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Ancient woodland at Burnham Beeches

​Ancient woodland at Burnham Beeches

The City of London’s Open Spaces Department is responsible for the conservation, restoration, refurbishment and development of almost 4,500 hectares of land that make up varied and historic landscapes.

Many of our sites have international conservation site designations such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), National Nature Reserves (NNR), Scheduled Monuments (SM), Sites of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation (SMINC), Sites of Local Importance for Nature Conservation (SLINC). Many are on Green Belt land, have Green Flag Awards and are Green Heritage Sites.

Some sites​ are funded by the City of London while others are run by Charitable Trusts. These diverse landscapes - grass, wood, coppiced woods and heathland, parks and gardens, cemeteries, wetlands, farmland, pastoral land and chalk downland to name a few - all require expert management.

Leading conservation grazing

    Livestock grazing in fenceless paddocks at Burnham Beeches
    ​Livestock grazing in fenceless paddocks at Burnham Beeches

Grazing animals help maintain wood pasture but they cannot roam free. Traditional fences are not always visually attractive and can cause access problems.

Since 2011 the Open Spaces Department has been trialling an invisible fencing system which is proving an effective method of containing cattle, as well as providing an inexpensive alternative to installing cattle grids on roads.

For centuries the wood pasture at Epping Forest, Burnham Beeches and Ashtead Common was grazed by livestock. The grazing animals roamed beneath trees, many of which were pollards, browsing as they went which created the characteristic open woodland. As the grazing practices changed, scrub and young woodland began to appear at the expense of open pasture and heathland. Consequently the health of the ancient pollards declined as they had to compete for light and space with younger trees.

Invisible fences help to conserve and expand open woodland. They are buried cables along paddock boundaries that transmit radio signals. When livestock approach the cables, collars they wear emit an audible warning. If they get too close they receive a small electric shock similar to traditional electric fences. After one or two shocks they learn to keep away and stay in the paddock.

At Burnham Beeches traditionally fenced paddocks have been used to contain the cattle and then expanded to new paddocks bounded only by the invisible fencing. Virtual cattle grids, where the cable crosses roads, have contributed to the success of the project so much so that whole-site grazing should be a reality very soon.

Use of the invisible fences has meant grazing areas have been expanded, access improved, wildlife habitats protected and sites are being managed more effectively.​

Managing ancient woodland using traditional practices

    Ancient woodland in Hampstead Heath
    ​Ancient woodland in Hampstead Heath

​The City of London is at the forefront of ongoing action to reinstate traditional ancient woodland management.

The Open Spaces Department manages over 2,000 hectares of ancient woodland and wood pasture, including areas of international conservation importance. Ancient woodland, historically managed for fuel and building material, has special conservation value that is due to many years of development of the soil, the cyclical cutting of vegetation and the presence of old, decaying and dead trees, often with their own specific microhabitats.

The management of coppice has been an important part of our work since 1977 at Highgate Wood. A coppice cycle has been established and the cut areas are protected by temporary fencing for around ten years to allow the ground flora to recover.

Ashstead Common, Burnham Beaches and Epping Forest are three of the UK’s most important wood pasture sites. Wood pasture is an ancient management system in which open woodland provides shelter and forage for grazing animals. Trees growing within the open woodland have typically been managed by pollarding; a practice where their tops are cut at regular intervals to provides firewood and sometimes fodder. Grazing is being re-established and extended across our wood pasture sites facilitated by the use of invisible fencing that allows animals to graze without intrusive fencing on important public open spaces.

There are nearly 60,000 ancient trees, including around 80% of the UK’s veteran beech trees, at Epping Forest and the City of London has led the way in safeguarding these special trees. The City has hosted benchmarking conferences bringing together experts across Europe to share experience in the conservation of veteran trees. On the ground we have led the way in practical conservation management of ancient trees. At Ashtead Common and Burnham Beeches each living pollard has its own management plan that prescribes the work needed to prolong the life and vitality of the tree. At Epping Forest 1,200 keystone trees - the most significant of its 55,000 ancient pollarded trees - have so far been given their own plan and been managed to ensure long term viability.

A number of pest and diseases pose a significant threat to our ancient woodlands and across all our sites we are actively monitoring and seeking solutions to problems such as oak decline and oak processionary moth.