A Verderer’s thoughts in a changing forest

The Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands was preceded by an open meeting addressed by Mr. Peter Adams, one of the two Verderers for the southern parishes of Epping Forest. Mr. Adams spoke on the theme “A Verderer’s thoughts in a changing Forest”.

Mr. Adams began by saying that people often had strong ideas of what Epping Forest “ought” to be like. However, the fact was that the forest was in a state of constant change, and this presented the Conservators with a conundrum: which particular point in time was to be the appropriate reference point for conservation? He said this not to make excuses for what the Conservators were doing or not doing, but to help the audience understand the context in which decisions had to be made, and the fact that problems which arose frequently had no obvious solution.

Mr. Adams gave some historical background. He said that, in the period 1850-1870, there had been enormous public pressure to resist the enclosure of the forest, especially at its southern end. This had eventually led to the passage of the Corporation of London Open Spaces Act and Epping Forest Act, both of 1878. However, since then the context of the Forest had changed with encroaching urbanisation, and this had had an impact both on how the forest was used and managed.

Mr. Adams said there had been two particular changes which had impacted on the character of the forest. The first had been the end of traditional woodland management in the form of coppicing and pollarding. The other had been the steady decline in grazing, which had ended completely for some years at the time of the BSE scare. Although grazing had now been reintroduced on a small scale, the number of cattle would never again be enough to make a serious impact. Together, these two changes had together brought about much increased density in the wooded areas of the forest, and the encroachment of trees and scrub on formerly open areas. Without active management, these would eventually revert to woodland. However, was colonisation by trees and scrub always and inevitably a bad thing?

Mr Adams then gave a slide show in which he illustrated in photographs a selection of the changes which had occurred in particular instances.

  • The area around Connaught Waters appeared very different since it was photographed in the 1890s. Formerly a rather swampy area, like much of the forest in former times, it had also been relatively open. Now, the area around the lake was heavily wooded, and the water was now managed. This was convenient to visitors, but not “natural”.
  • Images of a local landmark in Woodford Green, the “Blasted Oak”, showed it before and after it was toppled by the activities of vandals. However, in the intervening years its setting had also changed, with the growth of new trees.
  • Loughton Camp in the nineteenth century had been a scene of ancient pollards and young trees. Now, although some of the former pollards survived, their setting had changed to mature woodland.

Mr Adams explained what pollards, coppices and coppards were and showed some examples.

  • Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge had changed in appearance several times since the nineteenth century, according to prevailing ideas on how such buildings “should” look.
  • Wanstead Flats had changed in appearance and usage with the building and later disappearance of the bandstand, changes to the ponds, the recent rebuilding of the changing rooms on the western edge.
  • Non-native species had appeared in the forest, such as ring-necked parakeets and muntjak deer.
  • An avenue had been planted on Woodford Green using poplars. This had become an attractive landmark, but would now be considered quite an inappropriate intrusion.

Mr. Adams reiterated that the decisions to be taken in relation to the forest were not straightforward, and resources were limited, with financial constraints having become tighter since the start of the financial crisis.

Some of Mr. Adams’ responses to points raised in questions are given below.

  • In response to a question concerning the number of persons employed on maintenance work in the forest, Mr. Adams said there were “about 30” wood gangers. Many tasks formerly carried out by staff employed in-house by the Conservators were now done by contractors.
  • Asked what he saw as the main challenge facing the forest, Mr. Adams said it was money. For 30 years funding had not been a serious problem, but the City’s return on its investments in property had fallen, and the budget of Epping Forest was now reflecting changed, and more straitened, circumstances. Grants were becoming more important, but they were naturally ring-fenced.
  • Mr. Adams said he would personally like to see some parts of the forest more actively managed.
  • Asked to comment on the role of the Verderers, who were elected every seven years, though there were now very few qualified electors. Mr. Adams said he was open to the idea of reform or change. However, he feared that an open mandate system would mean that Verderers would inevitably become politicians, which he did not see as a step forward.
  • Mr. Adams said he believed that the Verderers did seek to represent local residents. Speaking for himself, he said he always passed on the views of community groups in committee even if he did not personally agree with them. He favoured Verderers holding open days, at which they could gauge public views, speak and answer questions.
  • Mr. Adams was asked who were the “Commoners” nowadays who elected the Verderers. He replied that there were very few – especially in the South. Thames Water, Local Authorities and other utilities were qualified as owning half an acre of land contiguous with the forest. He himself had been nominated by the London Borough of Newham. The Borough of Redbridge had not registered as a Commoner, even though it was qualified.
  • Mr. Adams said he felt there was a conflict between the Epping Forest Act and the forest’s charitable status.
  • Having been challenged on the disparity between the amounts the Corporation spent on Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest, Mr. Adams said that the Corporation had taken over from the GLC which had spent “vast amounts” on the heath. It had since been trying to control costs.

Mr. Alan Cornish, in the chair, thanked Mr Adams for attending the meeting and for his presentation, which had been much appreciated.