Therfield Heath inquiry: Warden supports land swap ‘for future generations’ of Royston community

Vincent Thompson said the future of the heath needs to be secured so future generations can enjoy it

Vincent Thompson said the future of the heath needs to be secured so future generations can enjoy it, pictured - the pasque flowers that grow there in spring time. (Pic: David Hatton/Art16) - Credit: Archant

The warden of Therfield Heath gave evidence at the land swap inquiry into deregistering common land yesterday, saying people “need to think of the bigger picture” when it comes to securing the future of the ecological landmark.

Vincent Thompson, who has been the heath warden since the 1980s, spoke as a witness at the inquiry – which will decide if common land near Sun Hill and Briary Lane can be deregistered and swapped with an area of woodland to the west of Therfield’s New Road.

Mr Thompson said he has been associated with the heath for 40 years, having first read an article in the Crow about the deterioration of wildlife, written by Bill Darling – then one of the Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens – in 1976.

Mr Thompson, who started out as a Heath Watch Volunteer, said: “It was decided by my volunteer colleagues that I should stand as a Conservator, I didn’t know any of them apart from Bill Darling and I think I gained a reputation of being a ‘troublemaker’ – I must admit, meetings were heated.

“I wasn’t always the most popular person, but I always received a fair hearing. I was reprimanded on more than one occasion for speaking out of turn with my colleagues.

“However, the Conservators’ passion for the site has always been there and they have always put the heath first, before any aspects of issues that may put them in a bad light. I was an outsider, but I think after a while quite a few warmed towards me.

“I felt the emphasis of Conservators’ work had to focus on Church Hill. It has a large population of pasque flowers, which only grow in 12 sites as England and Therfield has always been recognised as the premier site.”

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Mr Thompson told the inquiry about the impact increasing numbers of visitors are having on the heath, saying that it’s important to remember the 400 acre heath – which in some areas is a Site of Special Scientific Interest – is primarily a nature reserve, but that damage and erosion are happening because of the amount of people using it.

He said: “I’ve met people from London, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk on the heath so it’s not people from developments in the town using it, And the developments are happening throughout the villages as well – another major development taking place in Melbourn for example, and all the time pressure is being put on the heath. Anytime it snows Royston and the heath have huge influx of people.

“What we are managing is a nature reserve, although it’s been used more and more as a recreation ground and I don’t see it that way. Somehow we have to manage the site’s sporting facilities, which are very important, with the nature reserve.”

The Therfield Regulation Trust owns the heath, and the trustees are also the Conservators.

If the application was approved, the Conservators said they would invest the funds from selling off the released land to be developed into housing, to employ a full-time warden with a vehicle, as well as purchase an all-weather pitch and other sporting facilities, improve car parking facilities, and improve access for people with mobility difficulties.

Mr Thompson, who has now moved away from the area, said more people are needed to oversee the site, and would welcome the investment to ensure the future of the heath.

He said: “I cannot spend a vast amount of time on the heath, only 16 hours at weekends – and only in last 18 months have they been paying me.

“Somebody has to be appointed to walk the site continuously. Efforts to find a warden have been without any luck, so I’ve been bashing my head against a wall hearing people say about their ‘concerns for the site’.”

“The value of a full-time warden is huge. We need a group of part-time wardens as well as a full-time warden, and volunteers who may even be prepared to act as temporary wardens.”

Mr Thompson is also concerned about angry dog walkers and litterbugs he has encountered.

He said: “The heath is becoming very aggressive, I’m confronted with aggression. Twice in 18 months I’ve had to walk away, otherwise I would have been beaten up.”

Mr Thompson called for the land swap application to be approved, and the Royston heathland to be deregistered.

He said: “If anyone thinks that me being in favour of the Briary Lane land being sold is an easy stance for me to take – its not.

“But we’ve got to look at the bigger picture, and if it means losing a minor habitat I don’t think it’s a big price.

“Without doubt, I think you can feel my compassion for the site and having spent nearly 50 years on the same issues on a regular basis I would love to be able to say that we have left a legacy that future generations will be able to enjoy.

“I understand the argument that some point money will run out, but we have this opportunity to use monies and lets stay with that and look at the bigger picture please.”

Objector to the deregistration, Clive Hall, then asked Mr Thompson if he thought the proportion of SSSI was too high on the heath, to which Mr Thompson said: “No, far from it, countryside is disappearing, habitats are disappearing, we’ve got to protect the natural habitats we have.”

Mr Hall also asked if he felt more recreation ground was needed alongside the nature reserve to give a better balance of the two.

Mr Thompson said: “The area where sports is played is where the POW camp was, still to this day you can see evidence of posts of the camp.

“There’s more pressure from sporting bodies, but it will always be within that defined area – not the SSSI.”

The eight-day inquiry at the Coombes Community Centre in Royston concluded today and a decision will be made by the inspector in due course.