Back to the future at Winter HIll

We are blessed with a scarce and declining habitat in Cookham.  The Chilterns offer one of the few remaining areas of chalk grasslands in the country.  But everywhere, this specialist environment is under duress, including in our village.  The way we farm has changed - the use of intensive fertilizers enriches the composition of the soil and livestock grazing practices have moved on, both of which have a detrimental effect on this dwindling habitat.  Factor in development, and our species determination that every open space should be available for recreational purposes and you start to understand why we have lost over 80% of chalk grasslands since the Second World War. 

Cookham villagers were a generous (and foresighted?) lot back in the 1930s because the 46 acres of water meadows and chalk grassland, from Cock Marsh to Winter Hill were purchased by the village and donated to The National Trust in 1934.  For donkey’s years this area has been grazed.  Just the right amount of nibbling manages the plant content, allowing species that tolerate the poor chalky soil to flourish - even this poor earth, with a high content of lime, that absorbs heat but can't retain water, will be taken over by scrub if it is not managed.  As early as the 8th century it was being grazed by sheep belonging to the wealthy Anglo-Saxon monastery in Cookham.  Fleeces and animals were transported down to Marlow via The Wool Way that ran along the top of Winter Hill and down through the woods (parts ofthis can still be seen today).  Nowadays, Commoners still have grazing rights over some areas and so the cows that appear every Spring on Cock Marsh, are actually working hard to maintain this designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Over the years, the Winter Hill area has not fared so well however.  Even as recently as the 1950s there was an open view across to our neighbours on the other side of the river, but today the hillside is largely covered with self-seeded trees, scrub and the odd chicken.  The National Trust are soon to start works to tackle this – in an effort to restore at least some of the view and chalk grassland, improve the biodiversity and future proof the area against disease like Ash die back (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus).  From the footpath at the corner of the “old” car park (///recording.mammoths.sticks) to the gate across the sheep drove (///juggles.slimming.trailers) this area has been split into 5 compartments, all to be approached in slightly different ways.

View from Winter Hill -1950
Sections one and three will be clear felled – meaning they will take as many of the trees out as possible.  By doing this they hope to not only restore the view but enable the chalk grassland species to once again take a hold.  Section two will be thinned – some of the significant trees will be left and they will install more bird and bat boxes. Compartments four and five will be selectively felled.  Many of the trees are self-seeded Ash trees and some are showing signs of die back, so these will be the focus for felling.  Some will be replaced with disease resistant varieties but other native and very local species will also be introduced.  There will be new coppiced Hazel and new hedges in some areas. You might think that it a bit untidy – dead wood will be retained, felled wood will be left and stumps won’t be necessarily be ground, but this also an important habitat for insects and birds.

National Trust - regeneration plans at Winter Hill Cookham Dean

The long game is to reinstate what our ancestors (and what is still living memory for a few) once had, whilst future proofing the site against the effects of a catastrophic outbreak of Ash die back and ensuring that this pocket of land is as packed with native species as possible.  Comments are welcomed by the National Trust and are being coordinated through WildCookham, so If you wish to contribute please email


  1. Great article and Good news it’s being cared for x


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