Out in the woods: November 2013

Just as I feared, the explosion of colour at the Heather (Sefton) Plantation did not happen in August this year.   Many of us look forward to this annual event and it was so sad to see the area brown instead of the intense purple we normally enjoy.   The photographs emphasize what we missed!   What happened?    We now know that the culprit, or vandal, responsible for the devastation is the ‘heather beetle’.    We are not the only area to suffer; there have been other local outbreaks at Gustard Wood, Nomansland Common and Harpenden.

It seems that the recent mild, wet winters and wet summers have contributed to the severe heather beetle problems and the subsequent damage to heather is creating a periodic worry to landowners and conservation groups, such as our own.   The beetle hibernates throughout the winter below the surface and emerges in spring as temperatures rise.   It feeds on the heather, mates, lays eggs on damp areas of ground, and then dies.   In late May the eggs hatch into grubs, eating young shoots and damaging stems, resulting in the heather turning a foxy-red colour by July before dying and going completely grey by the following spring; seedlings and old heather are especially vulnerable to attack, and it is in early August that the grubs start to drop off the heather and bury into the litter before becoming adult beetles.   Not good news, but nature does apparently have its own mechanism for keeping these creatures in check and we can hope for an influx of ladybirds and a type of small wasp which both feed on the heather beetle larvae.   Let us hope that nature will take over and restore our plantation to its former glory.

Our stalwart wood wardens have continued to carry out many and varied jobs over the summer months and on several occasions I have managed to meet up with them - for a chat and coffee and biscuits rather than undertaking any physical chores.  I think it’s called moral support!   Wood warden John does a great job providing the refreshments, a task which he took over when we sadly lost Dr. John Jenkins to illness in July.   As a long standing wood warden John Jenkins’ presence, friendship and support is very much missed by us all and he was given a great send-off by all his family and many friends.

I have mentioned on several previous occasions that apart from our hands-on wood wardens we also have other volunteers who undertake various monitoring projects in Sherrardspark Wood.   One such group has been monitoring the Muntjac deer population in the wood since 2007 and have recently produced an excellent, detailed report which has been published in The Hertfordshire Naturalist 2013, the journal of the Hertfordshire Natural History Society.   Obviously a huge amount of time, work and expertise has been put into this detailed study and I know Linda, Charlotte and Ken are most appreciative of all the support received from other Sherrardspark Wood Wardens, as well as Chris James, Landscape and Ecology Officer for Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, who of course own and manage the woodland.    It is not possible for me to enlarge here in great detail on the content of this very comprehensive paper, but I can report it does emphasize that muntjac deer are present in Sherrardspark Wood in significant numbers and in consequence cause a huge amount of damage to young trees and saplings.   To quote from the document, “This knowledge will enable the wood wardens to take appropriate action to protect coppice stools and new planting as part of the management plan for the wood.”

Oh dear!  I seem to be dwelling on rather gloomy subjects, so perhaps it is a good time to remind ourselves what a very unique and beautiful, ancient woodland we have.   There is evidence that mankind was living on or near the site some three or four thousand years ago and here we are today still enjoying all the pleasures that nature can freely give if we choose to take advantage of it.   I know I have mentioned the “Shakespeare Dell” quite a few times, with photographs, but what a pity that it is now totally overgrown.    Performances took place over quite a long period, between 1925 and the early 1950’s, and although nothing now remains of the horseshoe style seating you can still identify the area with a bit of searching. Apparently in 1928 it was suggested a permanent outdoor theatre be erected but it was never actually constructed.  The location is behind the Reddings and it is not known whether it is a natural swallow hole or if it was a pit from which clay or chalk was dug.

Staying in Reddings Plantation, on some early maps it is indicated as an open area but was planted with pines at the beginning of the century, about 1901.   Many trees were felled during and after World War II to be used as pit props and the area not replantated.  Hence the regeneration of rapidly growing silver birch and brambles.

Lord Desborough, who originally owned the wood, leased Sherrardspark Wood to the government during World War I in order that they could extract timber from it, and a saw mill and timber yard was set up where Woodside House, Bridge Road, now stands.   The siding was constructed in 1920 and German prisoners who had the wartime task of felling the trees were still working there when the new Garden City Company was being created.   The site later became the works and yard of Welwyn Builders, which I am sure many of us remember.  At the beginning of World War II there was some evidence (great piles of sawdust) that maybe there was a saw mill in the New Wood region of the wood?

Well, I think that is enough history for the moment but I cannot sign off without giving you a contact should you wish to become involved in any of the varied projects we undertake in Sherrardspark Wood.    Wood Warden:  Gary – 01707 375216 will be able to advise you on all aspects of the voluntary work undertaken in the wood, and you would certainly be made most welcome by the Thursday or Sunday morning group working between approximately 9.45 a.m. – 12 noon.  I have already mentioned the coffee break, which is when I like to arrive!

I believe all the indications are that we are going to have a breathtaking Autumn and I am really looking forward to seeing our woodland once again cloaked in all its stunning, golden glory.  Lots of walking and lots of photographs to enjoy, I hope you will be doing the same.

Marian Dawson, Wood Warden

[This article first appeared in Welwyn Times Magazine November 2013]







Sefton Plantation 2012


Sefton Plantation 2013: the effects of the heather beetle


Muntjack deer by Jack Fearnside


The saw mill and timber yard in 1920 where Woodside House, Bridge Road now stands