National Trust under fire for forcing forest playgroup to move
The charity says ancient woodland in Kent is being affected by regular use by children.
The National Trust has come under fire for evicting a forest playgroup from its land despite running a campaign to get more children outdoors.
Forest Kindergarten has been operating in the charity’s woodland near Sevenoaks, Kent, since 2014 and is rated outstanding by Ofsted.
It allows children aged three to five to roam from a base camp at Toy’s Hill – described by the trust as the place that inspired Octavia Hill to found the organisation.
But playgroup founder Caroline Watts said she was “baffled” to learn the trust would not renew her annual £1,500 licence to operate in the Site of Special Scientific Interest, over fears the regular presence of children is affecting ancient trees and wildlife.
Despite a petition signed by hundreds of people and some 30 parents and children writing to the board of trustees – including the charity’s president the Prince of Wales – the group has a week left before it has to move to another venue.
Ms Watts said parents are “shocked and saddened by the news”, and she insisted the playgroup teaches children to “respect and care for the environment”.
Speaking to Press Association on Saturday, she described the decision as ironic and a “contradiction” to the trust’s values.
The charity’s campaign to get more children outdoors features a guide on 50 things to do in the woods and how to climb trees safely.
The outdoor nursery, which offers Government-funded free spaces, meets near where Octavia Hill grew up – a setting the trust says she was keen to preserve for others to enjoy.
Ms Watts added: “We will be fine but we wanted to raise awareness that the National Trust is not staying true to its message.
“People should know about this.
“I’d like the charity to reconsider its policy on forest schools.”
Among the pleas to allow the group to stay was the first letter ever written by former playgroup attendee Joe Carter, six, who begged the trust to reconsider.
Parent Liz Simmons said her two sons took part in activities promoted by the trust when they went to the kindergarten.
In a letter to the trust’s director-general Hilary McGrady, she said: “I find it difficult to believe that a group of 15 or so pre-schoolers has done much, if any, damage to the woodland which extends to over 200 acres, only a fraction of which is used by the kindergarten group.”
Richard and Sarah Murison said their son has developed a great love for woodlands, can identify tree and fungi species, and is careful not to trample bluebells.
They added: “To hear that this fabulous learning opportunity is in jeopardy makes us really sad and quite disillusioned with what exactly the National Trust stands for.”
The trust said soil had been damaged, ancient trees were “put under stress as a result of increased use of the area”, and wildlife could potentially be affected.
A spokesman added: “We have tried very hard to accommodate the school at Toy’s Hill to help children experience nature and the outdoors.
“However, over time, we have found that the sensitive habitat that makes Toy’s Hill so special does not provide the freedom of access and flexibility that is a fundamental part of a forest school.
“The permissible area that Natural England allowed the school to operate in is located in an area of active tree conservation; the Great Storm of 1987 destroyed 95% of the veteran trees at Toy’s Hill which we are trying to protect.
“This means that special conditions are in place to protect the habitat, soil and undergrowth in an area containing some of the best examples of oak species in Kent.”
Although the trust said it has suggested two other sites in the area, Ms Watts said neither are suitable or on land owned by the charity, so she found an alternative with another landowner herself.
The trust spokesman added: “It has been a difficult decision not to continue operating forest schools at this location. We put access to our countryside and heritage at the forefront of everything we do. This of course includes a commitment to engage children with the natural world.”
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