At Sydenham Hill Wood, gate counters have enabled us to monitor changes in visitor numbers and we have seen a dramatic increase in visits since the first lockdown back in March. There has been a 77% increase in numbers compared to the same period last year with around 315,000 individual visits so far this year. This is something to be celebrated as more people are enjoying the numerous physical and mental health benefits of the simple pleasure of being in nature. However, the popularity of the Wood also puts it under certain pressures. These pressures are by no means new but certainly the recent surge in numbers has seen an escalation of the issues.
Trampling of sensitive ground flora by walkers straying off the established path network can be a major problem if unmanaged. Plants such as bluebells, wood anemone, and sweet woodruff make spring a wonderful time in the wood but with increasing footfall and associated trampling populations are at risk of decline. It is not only the more delicate ground flora that is at risk. There are a few places within the Wood where the damaging impact of heavy footfall is obvious, marked by patches of bare earth and exposed tree roots. Compaction of the ground also impedes any chance of tree regeneration. The recent construction of a boardwalk around the grand cedar of Lebanon was necessitated by years of heavy footfall around its base leading to severe erosion and compaction.
The creation of new informal paths (not helped by the closure of Cox’s Walk bridge) means the parts of the Wood relatively undisturbed by people are increasingly fragmented and reduced in size. This presents challenges for wildlife. For example, ground nesting birds are easily disturbed by dogs and will abandon their nests if disturbed too often.
High footfall also causes deterioration of the main path network which is more pronounced in winter when parts become very muddy. As walkers attempt to skirt around bad patches paths are widened and finding your own path becomes a more attractive option. Though the mud is not universally disliked. I have seen many a delighted child stomp through squelching quagmires and runners relishing the splattering of mud that plasters their legs and gives a jog the feel of a cross country slog. A reminder that we must be careful not to give the Wood a manicured, sterile feel.
These issues lead to questions about to what extent restricting access is acceptable or indeed, if any restrictions are permissible at all. People have an understandable desire to explore and get a bit lost in the Wood. The ‘wildness’ is a large part of its appeal. Standing in the middle of the Wood it is easy to forget the centre of London is just 10km away. What must be recognised is that Sydenham Hill Wood cannot sustain high levels of unrestricted access in the way that a rural woodland may with far fewer visitors. We must balance the right to access with the responsibility to protect the health of the Wood. It is a designated nature reserve not a park and this distinction is important. Whilst the primary purpose of a park is to provide amenity space for people, the Wood is for wildlife and people’s contact with nature, and our management must reflect this. Besides, many of the things that make the Wood so special – magnificent spring blooms, vibrant bird life, butterflies, fungi – could be lost without any management. It’s urban context and the number of visitors requires us to take action.
At Sydenham Hill Wood volunteers have been constructing dead hedging for many years as a ‘soft’ measure to encourage people to keep to the main paths. These natural barriers help demarcate the main paths and block off new paths. They also double up as a habitat for birds and insects and make use of material cut when coppicing around the Wood. They are by no means impenetrable, but they provide a soft nudge to stay on the path. Recent vandalism of large stretches of dead hedging, constructed over the past few months with such love by volunteers, shows that this is a measure that some deem an unacceptable restriction on their perceived ‘right to roam’.
Fencing has also been used to section off areas for the recovery of ground flora and to create areas of the Wood that are free from disturbance from humans and dogs. This is a last resort but more than dead hedging can provoke anger from some users of the Wood. We are mindful of minimising the amount of fencing we erect but there are times when it is the only responsible course of action to protect the integrity of the Wood’s ecosystem.
Ultimately, we rely on the cooperation and understanding of those that visit the Wood. Raising awareness of the Wood’s fragility with visitors helps them to enjoy its nature without damaging it; it is the best way we can ensure a healthy balance between conservation and people’s enjoyment of a glorious tract of London’s countryside. More carrot and less stick.