Seven ancient woodlands, including Astonbury Wood in Stevenage, are set to benefit from a project aimed at restoring and conserving the sites.

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust's Ancient Astonbury and Wilder Woodlands project is set to go ahead thanks to a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

In England, woodland is categorised as ‘ancient’ if it has existed since 1600 AD.

Many centuries of undisturbed soil make this habitat extremely rich in biodiversity, providing food, shelter and breeding sites for wildlife.

It is also vital for humans too; ancient woodlands store substantial amounts of carbon – a significant factor in the fight against climate change.

The wildlife trust’s State of Nature 2020 report shows that just 4 per cent of Hertfordshire’s landmass is classed as ancient woodland.

With 35 per cent of species associated with woodland having noticeably declined since 1970, it is essential that these sites are protected and adopted by their local communities, the wildlife trust says.

Bluebells are a native species under threat from climate change.

Astonbury Wood - a 54-acre woodland situated near Stevenage and carpeted with bluebells in the spring - is one of the wildlife trust’s newest nature reserves.

Following a major fundraising campaign, the charity purchased the long-term lease from Hertfordshire County Council last year, to manage the woodland for wildlife and the community.

The site is home to many wildflowers, including wood anemones, primroses, early purple orchids and bluebells.

The project funding will be used at Astonbury Wood to engage people in restoring and enjoying the site.

It will also be used to help restore and conserve six of the wildlife trust’s other key woodland nature reserves - Fir and Pond Woods near Potters Bar, Gobions Wood near Brookmans Park, Long Deans in Hemel Hempstead, Hawkins Wood between Buntingford and Royston, Old Park Wood in Harefield, and Balls Wood near Hertford.

Iain Ward, Wilder Woodlands officer at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, said: "Thank you to the National Lottery players for making this project possible.

"A big part of it is to connect the community to Astonbury Wood, along with our other key woodland sites, and to encourage the involvement of volunteers in their restoration and conservation.

"To put it into context, the trust has been around for 60 years this year, but ancient woodland has existed since 1600 AD, so it is a real privilege to be a custodian of its history and to influence its future, planning to make it more resilient to climate change and helping to protect the wildlife that call it home.

“Over winter at Astonbury, we, together with our volunteers, have brought the glades back into management, opening up a temporary gap in the woodland canopy to allow a greater number of plant species to thrive. As a result of this, there is already a colourful display of woodland wildflowers this spring and the bluebells will shortly create quite a spectacle.

"We welcome the public to experience and enjoy this wonderful sight, but ask everyone to do so responsibly, to stick to the pathways in all of our woodlands and to keep dogs on leads.

"There’s a lot of activity in nature at this time of year and many species are breeding, plus ground flora can be easily damaged by trampling, so please be considerate and give nature the helping hand it needs."

Volunteers Nick Salmon and Debs Dowie said: "Going to Astonbury Wood at bluebell time is an annual 'must do' for us and our friends and family.

"The magical sight of the swathes of colour, dappled by sunlight filtering through the vivid green leaves of spring, is something not to be missed.

"We are so lucky to have the wood nearby and to be able to enjoy it all year round, but the huge quantity of bluebells always make April a memorable month in which to visit.

"It's great to know that the future of Astonbury Wood has been secured and that future generations will be able to share this delightful experience."