David Bevan

Presidential Address delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the London Natural History Society (LNHS) on 31 March 1992


Coldfall Wood, Haringey, showing western boundary woodbank and ditch

The part of London which I know best is the Borough of Haringey. This is my home territory, where I have lived and worked since 1970 and where I am the Council's Conservation Officer. I had originally intended to cover the natural history of the Borough as a whole, but it quickly became apparent that this was too ambitious an undertaking for a short address, so I have restricted myself to a discussion of the natural history of Haringey's ancient woodlands. These are here defined as those known to have been present continuously since the year 1600.

The Borough of Haringey was created in 1965 and combines the old Urban District Councils of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham. It is multicultural in character and geographically varied. Some two hundred thousand people inhabit 8l thousand dwellings within its 30 square kilometres. The southern extremity of the Borough at Finsbury Park lies just 5 kilometres north of St Pauls Cathedral. Haringey lies wholly within the Watsonian Vice County of Middlesex (V.C.21). The land falls sharply away from west to east, from the hilly areas around Highgate and Muswell Hill, where the woods are found, to the flat low lying land beside the River Lea.

Figure 1

West Haringey, showing the positions of the woods.

Broken line - borough boundary

Solid lines - major roads

Haringey is most fortunate in possessing no less than five distinct ancient woods. These are Highgate Wood, Queens Wood, Coldfall Wood, Bluebell Wood and North Wood. All are shown on John Rocque's 1754 Map of Middlesex. Their present positions are shown in Figure 1. The history of Highgate, Queens and Coldfall Woods has been examined in some detail by Silvertown (1978), who used historical sources to show that the woodlands are likely to be of primary origin (i.e. continuously present since prehistoric times). The fourth wood, Bluebell Wood, though not mentioned directly by Silvertown is shown (unnamed) on several of the maps accompanying his paper, and is thought to have a similar early history to the three he describes. The fifth wood, North Wood, is part of the Kenwood Estate and has a rather different history. In historical times, traditional management practices have influenced the ecology of the Woods, and the purpose of this address is to examine aspects of their current natural history.

These five woods are among the most centrally placed ancient woodlands in London; Highgate, Queen's and North Wood being only 8 kilometres from St. Pauls Cathedral. Despite this, surprisingly little detailed work has been published on their natural history. They are essentially urban woodlands and inevitably suffer from higher levels of disturbance than their more rural counterparts. Nevertheless a surprising range of plants and animals is able to co-exist here with man and in recent years considerable efforts have been made to help conserve them.

Turning briefly to the geology, the underlying rock as in most of Haringey, is the London Clay. However there is also a significant overlying ridge of chalky boulder clay fringed by glacial gravel which crosses the western edge of Coldfall Wood. Small pockets of glacial gravel outwash also occur in Highgate Wood which was called Gravel Pit Wood in the nineteenth century. A small part of the south eastern corner of this wood is overlaid by the Claygate Beds. North Wood, by contrast, lies wholly on the Bagshot Sands.

With the exception of Northwood, all are oak-hornbeam woodlands. They fit most closely to the Stand Type 9Ba, acid sessile oak-hornbeam woods (Peterken 1981), though today pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) is also widespread in them all. Ingrouille and Laird (1986) suggested that sessile oak (Q. petraea) may have been the predominant species in the southern part of the old Forest of Middlesex, but that man's activities have favoured the pedunculate oak in a haphazard way. They further suggested that there are few hybrids, but introgression in the distant past has made some populations more variable. My own observations confirm that the pedunculate oak is the dominant tree in Queen's Wood, whereas sessile oak predominates in Bluebell Wood. Highgate and Coldfall Woods contain a mixture of both species. The Woods all have a past history of coppicing, hornbeam providing an important source of fuel for London. Using evidence from the seventeenth century court rolls of the Manor of Hornsey, Silvertown (1978) suggested that the woods were coppiced throughout in one season. The lack of any internal boundary banks in the Woods today supports this view. Coppicing was probably a regular practice in all the Woods until the mid nineteenth century when it slowly declined. Today the old hornbeam coppice poles have grown tall, forming a dense canopy in many places which excludes light from the woodland floor. As a direct consequence many parts of these Woods lack any sort of ground vegetation. This is particularly evident in Coldfall Wood. Nevertheless the sparse flora present is of considerable interest and contains a variety of plants known to be associated with ancient woodland. Perhaps the best known of these is the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), which has been recorded from them all. Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), common hawthorn (C. monogyna), and their hybrid (C. x macrocarpa), are all widespread. Other trees include field maple (Acer campestre), mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), hazel (Corylus avellana), holly (Ilex aquifolia), cherry (Prunus avium) and both species of lowland birch (Betula pendula and B. pubescens). Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is widespread though curiously rare in Coldfall Wood. Herbaceous species with a strong affinity for ancient woodland include wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense), wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), great woodrush (Luzula sylvatica), wood millet (Milium effusum) and a variety of sedges (Carex spp).

Highgate Wood

Figure 2

Highgate Wood

Each wood will now be discussed in turn, starting with Highgate Wood which is the largest (25 hectares), and probably best known. It is owned and managed by the corporation of London, who acquired it from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1886 at no charge on condition that it was "maintained in perpetuity for the benefit of Londoners". This the Corporation endeavoured to do according to the prevailing fashions of the day! Asphalt paths were laid down, ornamental trees were planted and dead wood was assiduously removed and burned. The Wood was managed more as an urban park than an ancient woodland (figure 2) and its wildlife suffered accordingly. As long ago as 1916, the LNHS was reporting in its transactions that "Bluebells are practically non-existent, and the thousands of wood anemones are now represented by a few miserable clumps of leaves here and there. The better drainage of the woods has destroyed numerous plants and several fine clumps of such plants as drooping sedge (Carex pendula) and bladder sedge (C. vesicaria) have been lost" (Nicholson, 1916; quoted in Fitter, 1945). Other losses have included heath cudweed (Gnaphalium sylvaticum), pale sedge (C. pallescens) and the greater and lesser butterfly orchids (Platanthera chlorantha and P. bifolia) which were all recorded from the wood in the 19th century (Kent, 1975).

In 1968 the Conservation Committee of the LNHS expressed its concern at the planting of exotic conifers (Hersey, 1969) which included Corsican pine (Pinus nigra ssp laricia), western hemlock,(Tsuga heterophylla), Norway spruce (Picea abies) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) Although these may encourage birds such as coal tit and goldcrest they can hardly be considered appropriate species to plant into an ancient woodland. As a consequence of the LNHS' protest the planting programme was halted and there are no plans to continue the policy. Indeed in recent years management practices have become far more sympathetic to the Wood's wildlife. Publication of a comparative study of Highgate Wood and Queens Wood (Latimer, 1984) undoubtedly encouraged this welcome change. Many of Latimer's suggestions for future management have now been carried out. Certain areas have been fenced to allow the regeneration of the vegetation free of trampling, and dead wood is allowed to decay in situ - to the great benefit of saprophytic fungi and a wide range of invertebrates.

To celebrate the centenary of their ownership of Highgate Wood, the Corporation of London (1986) published a small booklet about the Wood. This includes a useful plant list compiled by Mike Mullin to which I have subsequently made additions. The native golden rod (Solidago virgaurea) hangs on along the western edge of the Wood. This is now very scarce in Middlesex - the golden rod most frequently seen being the introduced Canadian species (S. canadensis) - a plant of far wider ecological tolerance. The drooping sedge reported lost by Nicholson, has now returned with a vengeance and is likely to have originated from local gardens where it is sometimes grown as an ornamental. Also appended in the Corporation's booklet is a list of butterflies and moths recorded by Michael Hammerson in 1985. He has subsequently run a moth trap in the Wood every year and recorded a total of l2l species. Butterflies include good populations of speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) which, in the early 1980s were virtually confined to this Wood but which have subsequently spread throughout the Borough. The booklet also included a list of birds recorded from 1965 to 1985 and contains some remarkable records including Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus), Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). Palmer (1987) listed 25 species of breeding bird from Highgate and Queen's Woods, in his survey of major London woodlands. This is a disappointingly low count which may reflect the high degree of human disturbance. By contrast, in the same survey, Sydenham Hill Wood (Southwark) which is 8.5 kilometres from St Pauls, was found to support 40 breeding species.

In his account of the "Distribution and Status of Bats in the London Area", Mickleburgh (1987) lists four species of bat from Highgate Wood. These are Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), Natterer's (Myotis nattereri), the very rare Leisler's (Nyctalus leisleri) seen in 1986, and the Noctule (Nyctalus noctula). Bat boxes have been put up to encourage them.

Queen's Wood

Figure 3

Queen's Wood, showing wood anemones

Across Muswell Hill Road to the east lies Queen's Wood (21 hectares) which presents a number of contrasts to the Wood just described. In the nineteenth century Queens Wood was known as Churchyard Bottom Wood, possibly because of the discovery of human bones in the west of the Wood which were thought to derive from a burial pit for victims of the "Great Plague" of l665. The Wood was purchased from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners by Hornsey Council in 1898 and renamed Queen's Wood in honour of Queen Victoria. The intensive management of the type practised at Highgate Wood was never implemented here and the wildlife has benefited in recent years from what might best be described as "benign neglect". In November 1990 it was designated a Statutory Local Nature Reserve by the Council. The London Ecology Unit list it (together with Highgate Wood) as a Site of Metropolitan Importance, their highest grading. Bantock (1984) found a significantly greater number of ground feeding birds present in the Wood when compared to Highgate Wood. He attributed this to the greater structural diversity and denser shrub layer present. There have been recent sightings of hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) in February 1991 and April 1992 (George Newbiggin, pers. comm). The latter record was of a pair and is strong evidence of breeding. I have no other records of this bird in Haringey.

The northern portion of the Wood is crossed by a small stream which provides the most diverse damp woodland community of any of the Woods described. Goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus), wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), yellow pimpernel (Lysimachia nemorum), and square-stemmed St John's wort (Hypericum tetrapterum) occur here. I have not found them elsewhere in Haringey. The stream-side also supports a small colony of lady fern (Athyrium felix-femina) which I have recently also found in Coldfall Wood and Bluebell Wood. Wood sedge (Carex sylvatica) and remote sedge (C. remota) are both frequent and there is also a small colony of great woodrush (Luzula sylvatica), but perhaps the most attractive woodland plant here is the wood anemone which covers the ground in white, snow-like drifts in the spring (figure 3). There are occasional patches of common dog violet (V. riviniana) and in one place only these are accompanied by a sizeable colony of the early dog violet (V. reichanbachiana).

The Great Storm of 1987 brought down many trees. In retrospect this has actually benefitted the Wood as the thinning of the canopy has allowed light to penetrate to the woodland floor thus creating a number of natural glades. By the northern edge of the Wood, where the damage was particularly severe, two glades have been fenced to allow regeneration to take place free of trampling. The results have been dramatic and the succession from bare ground through rose-bay willow herb (Chamerion angustifolium) to bramble (Rubus spp.) is similar to that seen in the Highgate Wood enclosures. Slender St John's wort (Hypericum pulchrum) occurs here in what may be its most central London location. Its showier relative, the tutsan (H.androsaemum) has also been recorded from one or two places in the Wood but these plants have probably originated from nearby gardens where they are still occasionally grown as ornamentals. This may well explain the presence of isolated plants of gladden (Iris foetidissima). Perhaps the most exciting botanical find since the Great Storm was the rediscovery in 1990 of the broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). This was previously recorded from the wood by E.B. Bangerter in 1956 (Kent 1975). In addition to these notable native species, a wide range of alien plants occur reflecting the urban nature of the Wood's surroundings. These include the yellow-flowered strawberry (Duchesnia indica) Himalayan honeysuckle (Leycesteria formosa) and Indian horse-chestnut (Aesculus indica). The wood has also been infiltrated by a hybrid swarm of the Highclere holly (Ilex x altaclerensis), which seems to be under-recorded in London, being absent from either Burton (1983) or Kent (1975). It is also known from Highgate Wood.

The bryophyte flora is more diverse in Queens Wood than in the others, although impoverished by comparison with more rural woodland. Ken Adams (pers. comm) has recorded 38 species from this Wood including Mnium punctatum which is uncommon in North London. Fungi are also well represented. Thomas (1992), who has made a unique study of their varying populations in Haringey over a number of years, lists a total of 243 species from the Borough as a whole, of which 80 have been recorded from Queen's Wood. One of these was the death cap (Amanita phalloides) which was not recorded elsewhere in the borough.

Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are abundant here as in all the Woods described. They cause considerable damage to the trees, especially hornbeam, by gnawing the bark in the summer months. However, hornbeam are widespread and squirrel damage can sometimes be of benefit by thinning the canopy and allowing light to penetrate. It also results in much dead standing wood which is attractive to woodpeckers and other birds. More seriously, squirrels can strip hazel of its nuts and prevent regeneration. As a consequence it is rare to find seedlings and Rackham (1986) has suggested that they are now the most seriously threatened British tree excepting elms.

Milner (1990) has studied the spider fauna of Queen's Wood. A total of 76 species was recorded. The striking feature was "the presence of what are known to arachnologists as weed or ruderal species not normally found in woodland at all". The number of typical woodland spiders was less than might normally be expected in such a wood and certainly significantly less than those recorded during a similar study at Oxleas Wood (Milner 1988). This doubtless reflects the high levels of human disturbance in the Wood. Milner concludes his paper with some thoughts on the management implications of his findings. He suggests that more enclosures should be established to prevent excessive trampling. If this were to be combined with some coppicing where the canopy is most dense, regeneration of the ground flora would be encouraged. This would have great benefit to invertebrates. Following the very successful application of this approach in Coldfall Wood, I subsequently co-ordinated the coppicing of a small area of Queens Wood in February 1992. This work was carried out by members of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, Friends of Queen's Wood, and the Haringey Branch of the London Wildlife Trust.

Coldfall Wood

I should now like to turn to Coldfall Wood (14 hectares) which is the wood that I have studied most closely (Bevan,1986). It was purchased in 1930 by Hornsey Council and is now owned and managed by Haringey. Its western and northern boundaries are demarcated by the remains of an ancient woodbank (see frontispiece) with a ditch on the outer side. This would have prevented grazing animals from the surrounding Finchley and Hornsey Commons from entering the Wood and destroying the young coppice. Like those previously described, the Wood is dominated by oak standards, but the understorey is much less diverse and consists of almost pure stands of multi-stemmed, overgrown hornbeam coppice. Beech, hazel, mountain ash and wild service are all rare, though there are some fine specimens of the last species.

Little light penetrates to the woodland floor and large areas of the Wood are devoid of either shrub, field or ground layers of vegetation. Consequently the Wood presents a dark and gloomy appearance in the summer months. Nevertheless, in the few natural glade areas caused by the collapse of an occasional canopy tree, the flora is of considerable interest. Pill sedge (Carex pilulifera) hangs on in its only known Haringey site and tiny populations of cow-wheat, slender St. John's-wort, wood anemone, and heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis) manage to survive though they seldom flower. Silvertown (1978) pointed out in his paper that the Wood's future was bleak unless active management was undertaken. I am pleased to report that this is now happening and as readers of the LNHS' News-letter will be aware, some coppice work has already been carried out.

Figure 4

Coldfall Wood, showing the first coppice, immediately after cutting, in December 1990. A quadrat is present in the foreground
Figure 5

This shows exactly the same view, taken nine months later!

An area of approximately one acre was cut in the north western corner of the Wood in December 1990 with the invaluable assistance of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, the Friends of Coldfall Wood and the Haringey Branch of the London Wildlife Trust. The felled hornbeam poles were cut, stacked on site and allowed to decay in situ to provide deadwood habitat for the benefit of invertebrates and fungi. Brushwood was used to construct a dead hedge around the coppice.This has protected the area from trampling, both by dogs and humans, and will hopefully provide a nesting habitat for wrens and other woodland birds. Regrowth from the cut hornbeam stools has been encouraging with a maximum growth of 2 metres being recorded by the end of 1991.

The vegetational succession following the coppice is being carefully monitored by means of permanent quadrats (figures 4 and 5). In the first year after coppicing, more than seventy species of flowering plant have been recorded here - a gratifying increase from the original flora of a mere six species. The newcomers include heath groundsel (Senecio sylvaticus) which is unknown elsewhere in the Borough, suggesting the possibility that its seed may have lain dormant in the soil since the last coppice was cut before the last World War. Ring counts of the coppice poles suggest that this was done about sixty years ago. The majority of new plants, however, will have colonised from outside and many of the arrivals are widespread ruderal species typical of disturbed open habitats, such as mugwort (Artimisia vulgaris), sow-thistles (Sonchus spp.) and willowherbs (Epilobium spp.) Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) dominates much of the area. A hundred years ago this was a rare plant in southern England and it is noteworthy that it was recorded from Coldfall Wood as early as 1901 (Kent 1975). The appearance of Sumatran fleabane (Conyza sumatrensis) was not entirely unexpected, for it has spread rapidly throughout Haringey since first being recorded from the Borough in 1985 (Wurzell 1988). It is also present in North Wood. There can be few other ancient woods in Britain which include this subtropical species in their flora.

Edward Milner has been following the spider succession by locating pitfall traps in one of the permanent quadrats. We hope to correlate our findings in due course.

A second area of coppice was cut in the north eastern corner of the Wood in November 1991. This is a damper site and should support a different range of plants. It is hoped to continue coppicing adjacent parts of the Wood each winter as part of a long-term management plan.

Bluebell Wood

Figure 6

Bluebell Wood

Bluebell Wood is Haringey's most northerly wood (figure 6). It is owned by the council and is a tiny triangular fragment of little more than a hectare, surrounded on two sides by Muswell Hill Golf Course and on the third by allotment gardens and a few houses. The name Bluebell Wood is something of a misnomer today as the only bluebells are occasional strays of the Spanish hybrid from nearby gardens. This vigorous cross between our native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the Spanish species (H. hispanica) is much the most widespread bluebell in Haringey today. The true native species is decidedly uncommon. The Wood is all that now remains of the once extensive Tottenham Wood, which in 1619 covered 157 hectares. It is dominated by sessile oak, but unlike the woods so far described there is little or no understorey and no evidence of past coppicing remains. A fine, suckering wild service tree and scattered midland hawthorn hybrids reflect the Woods antiquity, which is also demonstrated by the presence of a wood bank and ditch close to the northern boundary. As in Coldfall Wood, a younger fringe of woodland now extends beyond the bank and encroaches onto the golf course. A stream runs along the western boundary and its banks support a small colony of wood millet, an attractive grass often associated with ancient woodland, though it is sometimes planted. I have not seen it elsewhere in Haringey.

North Wood

Figure 7

North Wood, showing Prospect Hill

Finally we come to North Wood (c. 5 hectares) which is very different from the oak/hornbeam woodland so far described. Here the canopy is dominated by beech and sessile oak, with occasional Scots pine, all of which thrive on the free draining Bagshot Sands. The Wood is part of the Ken Wood Estate, now managed by English Heritage, and extends westward into Barnet. It formed the southern extremity of the former Bishop's Wood of Hornsey Great Park which was built over in 1920. It was added to the Ken Wood Estate by the 2nd Earl of Mansfield in l793. Only the Southern part of the Wood (to the south of Prospect Hill) is ancient (figure 7), the remainder being unwooded at the time of John Rocque's Survey of London in 1746. The ancient part consists of an overmature high forest of beech and sessile oak which has never been coppiced. Such stands are nationally uncommon and particularly scarce in Greater London. The old and overmature trees provide an important dead wood habitat for a range of invertebrate species including the nationally rare jewel beetle (Agrilus pannonicus) whose larvae develop in and under the bark of oak. This species is listed as vulnerable in the British Red Data Book (Shirt,1987). For all these reasons, English Nature have notified the Wood and the adjacent Ken Wood as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is Haringey's second such site, the other being the small portion of Walthamstow Reservoirs that lies within the Borough. Plant (1990) surveyed the invertebrate fauna of Ken Wood and North Wood between July and October, as part of an entomological assessment commissioned by English Heritage. Efforts were particularly concentrated on searching for invertebrates associated with dead wood. Although a comprehensive assessment could not be made due to the seasonal restriction of the survey, the presence of Agrilus pannonicus was confirmed from Ken Wood together with a number of other rare saproxylic species. Many of these were recorded from Ken Wood only where a greater quantity of long-standing dead wood was found and which also contains an area of derelict hazel coppice. North Wood, by contrast, appeared to have a more impoverished invertebrate fauna. It has a high proportion of secondary woodland of comparatively recent origin and suffered badly from a vigorous "spring clean" in the 1970s which resulted in the removal of much dead wood. Nevertheless, some of the apparent imbalance between the two Woods may result from recorder bias and further survey work is needed. An earlier botanical survey, also carried out for English Heritage, coincided with the 1987 Storm which brought down more than l00 mature trees in Ken Wood and North Wood. Although this was a tragedy, it presented a unique opportunity to investigate the ages of the trees by counting their annual growth rings. The majority of trees in the southern part of North Wood were found to be over 200 years old and must be among the oldest trees in Haringey. The survey also indicated that there was very little regeneration of these trees within the Wood. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Rhododendron ponticum and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) were extensively planted as game coverts. They cast a dense shade and their leaf litter,which contains phenols and tannins, poisons the soil. This has resulted in the widespread suppression of other species. English Heritage recognises that if North Wood and Ken Wood are to regenerate these shrubs must be removed. Another problem affecting tree regeneration is the presence of a large population of rabbits which eat the young seedlings. They do not appear to eat holly (Ilex aquifolia) which may well explain the dominance of this tree in the shrub layer. The presence of muntjac deer (Muntiacus reevesi) has also recently been confirmed from droppings found in the Wood in December 1990 (Clive Herbert, pers. comm). This deer is now common in much of Hertfordshire and there are breeding populations at Scratch Wood in Barnet and at Trent Park in Enfield (Herbert,1990). The higher levels of disturbance and the more urban character of Haringey make it unlikely that the animal is able to breed here. Occasional records from the borough are likely to be of dispersing males.

The friable nature of the Bagshot Sands made Ken Wood and North Wood ideal habitats for badgers (Meles meles) in the past and they were regularly recorded here until the Second World War. There have been occasional rumours of badgers in the Ken Wood area in more recent years and in the early 1960's a dead one was reported from East Heath Road flanking the southern edge of the Heath. More remarkably, in 1985, following reports of a sighting, LNHS member Geoffrey Taylor (pers.comm.) was able to confirm the presence of a badger at North Wood by the discovery of its hairs at the entrance to an enlarged fox hole. Their identity was confirmed at the Natural History Museum. A watch was kept but no further signs were found. Taylor concluded that the badger had moved on "driven by a strong urge to make contact with others of its kind, having discovered that there were none at Ken Wood". How it arrived there must be a matter for conjecture but there have been one or two confirmed sightings nearby at Alexandra Palace during the last decade. Sadly, these occasional wandering animals are unlikely to re-establish a badger colony at Ken Wood.

This concludes my brief account of these ancient woods which I hope may stimulate further work on their fascinating natural history


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