the crags occasionally attract Fulmars, but there is a little too much disturbance to hold them for long.

Guisborough Wood: This area, accessed easily from Silverton Road, Belmangate or Butt Lane, and has a good mix of woodland and open areas, plus a small pond that attracts dragonflies in late summer. Flocks of Siskin and Redpoll are common in this area in winter, feeding on larch cones especially. Both Lesser and Common (Mealy) Redpolls can be found in winter and whilst Lesser is currently at a low ebb as a breeding bird, the large amount of birch scrub cropping up on cleared areas now may see a resurgence. Siskins also nest in the forest and although hard to pin down in the summer, this or the Highcliff area, are as good as any. Both Willow and Marsh Tits are resident but thinly distributed.

The higher areas towards Westworth, including the long disused Rock Quarry, have recently been clear felled and will not be replanted, so those birds such as pipits that like more open areas should find the area to their liking. Westworth Wood: This privately managed wood now stands apart from Guisborough Forest due to recent felling. It is more remote and has a different character, due to the presence of grazing sheep. The Scots pines here often hold Crossbills, even in poor years. At the southern end of the wood, the former Westworth Reservoir is now merely a tiny pool, though the stream and damp areas can be attractive to dragonflies. Tree pipits and Stonechats inhabit the woodland edge.

Mammals and Insects

Roe deer are common in the forest and often seen or heard early in the morning or around dusk. Badgers are present though seldom seen. The forest ponds hold the more common dragonflies, such as Southern


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