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The Woodland Pathways Project

What is it?

Over the next few years the Friends of Oxleas Woodlands will be working closely with the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s Parks, Estates & Open Spaces Department (PEOS) to improve and restore some of the footpaths in the Oxleas Woodlands in order to help conserve the natural habitat of the woodlands and encourage the restoration of its biodiversity.

Why is this necessary?

Over the past few years many of the footpaths have deteriorated so that they have become impassable during the Winter months. As a result, walkers have often diverted from or created wider paths. This has resulted in a consequential loss of, or damage to, the adjacent natural habitat, resulting in a loss of some of the flora. This is most noticeable in the Spring when it is apparent that colonies of woodland flowers have been lost or damaged.

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Gradual encroachment on the natural habitat in this way reduces the viable territory for wildlife. It may, for example, reduce the cover required by the woodland’s hedgehog population and can drive out bird species who rely on a ‘safe’ distance from human activity. In some cases, paths have widened and become compacted. This is especially a problem around trees, where root systems can fail to cope with heavy compaction of the soil. Furthermore, constant footfall can erode the soil around tree roots leading, ultimately, to the tree’s collapse in high winds or prolonged wet weather.

Why has this become a problem?

During the Covid Lockdown, (when movement over distance was restricted), it became very clear to many nature conservation organisations (e.g. the National Trust) that the growing demand for access to green spaces was creating environmental problems. This situation was particularly acute in some urban greenspace areas, where growing numbers of people were trying to make more use of the same limited areas. In the case of Oxleas the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the already heavily-used woodland was easily accessible to a large and immediate local urban population. Simple factors such as the desire to maintain social distancing meant that, for example, the width of paths were increased by walkers. 

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Some of the existing paths widened and became badly compacted; and new ‘desire-paths’ proliferated as visitors worked their way into the woodland to explore new areas. The woodlands also offered an enticing play space for families with children to entertain, leading to more penetration into the woodland habitat. However, the problem did not start with activity during the pandemic. For many years, certain areas of the woodland have become overused, leading to a serious depletion of foliage. In some areas, e.g. the multi-path junction known as ‘Piccadilly Circus’, (see image below) soil compaction and foliage loss has created a barren wasteland with virtually no vegetation. Without foliage, the soil becomes exposed to erosion, and so the process continues, creating an ever increasing wasteland. The situation is not helped by the generally poor state of the woodland. Many of the paths, especially in Oxleas Wood, have become narrower as vegetation has started to encroach from the sides. The result is not only narrower paths, but also denser vegetation which reduces light levels for ground flora etc.

How serious is the problem?

In February 2021 we raised the issue with PEOS (The Royal Borough’s Park’s Dept.) and it was agreed that we would jointly commission an independent survey of the state of the footpaths which would approach the issue from the point of view of its ecological implications. Local ward Councillors responded generously to our applications for funding, and awarded grants from their ward budgets to help pay for the survey.

Consequently, we were able to appoint Complete Ecology Ltd to undertake the survey. Their Director and Senior Ecologist, Alan Scott, knew the woods well, as the company had worked here in the past. During the summer of 2021, Alan surveyed literally 13km of footpaths through the woods, and the completed 120-page report was presented to both ourselves and PEOS in October.

The report identified approximately 75 areas where the state of the footpaths gave rise to concerns about their impact on the ecology of the woodland. In each case, suggestions were made for remedial action, along with an indication of whether this might be undertaken by volunteers, volunteers under professional supervision, or by contractors; and what level of priority it demanded. With the report came a chilling confirmation that, despite its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the woodland was in poor and declining ecological condition. This helped explain why its biodiversity had apparently declined over the last 40-50 years – probably to a greater extent than the rate of national biodiversity loss. Unfortunately, the total cost of remedying just the footpath issues, would cost an estimated £300k.

What can we do?

It will be obvious to everyone that, in the current economic climate, there is little prospect of the Council being able to fund all the necessary remedial works. Despite the fact that the Royal Borough of Greenwich owns and manages the woodland, financial resources have been stripped from local authorities over the last decade, and lamentably, environmental issues still tend to attract a low political priority. That said, as mentioned before, we are aware that some local councillors are sympathetic to the plight of the woods, and colleagues on the Parks, Environment and Opens Spaces Department (PEOS) are conscious of the issue and keen to help. So much so that they have managed to allocate a sum from the current year’s budget, to contribute towards the costs of the work. We, the Friends of Oxleas Woodlands, will also now try to raise funds to help towards the cost, and will be actively pursuing grants from whatever source might be available.

Tackling the Problem

In discussion with colleagues at PEOS, we have decided that it makes sense to break the problem down into smaller, more manageable portions. As the most serious concerns relate to Jack Wood and its footpaths, this is the area that we will focus on first of all. As requested, Alan Scott in his survey was able to prioritise the individual footpath-issues in terms of urgency. Thus, we can quickly identify which areas and footpaths need to be dealt with first etc.We can also identify which remedial work has to be undertaken by contractors, and which can be managed by volunteers. Remedial work may involve re-routing badly eroded pathways, selective coppicing, inserting land-drains, resurfacing with ecologically acceptable material, creation of steps and boardwalks, and temporary exclusion areas. In order to prevent a renewal of some of the problems, and to encourage the regeneration of biodiversity, future maintenance work should include the protection of standing deadwood, removing blockages on encouraged footpaths, regular tree safety checks, clearing of path edges, and regular clearing of drains.

Our own Conservation Work Parties have already started work to tackle some of these issues. Therefore, for the first year we will be focussing on Jack Wood. Our work parties have already made a start. Clearing some of the holly along the footpaths, for example, as the density of this vegetation encourages wet areas and deprives the paths of sunlight which might help the paths dry. At the same time, we will be attempting to create graduated path-side foliage to encourage greater plant biodiversity which will, in turn, encourage invertebrates (which of course also means food for birds). Like many other people we are always reluctant to remove trees like holly. However, Jack Wood has become choked with it in places which restricts the growth and reproduction of other woodland species which are essential for a healthy woodland. Other measures will include the installation of steps on some of the slopes which are prone to heavy erosion, especially during the wet season. The idea being to encourage walkers to keep to the steps, thus avoiding the spreading of paths into the adjoining habitat areas. Some stretches of level footpath will also receive a new more stable surface which, again will make the paths more accessible in wet weather while reducing the need to move onto diversion paths. As Jack Wood is a SSSI, all materials will be ecologically compatible with the requirements of Natural England, and aesthetically suitable.

How you can help

The Royal Borough has already allocated some funding for the work, but given the pressure on local authority budgets, this will not be enough to achieve the restoration required. We will be applying to external funding organisations, but personal donations would also be extremely helpful. If you fancy getting involved in a little hands-on work, why not come and join one of our work parties? No previous experience is necessary and we are very friendly! 

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Email us at oxleas.volunteers@gmail.com to find out more

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