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Broxbourne Woods: exploring Herts' only National Nature Reserve

PUBLISHED: 10:14 29 January 2019

Autumn colour in Wormley Wood

Autumn colour in Wormley Wood

liz hamilton

Returning to a site she helped restore in the 1980s, Liz Hamilton traces her footsteps through Broxbourne Woods, the county's sole National Nature Reserve

Until 70 years ago there was no official government protection for wildlife habitats in Britain. Before the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed in 1949, the only protected sites were owned or managed by voluntary bodies or private individuals. This important legislation, which also introduced protection for areas of high landscape value (see Hertfordshire Life November 2018), arose from a series of government-sponsored committees which carried out their work even as the Second World War was raging.

The earliest private nature reserve was established by a 19th century Yorkshire landowner, Charles Waterton (1782-1865). His example was copied only at the end of the century when another eccentric, Charles Rothschild, a banker with a passion for fleas (and younger brother of Tring naturalist Walter), bought Wicken Fen, a remnant of the once-extensive Cambridgeshire fenland, and donated it to the National Trust. He established the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves in 1912, and later gave this organisation an area of fenland at Woodwalton in Huntingdonshire.

The society lobbied the government for statutory protection for wildlife habitats, spurred on by the emerging science of ecology, which encompassed the study of species in their habitats and the dynamics of ecosystems. A milestone publication in 1939 was The British Islands and Their Vegetation by Arthur Tansley, a pioneer of this young science.

The tall trees are well-suited to the nuthatch as well as hawfinch and all three native woodpeckerThe tall trees are well-suited to the nuthatch as well as hawfinch and all three native woodpecker

The society proposed sites worthy of designation as National Nature Reserves (NNRs). Its list of just under 100 areas formed the wish list for the newly-formed Nature Conservancy, established by royal charter in 1949 and chaired by Tansley. The 1949 Act gave the Nature Conservancy its statutory powers.

Today there are 225 NNRs in England covering around 229,800 acres, many established by agreement with landowners. Natural England is the English body now responsible for these sites (other UK countries have separate arrangements).

Hertfordshire has one NNR covering 590 acres, collectively called Broxbourne Woods, which includes Wormley and Hoddesdon Park Wood owned by the Woodland Trust, and Bencroft and Broxbourne Woods in Herts County Council ownership. Lying just to the west of the A10 and south of Hertford, these ancient woods are part of a larger area of woodland which has plenty of public footpaths and is a delightful place to explore at any time of year. The waymarked Broxbourne Woods NNR Trail is a circular route of just under 11 miles which can also be walked in shorter sections.

Ancient hornbeam coppice stool on top of a 'wood bank' - possibly the remnant of an ancient boundary hedgeAncient hornbeam coppice stool on top of a 'wood bank' - possibly the remnant of an ancient boundary hedge

Wormley Wood is a very special place for me as back in 1981, when I had recently started working for the Woodland Trust, I was closely involved with its purchase. Covering 142 hectares or just over 350 acres, the wood is dominated by tall trees of sessile oak (one of Britain’s two native oak species) and hornbeam, the combination of species at its most northerly range here. Stands of more recently-planted conifers are gradually being restored to broadleaved woodland again. In the south of the wood is an area I remember well – at the time of the trust’s purchase it had recently been clear-felled and planted with lodgepole pine. One of my first tasks following the purchase was to sell the pine for Christmas trees, and this area has since reverted to dense thickets dominated by birch, aspen and other broadleaved trees.

Ancient woodland has occupied much of the site for hundreds of years, but there is also evidence of old fields here, perhaps dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as Saxon boundaries. Both were demarcated by still-surviving wood banks now topped by coppiced hornbeam stools and hornbeam pollards.

A network of steams has eroded deep valleys in the underlying clay and the wood can get very wet at times, so paths over boggy places run along boardwalks. Its many ponds are frequented by dragonflies.

The tall trees provide ideal sites for all three native woodpecker species, hawfinches and nuthatches, as well as the rare white admiral and purple emperor butterflies.

Less than 20 miles from central London, Wormley Wood is a very peaceful place, and walking here gives a sense of remoteness which is rare in this part of the country. Visit in spring to enjoy drifts of bluebells, in summer in search of butterflies, and in autumn to savour spectacular tree colours. In winter the rides and glades are sheltered from the wind and with no leaves the tree-dwelling birds might be easier to spot.

Broxbourne Woods is on OS Explorer map 174. The best place to park for Wormley Wood is Bencroft Wood west car park off White Stubbs Lane. Bayford Station is approximately 1½ miles from the edge of the wood, via country lanes and a bridleway.

Visit cpreherts.org.uk for a sugggested walk around Wormley Wood and its countryside. More than 30 circular walks in the county are also available to download.

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