Last week I attended the Forests of Essex conference organised by Essex County Council’s Place Services at Gilwell Park, home of scouting and located on the edge of Epping Forest at the Essex/London border. Place Services are a multi-disciplinary team, including Planners, Urban Designers, Landscape Architects, Historic Environment Advisors, Ecologists, Arboriculturists, Conservation and Community Engagement Specialists – in a county with a history of woodlands and Royal Forests.
The conference took place on 19th February and brought together experts and professionals to “explore the cultural and natural heritage of the forests of Essex and issues associated with the understanding, management and future of trees, woods and forests in the county”.
The conference was held in memory of Oliver Rackham who sadly passed away two years ago after a lifetime of pushing forward our understanding of woodland ecology and landscape history. The Conference also paid tribute to the Forest Charter, which was signed 800 years ago this year.
Professor Tom Williamson (UEA): Keynote talk on ‘Trees, Woods and Forests in Essex’.
Professor Williamson talked about Oliver Rackham and the context of Essex woodlands: our woods are the way they are because of vigorous past management e.g. coppicing, wood pasture. The land was managed and structured (and has changed) according to economic use and need. Wood pasture is an example, and it was very extensive in Essex in Norman times and as land was more intensively managed later. There is a risk of regarding woods and trees as completely natural, but they are not just the “survivors” of an intensely managed landscape, they were intensely managed themselves at one point.
Dr Sarah Rutherford (freelance historic landscape specialist): ‘Historic landscape of Hatfield Forest’.
Dr Rutherford described Hatfield Forest, and her work on a conservation action plan for the site. Hatfield Forest is one of the most extensive surviving medieval Forest landscapes, demonstrating continual development through a number of key phases including royal aristocratic owners in the medieval period, a Georgian phase with addition of a pleasure ground and involvement of Capability Brown.
“Hatfield Forest is of international significance as the best preserved forest landscape in England, with the continuing survival of a complex mosaic of traditional management regimes”.
Dr Nicola Bannister (freelance historic landscape specialist): ‘The archaeology and historic landscape of Writtle Forest’.
Dr Bannister discussed Writtle Forest and Park, from her survey work in 1992 and her recent visit there. This is another medieval woodland / Forest landscape, with a high preservation of archaeology beneath the trees. Writtle Forest lies on outwash from the Anglian ice sheet that was difficult for growing crops like corn, and so left wooded. It was assessed for 1500 pigs in the saxon era estate, which indicates a large and working manor. Writtle Forest was a royal forest in the medieval period – it was owned by the crown and granted to highly favoured ladies.
Writtle Forest was an interesting contrast to Hatfield Forest: apart from the loss of its pollard trees it had a similar medieval character, but “inside out” as the woodland was surrounded by the open habitats at Writtle where at Hatfield it is the other way around.
Dr Jeremy Dagley (City of London) ‘The ecology and conservation of Epping Forest’.
Dr Dagley shared his knowledge of Epping Forest. Rackham described Epping Forest as “a Forest with a capital F” – this is a starting point to discuss the definition of Forest, and the difference to other open spaces and woodlands. These Forests are of international importance as cultural sites. The relative strength of the commoner’s rights vs the landowners “must derive” from the woods of Anglo Saxon times. Epping Forest has changed more than Hatfield or Writtle Forests since medieval times. It is, however, “the largest continuous area 1,470 ha of tree-land to retain some semblance of its 12th century state under the Normans” (Rackham 1980).
Dr Dagley noted that, although the fight to save Epping Forest from enclosure was started by the commoners who pollarded it, it was the pasturage rights deriving from the Forest Charter of 1217 that eventually saved Epping Forest! Rackham mentioned its decline – losing features and becoming an “undistinguished secondary woodland”. “Forests” have various habitats, the mosaics are important. People including the Conservators responded to this and management has since been addressing the issue. Plains were largely overlooked in the past (partly due to the decline of commoners and grazing), so there has been more recent work to open up some of the plains and increase their own grazing herd (now nearly 150 animals) and work with invisible fencing. There is not an easy solution for managing the woodlands in Epping Forest as there are too many trees to manage them all; part of their strategy is Keystone Trees. This focusses on:
- Trees of exceptional size or age.
- Pollards with UKBAP or RDB species.
- Trees at risk of physical collape.
- Tree at risk from shading or root compaction.
- Trees at special locations.
- Area for new pollards.
- Beech trees especially, as they are particularly fragile.
My post about the second half of the Conference is live, so you can continue reading!