Dear Readers, I was really excited about this talk: David Bevan is a hero of mine, for a variety of reasons. He was one of the key players in the coppicing of Coldfall Wood and Queen’s Wood, a decision which greatly increased the biodiversity in both of these fragments of ancient woodland. He was the conservation officer for Haringey, the council where Coldfall Wood is located, for many years. But lastly, he only started to work in areas where his passion for plants could be used when he was in his forties, following a course at Birkbeck on Ecology and Conservation. It is never too late to learn new things, or to change your direction.
The talk was wide-ranging, and so I’m just going to pick up here on a few key points, though you can watch the whole thing here.
Bevan started with a review of the many fragments of ancient woodland that still exist in North London, and pointed up a number of very interesting differences between them. Although, as I’ve often mentioned, Coldfall Wood, Queen’s Wood and Highgate Wood are all oak and hornbeam woods, a wood that I visited recently, Big Wood, was completely clear-felled in 1820. As a result, the understorey is dominated by hazel instead, which is a boon for both insects and for the squirrels.
Bevan also managed to get into Turner’s Wood, which is a scrap of woodland in Hampstead Garden Suburb that is completely surrounded by houses. Those with adjoining houses set up a company to manage the wood, and access by the public is prohibited. Bevan reports that the woodland is largely sessile oak rather than pedunculate (English) oak in the other woods, and suspects that these might have been planted rather than being remnants of an older wood.
Bluebell Wood is another tiny remnant of ancient woodland not far from my favourite garden centre in Bounds Green – in spite of the name it doesn’t have bluebells (at least not these days!) To digress slightly, Bevan felt that the danger to bluebell woods from Spanish and hybrid bluebells was overstated (and recent research bears this out) – although hybrid bluebells might be found on the edge of colonies of English bluebells, they are unable to encroach into the colony as a whole, which is something of a relief.
Bevan then moved on to the trees and other plants that are found in these North London woods, and also had some interesting things to say about the wildlife that depends on them. One thing I didn’t realise was that hawfinches are very attracted to hornbeam seeds, and the birds have been recorded in Coldfall Wood, so definitely something for me to keep my eyes open for. I’ve never seen these magnificent finches with their big beefy beaks.
Bevan mentioned that the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis), an important indicator that a woodland is ancient, is present in all of the North London woods, although it doesn’t set seed very often in this country. When seeds are produced, they need hot summers and cold winters in order to germinate, and with our winters becoming milder and wetter this seems unlikely.
Bevan also mentions that the wild pear tree (which was described by Oliver Rackham as one of the rarest trees in England) grows in Queen’s Wood – until coppicing took place it didn’t flower, but finally it did, producing not only flowers but ‘iron pears’, the hard, inedible fruit.
Now, on to the coppicing. Coldfall Wood’s biodiversity has been improved immeasurably by the cutting back of some of the hornbeams – it immediately lets light into the understorey, and some seeds which have been waiting for up to a century will spring up life (foxglove in particular has a very long life in the seedbank). Bevan notes that wood anemone, early and common dog violet, yellow pimpernel, ragged robin, St. John’s wort and cow wheat were all recorded, along with the only orchid in the ancient woods of North London, a broad-leaved helleborine.
And finally, Bevan did a study of the garden plants that turn up in Queen’s Wood. His study showed that while the edges of the wood had a number of garden plants, these ‘exotics’ found it much more difficult to penetrate further into the wood. He noted cherry laurel, buddleia, Himalayan honeysuckle and late cotoneaster, but is largely unworried by such ‘interlopers’. His view is that in urban woods at least, garden plants are very unlikely to be a problem, and may even increase biodiversity.
Here in North London we are extremely lucky to have such areas of woodland. Ancient woodland is defined as an area that has survived continuously since at least 1600, and each scrap has its own individual character. Bevan points out that all the woods that have survived are on very hilly land, which might be what saved them from destruction by developers during the building boom of the 60s and 70s. Today they have helped to support many thousands of people through the lockdowns of 2020. Let’s hope that people’s new appreciation of our woods will help to protect them in the future.