London Wildlife Trust’s 30th Anniversary of managing Sydenham Hill Wood
By Rowan Porteous, Sydenham Hill Wood Volunteer Warden

2012 marks the 30th Anniversary of London Wildlife Trust managing Sydenham Hill Wood. The wood has been a key London Wildlife Trust project site since the Trust’s formation, and is a lifeline for wildlife and people in urban South London. The ongoing active management of the wood is vital to preserve this rare example of an urban ancient woodland for all to enjoy.

The wood is one of the few places in London where we can see magnificent, naturally growing trees that have not been planted. In fact, some of the management aims to control rather than encourage the trees, to provide vital grassland refuges for many animals such as butterflies and bumblebees. The site includes patches of the ancient woodland that used to stretch all the way from Selhurst to Deptford. Walking around the site, it’s possible to see and experience an ecological community that thrived well before much of London was built. At the same time, it is possible to read the history of human development and use in the wildlife and the landscape.

The history and ecology of the wood

The wood has been exploited for timber and fuel for much of its history by management such as coppicing, which allows the woodland to regenerate and encourages many wild species. More recently, in Victorian times a railway track was built through the middle part of the wood and the upper slopes became the grounds of mansions with large gardens.

The mansions and railway track have since been demolished, and the woodland has reasserted itself with great energy. We can see this by looking at the painting by Pissarro that depicts the view from the Cox’s Walk footbridge in 1877 and shows a landscape of unbounded fields and scattered houses. It is now impossible to see for more than a few metres in the dense stand of willow, maple and ash trees, and the air is filled with the calls of jays and the spiralling of purple hairstreak butterflies. To celebrate the 30th Anniversary local artist and London Wildlife Trust volunteer Ray Newell has painted the view from the footbridge as it exists today.

The railway track itself is now a woodland ride and still supports many characteristic ancient woodland plants, like wood anemone, which have thrived here for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. These mingle with more commonplace species that like disturbed soil and have spread along railway tracks, such as rosebay willowherb, that may have arrived when the track was built.

The area of the wood that was once Victorian gardens sports a number of historical features including an old folly and also has an ecology of its own, with ornamental garden plants and nutrient hungry colonizers like nettles, which are an important food plant for many caterpillars.

The management by London Wildlife Trust

Human management for wood and timber has been a crucial part of woodland ecology for thousands of years and the unique ecology of the wood has to be maintained by active management. London Wildlife Trust acquired Sydenham Hill Wood in 1982, and manages it for wildlife and the enjoyment of people.
The open glades and rides are cut in early autumn in a way that imitates the actions of grazing animals to maintain wildflowers and the diverse invertebrate life they support. Some coppicing is still carried out to promote the growth of herbs and shrubs, and the wood is retained and used in dead hedges as barriers that provide habitat for many invertebrates. The dead hedges are also used to control trampling by people and dogs and prevent disturbance of ground nesting birds.

A recent success story is the regeneration of the Ambrook and Dewy pond, which began last year. At one time waterbodies in British woodland would have been maintained by animals such as the native beaver. Since there are no beavers in Sydenham we have to do this ourselves! The pond and stream have been dredged and reprofiled, oxygenating aquatic plants have been introduced, and some of the surrounding trees reduced to let more light in. The area will need to remain fenced off for two years to allow everything to grow. Already, as a result of the management, newts have been observed in the water, frogs have spawned, and mallard ducks are nesting here for the first time in many years.

London Wildlife Trust will continue working to preserve this precious fragment of ancient woodland in South London so that it shines as an example of how nature conservation can work in harmony with people, providing a place for reflection, recreation and education.

To celebrate the 30th Anniversary the trust will be hosting an Open Day on Sunday 9th September. If you support our work why not join the Trust as a member? See for more details.

Ashley White who has managed the Wood in recent years and has been a frequent contributor to these columns is moving to Wiltshire to work for the Wildlife Trust .  We wish her every success.