When Dulwich gets a mention in the wider world, it's often referred to as "leafy". Look at the Society's web site and most of its opening page is about open space, greenery and trees. The reality is starting to look somewhat different.

To merit the label "leafy", you need trees, hedges and bushes - the latter known to ecologists as "understorey". On all three counts Dulwich has been doing badly of late. Take trees, first. Up to nine trees have recently been felled along the South Circular Road at Belair Park. Seven trees came down in the early spring in Alleyn's School playing fields. A line of trees has been lost alongside College Road opposite Dulwich College. Five trees were felled in Court Lane Gardens early this year by the Dulwich Estate. More trees have disappeared around Great Brownings. And that's without counting the tree losses in Dulwich Park as a result of the Heritage Lottery Scheme - or the trees that are chopped down in private gardens in ignorance or carelessness of Estate regulations.

As the Newsletter Editor, Brian Green, points out, Dulwich has an awful lot of bleak and boring unhedged railings. It's also losing bushes and undergrowth. Dulwich Park has seen much of its understorey ripped out in recent months, notably on the perimeter bordering Court Lane. One particular sufferer has been the fenced-off ecology area in the middle of the park, where leaf litter has been mercilessly hovered up and where, in April, burgeoning cow parsley and nettles were strimmed back to ground level - in complete contradiction of the purpose of an ecology area.

One resident wrote in after an article in the last Newsletter to express her amazement at the behaviour of some (neighbouring) tree-fellers in a particularly "leafy" part of Dulwich. Why, she asked, do people "who seem to a have a virulent dislike of trees chose to buy a home next to a wood?" One could also ask why people move to "leafy " Dulwich, and then set about paving over the front garden or ripping out greenery and replacing it with gravel, decking or faux-Zen statuary. And does it matter?

To the first question there are a number of answers - lack of environmental awareness, the ubiquity of garden-makeover TV, the boom in designer gardening. There's the tidiness aesthetic, which inspires much of the management by the park and the Dulwich Estate, and there's also the risk-avoidance and litigation culture - the nettles in Dulwich, believe it or not, were considered a risk on health and safety grounds.

The Dulwich Society has tried to prevent, mitigate or repair some of the damage. It persuaded Southwark Council not to fell the old willow by the bridge near the Japanese Garden in the park. It has met with Alleyn's School, which has agreed to leave a two-metre unmown perimeter strip around part of its playing fields - the School, it was good to note, is happy to replant with native species and is already using wildflower seed mix on some perimeter banks. And the Society has sought to persuade the Dulwich Estate to adopt a more ecological approach to its management - so far without success. It's also good news that Southwark Council has appointed an ecology officer, Jon Best, who is currently preparing a bio-diversity action plan for the borough.

On the second question - does it matter - opinions may vary. What's not in doubt is that, as recent analysis of Dulwich Society Wildlife Committee minutes going back to the late 1960's confirmed, species loss locally from glow worms to hedgehogs and badgers has been extensive. In the park there have been fewer blackbirds, wrens and robins of late. The British Trust for Ornithology research nationally has also confirmed the lack of understorey - hedges, bushes and shrubberies - directly correlates with the absence of these and other species, not least the house sparrow. If you want to find house sparrows on Burbage Road for example, head for the bushes by the surgery. The humble bramble, it is said, provides home and food to over 320 species, bugs included.

Without leaf litter, hedges, bushes and of course trees, you don't get beetles, bugs and birds and mammals - they have nowhere to hide and move and nothing to eat. This is a statement of the blindingly obvious but it's one many people seem to forget. What we do get are "pictorial" landscapes devoid of life. If you think all living things bar humans should be banished from cities, this won't worry you much. Nevertheless the creeping demise of leafy Dulwich will come at a price. For all the worries about subsidence, the proximity of trees, according to the American Forestry Association research, add up to 18 per cent of the value of the property. And there are many other studies that point the same way. Leafiness, whichever way you look at it, makes a certain sense.

David Nicholson-Lord is a member of the Trees and Wildlife committees, an environmental writer and author of Green Cities - And Why We Need Them (New Economics Foundation, 2003)

Go to top