Three East London Woodlands: A potted History and Ecology
Denis j Vickers 1988
Epping Forest, Hainault Forest and Havering Park:
These are the largest relict ancient woodlands in east London and possibly have their origins in the 'wildwood' - this is a term used by Rackham  for the primeval forests, which covered Britain post ice age. After the retreat of the last glaciers, between 7500-5000 BC, the wildwood must have covered 85% of Essex [Corke 1986]. It is possible to ascertain the mix of trees comprising these woodlands by identifying and counting pollen grains buried in peat. There are two such 'peat' sites in east London from which pollen has been extracted for this purpose: 1) within Epping Forest, 2) from the Lea Valley. Corke  states the following regarding this ancient forest's composition "Valley woodland in waterlogged soil, had a high proportion of sallow Salix spp. and alder Alnus sp., as wet woodlands still do today. On dry ground of the Epping Forest ridge, the wildwood was a very diverse mixture: very different to today's Epping Forest but fairly similar to wildwood in East Anglia. Small-leaved Lime Tilia cordata was by far the most common tree, a species now quite absent from the forest but found in some ancient coppice woodlands in the north of Essex." Seemingly, oak Quercus robur and beech Fagus sylvatica were also very common at the time. A shrub, the hazel Corylus avellana was also common and widespread. In addition, there were small amounts of pine Pinus sp., birch Betula spp. and elm Ulmus spp. Neolithic, and Bronze Age man, are unlikely to have had much impact on the forest's trees [Green 1982]. The only noticeable evidence of clearing was on the high ground of the glacial ridges. The change brought about by this activity gave rise to freely draining soil, which was to produce areas of heathland, as nutrients were soon washed away and exhausted. On the gravels and sands capping both the Epping and Hainault ridges relicts of heathland are still evident. Although their influence was not great, the people of the Neolithic and Bronze Age did start the process of forest clearance, with repercussions today.
Remains of some of the larger animals of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages were uncovered when hollowing out the Walthamstow Reservoirs in the 19th century [Green 1982]: Included in their numbers are the European wolf, horse, wild boar, red deer, goats, European beaver, small oxen and man. Understandably, some of these finds indicate that there was a degree of settlement on the banks of the River Lea.
Much of the far-reaching woodland clearance was begun in the Iron Age and Roman times [Corke 1986]: Improved ploughs allowed the cultivation of most soils. The Romans also had settlements in the area [Rackham 1978]: at Woolston in Chigwell, at Wanstead, Leyton and possibly Theydon Bois. Some archaeological finds have also been been made at Havering and Woodford. The first signs of the break-up of the Great Essex Forest were evident with a Roman Road dividing Epping from Hainault. Additional evidence indicates that some form of woodland management had begun, to produce wood for fires and fencing [Corke 1986].
Apparently, by Anglo-Saxon times, settlement in the Forest had slowed down as few place names end with -ley and -hurst (as they do in Cambridge and north-west Essex) indicating men hewing out clearings [Rackham 1978]. However, the Saxons allowed their animals to graze freely, thus, as trees were felled, new leaves from stumps were eaten and seedlings trampled on by foraging animals [Green 1982]. The lime of the wildwood declined its place being taken firstly by birch and then by oak. Up to one third of the trees were birches and a quarter oaks with smaller numbers of lime, hazel, beech, alder, elm and willow. The final decline of the lime trees may have been spurred on during invasions by the Vikings when Saxon farmers sought refuge, and took their stock, deep into the Forest [Green 1982].
By the Norman Conquest the percentage of Forest in south- west Essex had fallen to around 15% a little above the national average at that time [Rackham 1978]. The practice of 'pannaging' in wooded areas was common: swine were allowed to roam the Forest in the autumn to fatten themselves up for the winter months. Their usual choice of food was acorns. In some areas peasants were allowed to pollard or coppice. Standard trees in the Forest were nearly always oak, these were used by the Lord of the Manor for 'Timber'. The Norman kings also introduced a number of new laws covering areas that were inhabited and usually contained at least one area of physical forest that, in turn, contained the king's deer and trees [Corke 1986]: These laws were concerned with hunting, pollarding, coppicing and their regulation. In these areas local people had rights to graze their animals and cut-Wood. All these laws together are often referred to as the 'Forest Laws'. 'Timber' was a term for structural wood from Standard, un-coppiced trees and 'Wood' a term applied to the produce of coppicing [Rackham 1978]. The combination of wood-cutting and grazing continued with little change until Charles I, in the 1630's, tried to enlarge the area covered by Forest Law in an attempt to collect extra revenue from persons living within the its new boundaries [Leutscher 1974] - this resulted in £20,000 being raised from Essex alone. Due to all the disquiet this created, Cromwell's 1641 Parliament, in its first session, passed an Act to fix the boundaries of the Forest (by then known as Waltham Forest). This new 'perambulation', as it was referred to, covered about 24,000 ha. Great pressure was put upon the remaining woodland and heath to convert it to farmland. However, Cromwell appointed a Commission to see what was the best option to take regarding the land-use. Its outcome, if ever arrived at, was not acted upon and the Forest remained intact until the Restoration. Under Forest Law once again the Forest was largely safe from further encroachment but severe abuses of the laws continued (eg. poaching) [Leutscher 1974].
By the 18th century the lack of interest shown by the Crown in hunting; the increased demand on land for settlement, farmland and market gardens to supply the growing population of London; and the need for timber to produce wooden warships for the Navy, all combined to breach Forest Laws yet again [Leutscher 1974]: This situation culminated in 1851, with all but 6% (120 ha) of Hainault Forest woodland being cleared at Lambourne End [Rackham 1982] within the present confines of the country park. Overall, a now fragmented one twelfth (164 ha) of Hainault's total area survived [ibid] with the largest remnants located at Lambourne End and Claybury. Through the efforts of Edward North Buxton, who had much to do with Epping's acquisition by the Corporation of London, the remainder of Hainault was purchased by a conglomerate of mostly public bodies and set aside for use by the public, as an open space in 1903 [GLC II 1985]: It later came under LCC and then GLC ownership during which time its area was increased to around 400 ha The remaining woodland is said not to have changed markedly since 1544 [Rackham 1982]. The woodland was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1986 [NCC 1986]. On dissolution of the GLC in 1986 the running of Hainault passed to the London Borough of Redbridge.
After a long court case against the manorial lords, which ended in the House of Lords, the City of London Corporation received a judgment in their favour condemning enclosure in Epping Forest [Green 1982]. Subsequently this led to the purchase of as much of the Forest as possible. An agreement was arrived at: all Forest lands enclosed after 1851 would be returned unless they were built on. The Epping Forest Act (of 1878) was passed: Crown rights and the power of the Forest courts were ended. The result was the greater part of Epping was saved. The City of London Corporation were empowered to act as administrators and this remains the situation to this day.
The story of Havering Park is analogous to that of Epping and Hainault Forests. In the 13th century it had an area of over 440 ha and was home to over 1000 Fallow Deer [Rackham 1978]. Now the area is around 68 ha [Crow 1987]: In the 1920's the site of the present Park was subdivided into a number of plots for smallholdings. It was used by East-Enders, who could afford it as a sort of 'country retreat'. They planted gardens and built huts on the land. After the Second World War these weekend retreats became more and more used but Green Belt policies forbade the building of new structures or improvements to the old ones. The ever-expanding London soon reached and surpassed the area of the Park rendering it less desirable. Essex County Council decided to clear the area in 1961. The GLC took power in 1965 and continued the process. Compulsory acquisition had to be applied as no such provision was made in the Green Belt Act [London Residuary Body c.1986]: The site was treated as a conventional open space. The case was taken to a public enquiry as it had been zoned a Green Belt but not specifically as a public open space. The GLC's case was upheld in 1972, subsequently, there was a formal opening of the Park in 1979. As the site was so close to London and indivisible with the urban fringe, the Countryside Commission turned down the initial application to recognise the area as a Country Park but later changed its policy on the importance of the urban fringe, and accepted it. On the abolition of the GLC the Park was passed to the London Borough of Havering for administration.
The Forest Flora:
One of the two most widespread and common trees in these woodlands is the English oak Quercus robur. It is a dominant species in Epping Forest, Hainault Forest and Havering Park. It is a tree that can cope with most soil conditions, and is often found growing in poorly drained valleys in heavy clay soils [Ward 1980]. In Epping Forest, where grazing by cattle still continues on a reduced scale, young oaks will usually regenerate between dense patches of birch Betula pendula, where they suffer less from the effects of grazing [Qvist 1971]. This is particularly true on gravel or sands capping the Forest hills that were once areas of heath. The heathland flora has gradually given way to birch with intermingled oak. On clay soils, however, the birch is not quite so effective as a coloniser, here oaks will often 'use' various thorn species or brambles to establish themselves: The oaks will grow away from the shaded centre of the thicket maturing just out of the reach of browsing animals. In Hainault Forest and Havering Park, browsing and grazing by large mammals is uncommon, as they are no longer free to roam these areas. The odd species of deer have occasionally been sighted (e.g. there were two does and a buck fallow deer sighted in 1964 [Chapman 1977] and muntjac deer in 1987 [personal observation]. The impact of rabbits however, particularly in the past (before myxomatosis) was quite substantial: Dent and Dymond [1909-10] commented on the fine textured sward their grazing produced at Hainault. Birches and thorns would offer little protection against the grazing of rabbits. In Epping Forest where rabbits are common and deer of various species occasionally occur, the important difference is these are not the only browsing and grazing mammals (cattle). Oak was always an important tree in the Forest of Essex and was reported as being the second most common in 1544 within the Hainault Division [Rackham 1982]. Since then, both at Hainault and at Epping, it has continued to increase its range by colonising plains and heaths. Recently its numbers have been bolstered by new introduced species. The most common is the Turkey oak Quercus.cerris this freely hybridises with the English (or pedunculate) oak [Ward 1980] and is spreading within both Forests. There are other species of oak occurring that are far less common; examples are the native sessile oak Q. patraea and the introduced species (that are often left from previous enclosures), evergreen (or Holm) oak Q. ilex and red oak Q. rubra.
Another tree that may force out the English oak is the beech Fagus sylvatica. In Epping Forest it has been recorded for very many years, for instance, there is a record from the Waltham Sector in 1489 [Rackham 1978]. In recent years there has been evidence that it is becoming more common and extending its range [Qvist 1971]. It grows particularly well on sandy, light or gravelly soils. From 1960 to 1975 it never produced enough viable seed to regenerate at its usual rate, but in the hot summer of 1976, this situation was reversed and seedlings were produced in abundance [Ward 1980]. Where oaks have been colonising the old forest heaths, and the underlying geology produces a light soil, beeches may succeed the oaks [Ward 1980]: In these areas the beeches will grow more rapidly and soon over-top, subsequently, shading out the oaks (the latter will become tall, spindly and as a consequence, weak). The shading-out influence is particularly pronounced in the case of the beech, as its canopy is exceptionally dense. There are no past records from Hainault (although in 1544 a division of the Forest was known as 'Beche Hill') this was even though the Forest had a similar topography, geology and history to that of Epping [Rackham 1978]. Rackham  states that the exclusion of the beech may be due to a slight difference in land-use adopted in the past but cannot specify. He also refers to the introduction of the species to the area in the past and its failure to become established. This situation may soon be reversed: Mature specimens now occur on Dog Kennel Hill and Cabin Hill [personal observations]. They were apparently, introductions made during the reforestation at the turn of the century [Dent and Dymond 1909-10]. The underlying geology is right in both locations for the beeches to take hold. Between Cabin Hill and 50-acre field a considerable understorey of this tree now exist. It is unlikely to take hold in the latter location, in poorly drained London Clay, but on Cabin Hill where conditions are right, it may possibly become dominant in the future. Once a beechwood has become established at the expense of the oak, re-invasion of the area by young oak trees is unlikely [Qvist 1971].
Birch occurs in all three woodland areas being looked at here (Epping Forest, Hainault Forest and Havering Park). It is a rapid coloniser, its light seeds can be carried by the wind, and where a newly open area is found, the seeds will germinate and grow quickly to fully exploit this condition. Seemingly in both Epping [Qvist 1971] and Hainault [Rackham 1982] the birch has become more common over the years. Little information is available regarding Havering Park but its similar geology and land- use in the past indicate it was the case there too as it is now very common [Crow 1987]. Birch will grow at its best on light soils initially excluding other species. This situation is nearly always transient, as eventually it will be over-topped as its canopy easily lets in light. Two species of birch occur in the woodlands, namely Betula pendula and B.pubescens [Rackham 1982]. In most ancient woods B.pubescens, the downy birch is more common. In east London, however, it seem this is not the case: A possible explanation is that pendula favours ancient wood pastures like the old Essex forests, whereas, pubescens may have been a tree of the woodland [Rackham 1982]. Birchwoods often indicate a site of disturbance where the underwood of an area has been totally cleared. Even with their liking for light soil they are now appearing in woods with the heaviest soils [Rackham 1982]. In these areas, that are often waterlogged, the birch can absorb and transpire large quantities of water, thus helping the drying out of very wet areas [Ward 1980]. This will again leave the tree open to succession by less tolerant species. Further, in dry, hot summers they may be prone to drought and fire.
Hornbeam Carpinus betulus was first recorded from the Forest of Essex in a large scale in the 1500's [Rackham 1982]: It was very common in the Epping Division of the Forest and Havering Park; In the Hainault area it was a little more common than the oak. In the original wildwood the tree was described as a rarity [Corke 1986]. The rise in numbers of Hornbeam found in all three areas is apparently a result of the wildwood being turned over to woodpasture back in the Saxon and Norman times. The lime Tilia cordata, that formed the greatest proportion of trees in the Forest, was not effective as a regenerating woodpasture tree. However the hornbeam, not exhibiting any particular preferences of Forest use, took advantage of the lime and succeeded it [Rackham 1982]. The wood of the hornbeam found little use in the past other than for fuel. In the 13th century coppicing and pollarding of trees, rotating every 4 to 6 years was practiced. By the 16th century most of the wood was cut for big firewood (logs). The rotation of cutting had been increased to 15 to 16 years (exceptionally 40 years). Hornbeam, it has been hypothesised, took further advantage of this situation and increased its proportion against other trees, as it was again favoured, this time by the long coppice cycle [Rackham 1982]. Now the tree is amongst the three most common in Epping [Corke 1986], it is the most common tree in Hainault [personal observations 1987] but is not so common in Havering Park. Hornbeam, in modern woods, grows in 'stands' or segregated islands on clay soils that are often waterlogged. If the opportunity presents itself, it will however, grow in lighter driers soils.
A few other large trees often dominate the canopy of the east London woodlands e.g. ash Fraxinus excelsior and field maple Acer campestre that are both native to the area. These tree species often occur with the hazel Corylus avellana in one community forming smaller stands within the major woodland e.g. Epping Forest [Rackham 1982] and Hainault Forest [NCC 1986].
In addition to the trees previously mentioned (which are mostly native) there are a variety of introduced trees that often obtain a great height within these old woodlands, they are often relicts of previous enclosure. For instance, various conifers: spruce Abies spp., pine Pinus spp., Wellingtonia Sequoiadendron giganteum; and the broad-leaved trees such as: Sweet chestnut Castanea sativa, Lombardy poplar Populus nigra var. 'italica', sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus, false acacia Robinia psuedoacacia and various oaks mentioned earlier. With the exception of the Turkey oak, and wellingtonia at Havering Park, none of these trees have become/are widely established in the ancient woodlands of east London [personal observations 1987].
This is the lower canopy levels in the woodland (distinct from the crown or emergent upper storey species). It may be composed of characteristic species that always remain part of it or younger specimens of the emergent species [Allaby 1985]. Most of the trees already discussed will, if conditions are favourable for that particular species, become emergent and dominate the canopy for a certain period of time (although it may not be the final stage in that succession). Of the trees characteristic of the understorey only the hazel has been mentioned by name so far and reference was made to thorn species. The latter category which includes: the hawthorns Crataegus laevigata and C. monogyna are very common in Epping and Hainault Forests and Havering Park. Other 'thorns' that frequently occur in these locations are the sloe or blackthorn Prunus spinosa, field-rose and the dog rose Rosa arvensis and R. canina. These five species prefer open woods or wood borders, as light may be a problem [Jermyn 1973]. However, light is not such a problem to the Holly Ilex aquifolia that is again found in all three east London locations. At Hainault it is apparently a recent introduction but it has occurred in Epping Forest for at least 400 years [Rackham 1982]. The Crab Apple Malus sylvestris is another sometimes, spiny tree. It has a long history in the ancient woodlands from at least the Neolithic onwards [Rackham 1982]. Unfortunately archaeological finds cannot be separated into M. sylvestris and edible apple M. domestica. The first authenticated record comes from the year 1307. Evidently the courts of the time gave special protection to the crab apple as food for the king's deer. Both types of apples occur in the Epping and Hainault Forests of today [personal observations 1987]. Many other trees occur as part of the understorey e.g. in more open woods with possibly phosphate and nitrate rich soils, the elder Sambucus nigra may occur [Rackham 1982]. Other examples are the sallows (or willows) Salix spp. and the Wild Service Tree Sorbus torminalis. Examples of the former occur throughout the study area, in the case of the latter, however, it is an uncommon find in Epping [personal observations] and only rumoured as being found in Hainault. No records have been found for Havering Park.
The Shrub Layer:
Rarely forms a distinct layer between the understorey and the ground vegetation of ancient woods [Rackham 1982]. Thus they will be dealt with together, but attempting to take the larger plants first: As some trees will become tall enough to exceed the understorey and reach the crown so some species of shrub e.g. hawthorn only spend a limited length of time at this lower level. More typical species are the dogwood Cornus sanguinea, woody nightshade Solanum dulcamara, midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata and Spindle Euonymus europaeus. All these plants occur in both Epping and Hainault Forests. The last two species, in particular, indicate areas of ancient woodland [Rackham 1982]. Most of the woodland floor is covered by just a few species eg. the bramble Rubus fruticosus agg. , ivy Hedera helix, bracken Pteridium aquilinum and the grasses Holcus mollis and H. lanatus. Many small herbs emerge throughout the year but particularly in the spring. Most notable are: the bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella, red campion Silene dioica, foxglove Digitalis purpurea and the hawkweed Hieracium perpropinquum.
Forest Plains: The original clearance of the Forest from hilltops occurred in the Neolithic-Bronze age [Green 1982]. However, the first mention of forest plains does not occur until 1199 when the monks at Stratford were allowed to send 960 sheep into the pasture in the heath, that by deduction turned out to be Wanstead and Leyton Flats [Rackham 1978]. Later documents prove these have been treeless ever since. Many references to plains are made in the 13th to 16th centuries e.g. Ham Heath in 1256, Honylane Greene and Fayremeade c.1500 [Rackham 1978]. In 1777, the map produced by Chapman and Andre' shows that around one fifth of Epping Forest and a quarter of Hainault were, indeed, plains. Overall, forest management of the day, ensured that plains stayed as plains and forest as forest. While most of Epping survived enclosure and clearance, the type of management changed. Corke  states, "Limited ecological knowledge was a problem in the early days, to be replaced now with a lack of money and manpower." Trees were no longer coppiced or pollarded and the plains were no longer managed. As a result there has been extensive scrub encroachment in the northern parts of the Forest with some smaller plains being lost altogether. Plausible reasons for this have been suggested [Ranson 1978]:
1) reduced grazing by rabbits (because of myxomatosis) and by cattle;
2) a shortage of man power to remove invading tree species particularly in the war years.
The destruction of Hainault Forest resulted in around 500 ha of heathy plains, shown in 1777, reduced to less than 10 ha at the time of writing (1987).
Grassland and Heathland Flora
Heaths and Heathy Grassland: The meaning of the word 'heath' has altered little since Anglo-Saxon times [Rackham 1986]: It refers to certain undershrubs plants particularly to heather Calluna vulgaris, various heaths Erica spp. and gorse or furze Ulex and Genista spp. Broom Cytisus scorparious also falls in this category. All these plants differ from shrubs in that they are permanently low growing, they have a definite life span of about 30 years, and they are intolerant of shade and in old age prone to drought. Unlike most trees they will burn standing. Undershrubs will be rejuvenated up until middle age by cutting back and/or burning [Rackham 1986].
Over southern England as a whole, heathland has been in decline e.g. in Dorset there was over 24,000 ha in 1086, and 6,000 ha in 1977 due to a reduction in management (burning and tree clearance) and grazing [Rackham 1986]. Three particular plants have been cited as being most responsible or invading heathland, namely bracken Pteridium aquilinum, birch Betula spp. and the Scots pine Pinus sylvestris [Marrs 1987]. The latter, so far, has not been recorded as being a problem in east London. In Hainault Forest, succession is led by the birch and the grey willow Salix cinerea, a great proportion of the heath has already gone with heather and gorse Ulex europaeus and U. minor giving way to these trees. The northern Epping Forest plains of heather, cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix are being invaded by to grasses as well as the birch. These are: purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea and tufted Hair- grass Deschampsia caespitosa. Epping undershrubs are holding their own relegated to woodland rides [Burton 1983]. Not all East London Heaths are disappearing: the grassy plains of Wanstead Flats are developing into a broom and gorse dominated heath [Corke 1986]. Heather has been found on the Flats in the past and was described as being rare [Ferris 1981]. The most common grasses are the common bent Agrostis tenuis, tufted hair-grass, red fescue Festuca rubra and Yorkshire fog Holcus lanatus. The return to more heathy conditions seems to be linked to an increase in grazing by cattle, over the southern Epping Forest plains, in the last five years or so [Adams 1988]. The northern plains, however, remain undergrazed.
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Authors note: Grazing by free-ranging cattle continued throughout the 20th century but on a declining trend until the BSE crisis halted it in 1996. Fortunately, commoners' grazing survived on a small heathland area of the Forest which had been temporarily fenced by the Conservators. A further partnership with this commoner provided the basis for a conservation herd that was reestablished in 2002, with a herdsman to keep the cattle within an area between High Beach and Chingford. This herd of English Longhorns has since grown allowing grazing of other areas by small groups of cows. However, in many parts of the Forest it is not possible to graze in present circumstances - taken from the 'Cattle Grazing on Epping Forest a consultation document on future conservation management'