About Oxleas Woodlands
The woodlands consist of 130 hectares of woodland and meadow. Much of it is designated ancient woodland, and has been recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is also a nature reserve.
The woodlands are a precious habitat for wildlife and a popular amenity for local people.
A Brief History of Oxleas Woodlands
Parts of Oxleas Woodlands may date back thousands of years to the ancient forest that stretched all across lowland Britain. The woodlands survived initially because the hillsides were less suitable for settlement or agriculture. The names Oxleas and Shepherdleas probably date back to the Anglo-Saxon period as ‘leah’ was the Old English word for either woodland or a clearing within the woods.
Despite the popular myth, Shooters Hill does not get its name from an association with archery. The earliest recording of the name appears to be in a petition to King Edward III, around 1369-1375, when it is referred to as Shetereshelde.
Oxleas Woodlands were part of the royal estate of Eltham from at least the early 14th until the 20th century – hence the name Crown Woods. Because woodland was valuable both for timber and underwood, parcels of the land were leased out. From 1679 Oxleas Woodlands were leased out to Sir John Shaw and his family.
The woods were coppiced to produce wood for a wide range of uses (tool handles, furniture, fencing etc) and mature trees were grown for more structural timber ( e.g. for buildings and ship construction). By 1811 between 64-85% of trees in the woods had been felled for timber.
Thick woodland crowded along either side of the old Dover road (Watling Street) that crosses the summit, and by the 18th century this had become a favoured haunt of highwaymen. Newspapers from between 1740-1800 frequently carried reports of armed robberies on Shooters Hill. Many of the perpetrators met a grisly end on gallows erected along the Dover Road on either side of the hill. Eventually part of the woodland beside the road was cleared to prevent highwaymen and footpads hiding there. The steepness of the hill itself also caused frequent difficulty for horse-drawn coaches, and in 1817 labourers were employed to dig soil from the south side of the hill to level out the road as it climbed the hill.
In 1842 the right to shoot game (primarily rabbit and game-bird) was taken over by William Coulthurst who constructed the long ride that runs from the south-east corner of Oxleas Meadow towards the old Dover road (near the Thompsons garden centre). Shooting rights were rigorously protected but poaching was common especially by poorer families from Woolwich and Plumstead.
By the mid-19th century Shooters Hill was regarded as a desirable out-of-town location with stunning views of the Kent countryside. Much of the land along the top of the hill, to the south of the road, was divided up and leased to wealthy individuals so that they could build attractive country houses.
One of the earliest houses built in the woodlands was Nightingale Hall, built between 1780-1800. This became known as Wood Lodge and was demolished in 1932. The Oxleas Café now stands on the site.
Other impressive houses built in the woodlands included the mock-tudor Jackwood or Mayfield House, built 1862-63. The house was demolished in 1918 but its ornamental brick terrace retained.
Castle Wood House was built on a terrace below Severndroog castle in 1869. The building was of striking appearance and often appears in early photographs of Shooters Hill taken from the south. The house was demolished in the 1920s and the site is now a rose garden.
Castle Wood, seen from the west around 1890. The photographer was standing on the site of what became the old Welcome Inn.
What are the problems faced by the woodlands?
Our woods face a wide range of threats from climate change and disease. Ancient woodlands, are sites where interaction between plants, fungi, animals, soils, climate and people have developed over hundreds – even thousands – of years. Less than 20% of Britain’s remaining woodland is of ancient origin – much of it has been lost since the 1930s and more is under threat now from developments like HS2.
Much of the Oxleas Woodland is acknowledged Ancient Woodland and has been designated as having SSSI status (Site of Special Scientific Interest). However, it faces a number of threats.
Some of the threats to Oxleas Woodlands could be alleviated by us!
This is now becoming a regular problem, especially in the car parks and along the woodland edge on Welling & Rochester Way. Much of it appears to be commercial waste, dumped by builders who want to avoid paying a fee at a Council-run waste site.
Fly tipping is a criminal offence. If you see anyone tipping waste, take their vehicle registration number and report it to either the police or Royal Borough of Greenwich.
2. Dumping of Graden Waste
Many people think it's OK to dump garden waste in the woods. It isn't, and technically it's fly-tipping. Garden waste often contains diseases and harmful species which are dumped into the delicately balanced ecology of the woods, with potentially drastic longer term effects (e.g. rhododendron).
Furthermore, many gardeners use pesticides and herbicides which can be unintentionally introduced into the woodland, harming plants and wildlife.
Did you know? - A herbicide or fertiliser sprayed in a garden at the edge of woodland can drift up to 30m into the woods. Many insecticides and herbicides are delivered in finer sprays which can carry much deeper into the woods.
What you can do to help – Dumping garden waste is no different from fly-tipping and can carry the same penalty. If you see anyone dumping garden waste, report it to the Royal Borough of Greenwich as above. You can also help by explaining to people why tipping garden waste in the woods is harmful.
There are increasing number of incidents involving the lighting of fires in the woods. (Recently a fire was used in attempt to destroy a number of presumably stolen mobile phones). Sometimes fires are lit by people simply having an impromptu night-time party in the woods.
In all cases, however, the fires could cause serious damage. Fires are sometimes left smouldering for hours, and in some parts of the woodland, the flames can spread undetected, with unpredictable speed.
How you can help – If you find an active fire which you judge needs the attention of the fire brigade - report it immediately. Call the fire brigade first then call parks on 020 8856 0100 or, if out of hours, call 020 8854 8888.
If you find an extinguished fire you should report it to the Parks and Open Spaces Dept. either at firstname.lastname@example.org or during office hours on 020 8856 0100.
Casual littering is one of the most common problems. Every month we have a team of people out clearing rubbish, and we always collect a substantial amount. The fact that most of what we collect relates to food and drink e.g. plastic and glass bottles and cans – from beer and soft-drinks; plastic and Styrofoam food containers, sweet wrappers etc. indicates this is thoughtless and casual rather than determined tipping.
It causes several problems. Non decaying waste material can lie there for many years. Broken glass, tin and plastic can harm wildlife. Perhaps most importantly, the visible presence of litter is known to encourage further littering. And finally, of course, it is simply unsightly and gives the impression that the woodland is unimportant and uncared for.
How you can help – If you have food or drink in the woods, make sure any packaging, bottles etc goes into a bin, or - better still - take it home with you for recycling. Unfortunately if things aren’t secured in the bin our local foxes will be unable to resist the potential opportunity of a little snack, and may spread the material around. We have a regular litter clearance session in the woods – and anyone is welcome to come and help. email@example.com
Birds and mammals require a large enough area of undisturbed habitat to be able to feed and reproduce successfully. However viable habitat areas are seriously affected by disturbance. Research in the USA has found that the effects of human activity penetrate deep (up to 82 metres) into thewoodland from the edges. However a similar effect is found around footpaths.
So the greater the number of footpaths in a wood, the smaller and smaller area is viable for wildlife. A wood which becomes subdivided time and again by footpaths becomes fragmented and can lose more and more of its wildlife.
The situation may depend on the density of the foliage, but unfortunately, the effect is known to be more pronounced where dogs are allowed to roam freely.
How you can help – Try to avoid the temptation to force new paths through the undergrowth, and if barriers have been erected in the form of ‘dead-hedges’ please respect these. If you are a dog walker, you can also help by keeping a watchful eye on what your pets are doing to make sure they aren’t disturbing or harming wildlife. (During the summer there were reports of weakened hedgehogs being injured by dogs).
We want everyone to enjoy the woods but it is important to be aware of the impact our enjoyment may be having. There are a good number of well-used and wide footpaths through the woods. However, there is an understandable temptation to leave this and explore the smaller, less obvious paths. This not only increases the degree of ‘fragmentation’ it has an impact on both plants and soil. Oak woodland is particularly susceptible to ‘trampling’. Soil beside paths can become compacted and have an adverse effect on tree roots.
Did you know? - a study on urban woodlands in the UK found that frequent footfall across a bluebell patch during the summer (i.e. after the plants have flowered) can prevent them from producing seeds for the next two years.
Part of the problem arises during the winter months when the existing main paths through the woods become muddy and near-impassable. Walkers often create detours which not only broaden existing paths but may become ‘permanent’.
How you can help – If you can, try to keep to the main footpaths. There are plenty of these from which to fully enjoy the woodlands.
7. Motor bikes & Quad bikes
The use of motor bikes and quad-bikes is prohibited in the woods and is categorised as an Environmental Crime. Yet there are frequent reports of people either taking short-cuts through the woods, or simply joy riding.
Both activities have a detrimental effect on the soil and tree roots, damage plants and ruin the footpaths – and of course, it spoils the experience of other people trying to enjoy the woodlands. Motor bikes and quad-bikes can also cause injury.
In 2013 a beloved pet dog was killed when a quad bike collided with it – the quad bikers sped off without stopping. Both the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the Police Safer Neighbourhood Teams have an ongoing campaign against this activity. Bikes used illegally in the woods may be seized by either the police or Council officials
What you can do to help – If you see a motorbike or Quad-bike in the woods, take its number and/or try and photograph it, and report it immediately by calling 020 8921 4329 or emailing