It may come as strange for readers of the Dulwich Society journal to hear London Wildlife Trust talk of ‘bringing an ancient landscape back to life’. However that is exactly what we will be doing over the next four years. Thanks to a £699,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery fund for our Great North Wood project and match funding from the Dulwich Estate and the Dulwich Society, we will be able to undertake long-needed management work to protect the Dulwich Woods for the future. A landmark agreement has been reached between the Trust and the Dulwich Estate to undertake work over the next four years that will bring much needed respite to Dulwich Wood through fencing eroded areas where trees are dying off due to degraded soil, and where ancient woodland flowers have been lost to trampling. In Low Cross Wood, the large area of woodland fenced off on the western side of Low Cross Wood Lane, the path that leads to Sydenham Hill station between Crescent Wood Road and College Road, we will be clearing invasive cherry laurel and rhododendrons that are beginning to turn this ancient wood into a dark and denuded place. At Hitherwood, otherwise referred to as the Hitherwood spinney, we will be clearing invasive species and garden waste dumped there over the years. This landlocked chunk of ancient woodland still has English bluebell and wood anemone, but they are declining due to a lack of conservation effort.
I have written on several occasions in the journal about the need to act immediately to conserve Dulwich Wood before its habitats are degraded to a point where it could take decades for it to recover, if at all. This once more open and flower-rich wood has become overrun with laurel and a bit too much holly, and its paths widened by a spike in visitor numbers since 2012. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Dulwich Society and the Wildlife Committee for giving us the opportunity to elaborate on the challenges facing the woods and for taking those concerns forward. We are also delighted that the Society can offer funds to support some of this most crucial work, fulfilling the very raison d'être of the organisation: to protect the amenities of Dulwich. The work of the Society and local residents has led to an historic agreement between London Wildlife Trust and the Dulwich Estate which works in both organisation’s interests. On our part we are hugely encouraged by the steps that can now be taken towards protecting both Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood, which in reality is one continuous woodland with two separate legal arrangements. Sydenham Hill Wood has seen far greater disturbance over the past 150 years, whilst Dulwich Wood is now experiencing levels of erosion not seen before in its millennia-old history. These woods do not merely benefit Dulwich, however, with Sydenham Hill Wood offered protection for its ecological importance for the whole of London.
Over the next four years visitors to Dulwich Wood will see new paths installed using gravel and ‘hoggin’ to avoid the bogginess of recent years. New fencing will be installed along the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Wood borders to allow the regeneration of young trees. It is crucial for a layer of new woodland to follow the mature standards of oak. If there is nothing to replace these trees we will be left with a dustbowl and woodland will be lost. The trees as they are will also suffer individually as the continual trampling – something for which no one is to blame but which we each contribute to over time – will compact the soil stopping the movements of carbon dioxide, oxygen and other gases, nutrients, minerals and, crucially, water to move above and below ground. Fungi play an irreplaceable role in woodlands by supporting trees through symbiotic relationships. If the soil is compacted the mushrooms cannot fruit (though not all of these fungi are in the same order as the well known mushrooms and toadstalls) which means they can’t produce spores and their numbers will deplete over time. The Dulwich and Sydenham Hill woods are home to a great array of mushrooms due to the long life of the woods themselves.
How can this project ever be deemed a success? We are talking here of works that could provide benefits for centuries, as grandiose as it may sound. The protection of young trees and woodland soils will result in new layers of woodland to replace the old.
I would like to end this article with a brief thank you. I began as Project Officer at Sydenham Hill Wood in August 2012 and am approaching my 5th year in the role. Working with the Society has been one of the great pleasures of my time in the job. As someone born in Dulwich Hospital (the bit they knocked down) and spending my youth in the local parks and green spaces, I have a deep affinity with all the Society and local people wish to protect. The recent agreement and award of the Heritage Lottery funded project has been a great achievement for all of us with an interest in the woods, and I am very grateful to all those who have worked hard to get us to this point. Special thanks go to Angela Wilkes, Sigrid Collins, Glynis Williams and Peter Roseveare of the Wildlife Committee; Brian Green, Ian McInnes, Sue Badman and Jeremy Prescott on behalf of the Dulwich Society; and Simon Hoare and Tony George of the Dulwich Estate. To the readers and members, if you have come along to one of our events thank you for your support and we hope to see you again soon.