Friends of Big Wood Nature Reserve
Hgs Article- March - 2021
Big Wood (and Littlewood) are very special places. Only 2.5% of the UK is still home to ancient woodland and both these woods are such rare nature reserves. Ancient woodland is vital for biodiversity and is home to invertebrates, flora and fauna many of which are no longer present anywhere else in the UK. That is why it is so important that we do all we can to protect and preserve these last few areas of ancient woodland.
Much of the preservation work is carried out by The Friends of Big Wood who manage the wood in partnership with the London Borough of Barnet, who own the wood in accordance with a 5 year plan which has been agreed with Barnet. Barnet delegate most of the ongoing management to the Friends. The key agreed overall objective is that Big Wood should be managed as amenity woodland with primary emphasis on habitat management and biodiversity. The wood is restricted to pedestrian use only and is not open to cyclists in order to permit both a pedestrian free zone for parents with push chairs and wheel chairs as well as preventing damage to the habitat. Unfortunately, although most people respect this ruling, and there are signs at every entrance, there is still a small minority who selfishly cycle in the wood and a few go very fast endangering pedestrians.
According to the agreed plan, the Friends have reverted to the old practice of coppicing the understory, which is predominately hazel, in the outer part of the wood whilst leaving the two middle compartments entirely to nature which allows an environment of dappled shade to develop which is ideal for wild service trees. The Friends have created nine glades and surrounded them with dead hedging. By cutting back the understory, the glades receive more sunlight and this in turn stimulates the growth of dormant seeds in the ground and the development of oak saplings. You will notice in the glades that the Friends have protected new saplings with a sleeve to protect the young saplings from squirrels or dogs. The dead hedging around the glades is not only to deter walkers compacting the soil in the glades but is also itself a vital habitat for birds and small mammals. The Friends also clear the ditches and paths with hand tools so that the Council contractors do not need to come to the wood with their mechanical diggers etc which destroy all the surrounding understory as well as critical tree roots near the ditches.
The Friends have also erected a number of bird and bat boxes. Earlier this year we checked on the bird boxes and found that all nine had been used but some of the wooden ones had been damaged by either squirrels, parakeets or woodpeckers enlarging the holes or making new ones. We have replaced these wooden ones with woodstone boxes which are stronger and are difficult to damage and also offer better insulation for the nesting birds
It is important that people keep to the paths as far as possible. During lock down many more people have visited the wood and a lot of informal paths have been created. These informal ‘desire’ paths damage the spread of wildflowers as well as disturbing the ground and causing soil/leaf compaction. Quite apart from small mammals, many invertebrates inhabit the soil and leaf-litter and all are adversely affected by disturbance especially trampling so please keep to the designated paths so we can preserve and develop the conservation value of the wood. It is also important to leave fallen branches undisturbed as a whole range of fungi/plant life etc develop on the bottom side of the log which is vital for the life cycle of the wood so please tell your children and enthusiastic fathers to refrain from picking up the logs to make shelters in the wood. Deadwood is a vital habitat for all sorts of creatures, insects, birds etc.
We ask that people who join as Friends pay a small annual subscription which enables the Friends Association to purchase such things as extra tools, bird /bat boxes, produce a leaflet and most important fund surveys on such things as bird life, fungi, wild flowers and habitat. Details of past surveys can be found on the Friends of Big Wood web site friendsofbigwood.com. An 2020 update of the bird survey has been delayed due to Covid but is being completed this year. We are also planning a gall survey of the wood. These are growths which form in response to the presence of insect larvae, mites or fungi on plants and trees.
Friends hold activity mornings during the winter months to carry out the necessary work. (see picture of a recent gathering). During non-Covid times, the activity mornings are very social as busy volunteering work is punctuated by a social break with tea, coffee and biscuits or even mulled wine during the colder months. While, sadly, no socialising can take place during the pandemic restrictions, volunteers have continued to look after this ancient woodland treasure every month from last September. Following strict distancing rules, a good number of residents have turned up, even on one occasion in pouring rain, to work in separate areas, clearing paths and ditches, repairing hurdle fencing and looking after the glades or fallen, ecologically significant, deadwood.
Ancient woods are defined as being present before 1600 because prior to that date few trees were planted but many grew up or were planted after that date. Big Wood (and Littlewood) are examples of ancient coppiced woodlands which are considered to be of ‘primary origin’ since they have been continuously wooded having direct continuity to the “wild wood” of six thousand years ago. Most of the oaks in Big Wood were cleared felled at the end of the eighteenth century so most of the current oaks in the wood are 200/250 years old. The wood is also home to a significant quantity of wild service, wild cherry and crab apple trees. However, it is important to understand that ancient woodland does not cease to exist because trees in the wood are periodically felled or coppiced but also exists because of the amazing complex woodland soil and understory of plant life/seeds which have built up over a long period of time.
The Woodland Trust has recently produced a new study The state of UK Woods and trees which indicates that only a small percentage of our native woods are in a healthy state and much of our woodland life is “perilously close to collapse”. Ancient woodland has grown and adapted with native wildlife yet what remains only cover about 2.5% of the UK.
All types of woodland cloaks circa 13% of Britain- a much lower percentage than most European countries. This percentage has increased by 1% over the last 25 years but this increase and much of existing woodland is largely due to commercial conifer plantations which are monocultures of non native species and largely devoid of wildlife. The Woodland Trust report says that broadleaf cover is over 60% richer in woodland plant species- one reason why a wood such as Big Wood is so important despite its small size. Many woods lack deadwood habitat, veteran trees and life enhancing open glades and almost all are at saturation levels for nitrogen pollution. Big Wood lacks veteran trees due to the general clearance of oaks at the end of the eighteenth century. There is also an insufficient amount of dead wood. The Friends policy is to leave fallen deadwood in situ which may seem untidy but is important for the cycle of life. The amazing thing is that dead wood supports more life forms when it rots than live trees.
We hope this article will encourage more locals to appreciate this little jewel of a wood even though it is but a small remnant of the wood of 200 years ago and to join the Friends to help preserve it for future generations.
Friends of Big Wood