Today, I have had the pleasure of hosting a site visit, to allow the City of London Corporation’s Epping Forest and Commons Committee members to see first-hand some of the excellent conservation work being conducted by officers and to talk through some of the challenges which lay ahead.
One of the many ambitions I have as Chairman, is to share more of the work our charity has been doing behind the scenes, with a wider audience. I also hope that by sharing articles like this, some of our decision making makes sense to those who often enjoy the benefits of Epping Forest daily, but don’t really understand quite how much it takes to actively manage these complex sites.
So, we began our visit at Warren Wood on the Copped Hall Estate to inspect a collection of hazardous poplar trees directly adjacent to the M25 motorway. These trees are actually the highest rated risk on our risk register. As you can see from the photos below, the complexity with this area is the trees are next to an electronic power line which sprays across the M25. Therefore, to carry out the works safely, surveyors have determined that UK Power Networks must cut the power supply and the Highways Agency must close the M25 in both directions. To date, the Highways Agency have rejected the request, therefore legal action must now commence to ensure the risk is mitigated.
Our next stop was at Birch Hall Park to check on the health and wellbeing of some of our melanistic (dark coated) fallow deer. Deer and muntjacs roam freely across Epping Forest and the Buffer Land. They play an important part in its history – indeed, stags feature on the crests of almost all of the neighbouring local authorities. The Epping Forest Act 1878 specifically references the need for the Conservators to preserve deer “as objects of ornament in the Forest”.
However, the UK’s wild deer population growth rate sit around 30% annually and in the absence of natural predators, deer threaten biodiversity, damage farm crops and cause significant numbers of road traffic accidents. Therefore, management plans have to exist to carry out seasonal culls which are human, controlled and supported by science. You can read more about our Deer Management Strategy and Deer Management Plan here.
Epping Forest has around 100 waterbodies, from ponds to lakes to large raised reservoirs. Each of those carry their own risks and legal frameworks we must operate within. At Birch Hall pond, our regular reservoir inspection programme identified the need for works to stabilise the existing dam structure and to provide more formal overflow provisions, as the earth dam structure had areas of significant internal leakage. There was a risk that when the pond is full, the water ‘overtop’ the dam in an uncontrolled manner especially, if the water inflow during storm events exceeds the capacity of the current outfall pipe (which is of limited capacity). If left, both internal leakage of the dam or external uncontrolled overtopping could potentially lead to significant erosion and possible collapse of the dam which would result in the sudden escape of large volumes of water, which would cascade towards Loughton Lane.
Therefore, a project was pulled together and funded by the City of London Corporation to mitigate these risks, which included (a) the construction of a reinforced grass / concrete block spillway to the earth embankment dam, (b) a permanent lowering of water levels in the pond to mitigate leakage, (c) re-grading the varying dam crest levels to a common datum and constructing a gravel emergency access track along the dam crest and (d) construction of a 700m long gravel track through the site to facilitate ongoing maintenance to the pond and dam.
Our next stop was to Woodredon Hill in Waltham Abbey to look at some of the damage deer are causing through their constant grazing of young green vegetation. Our conservation team have been piloting a very small deer exclosure plot (above), which shows the area around the exlosure to have no new sapling trees, just bracken. However, inside the exclosure are a large group of new trees. Whilst we work hard to protect our 55,000 ancient trees in Epping Forest of a total 1 million trees, it is critical for the forest’s eco system that new trees are able to slowly progress through the shaded canopy and replace trees over time. We will need to think carefully about getting this balance right as we plan for the future.
Next was on to a Buffer Land site, known as Patmore’s Field, Sewardstone. This is a site which has been repurposed from low quality arable land to a wildflower meadow as part of the City of London Corporation’s Climate Action Strategy carbon removals project. As you will know, plants use the energy of sunlight and through photosynthesis, remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. In the process of converting CO2 into plant matter, they release oxygen into the air, and lock CO2 into plant material and, most importantly, through their roots and into the soil. This boosts biodiversity by creating new wildlife habitats for a range of species, whilst improving water storage and soil health. This new meadow lies close to other flower-rich grasslands in the Forest and so its value for wildlife will be enhanced, for example by providing greater connectivity for pollinating insects.
Our penultimate stop was Jacks Hatch car park in Theydon Bois. Unfortunately, this car park has suffered a prolonged campaign of vandalism to car park payment machinery and signage. I recognise that the introduction of parking charges hasn’t been universally popular. It is something that the charity has had to think carefully about for many years, but with more than 10 million visits each year to Epping Forest, the cost of maintenance has significantly increased. I often remind people that unlike the National Trust and other similar charities, we aren’t charging anyone a membership or entrance fee to come and enjoy the forest – if you walk, cycle or use public transport, it’s still free. But if you drive and want to use our car parks, I believe you should be willing to contribute towards their upkeep. We have more than 50 car parks in Epping Forest and I’m pleased to say that only 1 has been damaged, but that one has wasted significant resources of our charity and can only result in cuts to services elsewhere. Thankfully, following investigative and surveillance work with police, we hope to have a criminal prosecution soon. We will also shortly outline maintenance and renovation plans for our car parks.
Finally, we returned The Warren in Loughton, which is main operating hub for our team in Epping Forest. Adjacent to our office and works depot is the Grade II listed Warren House. A former Tudor hunting lodge was converted to a famous tavern, ‘The Reindeer Inn’, in the 18th century. The house and grounds were re-designed by Humphry Repton in the early 19th century after conversion to a private house. The grounds were surrounded by an extensive rabbit warren, which gave the property its new name, Warren House. In 1880, the house and grounds were made the accommodation of the Superintendent of Epping Forest, which is no longer the case. However, Warren House is one of many properties across Epping Forest in need of significant capital investment to retore it and bring it back into regular use. Officers are working on proposals so that this stunning site can be enjoyed for generations to come.
I hope that gives you a high-level flavour of some of the work we are doing as a charity, but I do encourage you to get out and enjoy Epping Forest for yourself. We have lots of maps and walking trails on our website to help you, or you can pop into our visitor centres where our team will be happy to advise.