Woodland is being damage - time to show some respect

North London is blessed with woodlands

North London is blessed with woodlands - Credit: Clare James

The residents of north London are fortunate to have a number of woodland areas to enjoy.

These woods have, perhaps, never been as important as in the last year, as lockdowns and restrictions have hampered our ability to travel further afield.

Highgate Wood and its sister, Queen's Wood, which spread out either side of Muswell Hill Road and Hampstead Heath, with its mixture of woods and grassland, have been vital to our well-being. 

Although they have always been popular year-round with dog walkers and nature lovers alike, it has only been in the past year that a rainy, cold, January Tuesday in the wood will be filled with families, joggers and walkers, keen to get their "hour" of exercise.

This, of course, is wonderful – it is important that as many people as possible should know and love the nature on their doorstep. How else will they be motivated to protect and nurture it?  

But this new-found love of the woods has some serious drawbacks. Increased footfall to these areas has seen degradation and destruction of these mighty, yet fragile, habitats.

None more so, than in the peaceful oases of Highgate and Queen's Woods: their small sizes are becoming increasingly unable to cope with the number of visitors they see on a, now daily, basis.

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Park Rangers, who manage these valuable assets, have witnessed fewer and fewer birds and other creatures that call these places home over the past 10 years and a rapid decline in the last year or so. 

Our woodlands, the lungs of north London, are being damaged repeatedly by the very visitors who find them such a rich playground and emotional sanctuary.

Some seek out the flora and fauna, venturing further and further into the undergrowth to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature: a woodpecker drumming rhythmically as it states its territory to other, answering drummers throughout the wood in late January and early February, the chitter-chatter of the blue and great tits as they flit from the bramble and holly bushes to the branches of the larger trees and the beautiful song of the robin, blackbird and wren as they, too, claim their territories and find their mates. A brief glimpse of a sparrowhawk can make the spirit soar. 

A den in the woods

A den in the woods - Credit: Clare James

Others prefer to get "busy", building dens and playing "survival" games, or making rope swings where a multitude of feet scrape the earth bare and barren. 

Few seem content with walking on the many well-managed paths around the woods and simply breathing in the healing properties of the earth and trees.

We go "off-road" to create our own adventures, or to find the solitude we crave. New paths are carved out among the leaf-litter. Den after den is built by families of young children who are brimming with energy and curiosity, fuelled by the upsurge of the Forest School ethos. Dams are built across water channels, blocking their ability to prevent the woodland tracks from flooding. 

All this activity is hugely damaging to the woodland ecosystem. Delicate balances are knocked out of kilter. The web of life in the woods is being disrupted. Fungi has nowhere to spawn and play its role in the lifecycle of the trees. Moss and lichen, which should be found on most deadwood and on the trunks of older trees, is sparse and frequently non-existent. Woodland flowers, such as lesser celandine and wood anemone are now becoming a rarity. Bugs, grubs and insects, which thrive in undisturbed leaf-litter and decaying fallen branches, have fewer and fewer places to live. They should provide food for the birds (some year-round, others during nesting season as they try to find enough insects to feed their growing families), but they can no longer support the numbers of birds we used to have. The wood is starving. And we are to blame.

It is time to show our woodlands a little love and respect. Next time you go into the woods, take some time to marvel at the wonder of nature. And leave it as you found it.

  • Clare James is a teacher, living in Finsbury Park and often working in Muswell Hill.
Clare James

Clare James - Credit: Clare James