Spotlight is an occasional blog by Oli Haill
Many visitors to Trent Country Park have an inkling that the woods are old, but are probably unaware of quite how significant their local park is in terms of nature, history and culture.
Today’s blog aims to shine a light on the park’s importance in terms of natural habitats and wildlife so I interviewed Denis Vickers, consultant ecologist and chartered biologist, who knows the park well. In future I will be exploring many of the other extraordinary features of this leafy corner of Enfield.
On the nature front, while Trent Park is a nice place to go for a walk, a run or a coffee, as it is for my family, you may be blissfully unaware that you are sharing it with several rare species, including lesser spotted woodpeckers, small heath butterflies and native black poplar trees.
These rare species find a home in Trent Park because it has three different habitats that are of national importance: Ancient Woodland, the ancient trees that form part of that woodland, and Acid Grasslands.
Trent Park’s Ancient Woodland
The woods at Trent Park are some of a small handful of surviving areas of woodland in London that long ago stretched all the way down to the River Thames.
Forests in the area were part of Enfield Chase, once a royal hunting ground covering many square miles and used by several kings and a young princess who would go on to become Queen Elizabeth I.
Land here was wooded for many centuries before this too, part of the common land forest of Enfield Wood, where local villagers could graze their animals or catch an occasional bit of meat for the pot.
These areas we now call Ancient Woodland are not just a collection of really old trees, but the term is an official definition of an irreplaceable habitat that is important for its wildlife, soils and cultural, historical and landscape value.
According to the Natural England and the Forestry Commission Ancient Woodlands must have been wooded continuously since at least 1600.
Trent Park is included on Natural England’s master map of Ancient Woodland and, thanks to a habitat survey carried out by Denis Vickers, additional areas of Ancient Woodland were also found. The habitat survey was commissioned by the Friends of Trent Country Park and can be read Here
“The park’s woods can be defined as Ancient Woodland due to the remains of old hedgerows and the healthy sprinkling of very old trees”, says Denis, who has been involved with ecology and nature conservation for more than 20 years, including as survey manager for London Wildlife Trust.
He says a lot of the woodland, around 50 per cent, is ancient and so has got “great historical interest”.
Ancient, old and rare trees
“The old hedgerows are largely made up of hornbeam, which is an Ancient Woodland indicator species,” he says. “It’s one of those species that demonstrates it’s been around a long time. Some of them are very big.”
How to identify a hornbeam tree: Here
As well as the Ancient Woodland, Denis also found some other great old English favourites: “There are also some very large oak trees. You can have a rough guess how old a tree is by measuring it. Some of them are 200-300 years, it’s a good age!”
Some of these arboreal wonders are included on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory Here, including a number of ‘veteran trees’ and ‘notable trees’. As the Trust says, “old trees are extraordinary… linking us with our history and culture. And they have astonishing ecological value too, supporting thousands of species.”
Trent Park also has some other environmental rarities – Denis found native black poplar. “It is a pretty rare tree in in England as a whole; there are only about 7,000 trees in the country.”
You can download a printout to help you identify the trees of Trent Park Here.
Trent Park’s third habitat of national importance is Acid Grassland, which Denis explains means a grassy area where there’s a lack of lime in the soil. It’s also a priority habitat for the whole of England.
“Some of grassland is pretty fantastic. It’s as good in its way as the Ancient Woodland,” says Denis.
“It’s been there maybe several hundred years, rich in species of insects and wild flowers.
The Acid Grassland is listed by the Department for Environment as being an important habitat for lowland England, Denis says, so of national importance.
“Acid Grassland is particularly important for invertebrates, insects. So in Trent Park you have a pretty good butterfly fauna, with small heath butterfly, quite a rare butterfly that’s found there, and also the marbled white butterfly and a lot of other insects.”
The grassland would have been maintained by cattle chewing away at grasses and keeping shrubs and trees at bay in the old days but in the last few years it has begun to be invaded by saplings as financial cutbacks reduce the amount of actual cutting back that can be done.
You can download a printout to help you identify the meadow life of Trent Park Here
Other wildlife in the park
The survey carried out by Denis found all three species of British woodpecker: green woodpecker, lesser spotted woodpecker and greater spotted woodpecker.
As a walker and runner I tell Denis I have certainly heard the drumming sound of woodpeckers in the woods.
“I think the greater spotted and green woodpecker are easier to see and hear. The green woodpecker also has a characteristic call like a mocking laugh.”
Other interesting birds in Trent Park include tree creepers and nuthatches.
Denis also noted in the survey that mammals included badgers and bats, while amphibians in the park, such as frogs and toads, can benefit from new toad ponds being created by the FrogLife organisation.
You can download a printout to help you identify the birds of Trent Park Here
Denis was commissioned because Enfield is now without a biodiversity officer and so no surveys had been carried out at Trent Park since 2007.
“You need a survey so that in future you can see if habitats have improved or got worse,” he says. “The reason for a habitat survey is to compare to last time and set a benchmark to monitor future changes.”
There’s an extra need to monitor the state of the park due to the lower level of work that the Enfield Parks Department is able to do on site due to restricted council funding.
“One of the problems is that due to the lack of money the fields are becoming overgrown with scrub,” says Denis. “That means the rare and important Acid Grasslands are gradually succumbing to being covered in secondary woodland, which is not nearly as important. Normally a local authority would have a biodiversity duty to maintain those Acid Grasslands but they have struggled. So are all these wonderful things going to be lost?”
The Friends of Trent Park have been fighting for something to be done and funded the survey as part of this effort.
“In the old days the fields would probably be managed for horses and cattle,” says Denis. “The only way now is to cut the meadow areas at least once a year and have all the cuttings taken away — and that’s where the expense comes in. It’s a very expensive exercise to take grass cuttings away. I don’t think it’s been done for several years.
“It’s still recoverable at the moment but the longer it goes on the harder it’s going to be to recover it. The acid soil is still there but to cut down fairly mature trees is more expensive than cutting the grass so they need to keep it up.”
Hope for the future
The Friends of Trent Country Park say that Enfield’s Parks Department has taken the habitat survey and its recommendations on board but have not had the resources to follow up.
“However, they now have new equipment which needs fewer people and we are bit more hopeful this year,” the Friends say. “Maintaining a park the size of Trent Park, especially with its rare habitats, is a huge job. The two small conservation groups in Enfield who do some work in the parks couldn’t make a dent in what’s needed and we have not found any organisations yet with spare resources to help with any maintenance. The Friends are always happy to hear from anyone wanting to volunteer with maintenance projects, such as gardening in the Water Garden, and will arrange projects accordingly.”