The Birches Nature Reserve

The History and location of the Site

The Birches Nature Reserve within the City of London Cemetery was opened in 2006, having been created in a wooded area at the eastern edge of the cemetery.

The wood is likely to have remained almost untouched since the Corporation of London bought the land in 1854, at which time it was Aldersbrook Farm. (For more information on Aldersbrook Farm and Aldersbrook Manor, click here)

Adjacent to an area which has been for long used as tip for the waste material generated within the grounds, the wood acted as something of a screen for the tip. In addition, a stream runs through the wood which prohibits the use of the area for burials. The stream is actually the Alders Brook, though this has been to a great extent culverted beneath the tip and only emerges into a pond which was created perhaps in the 1970's as a wildlife amenity. (see "The Alders Brook")

In fact, the amenity value of the pond has been very limited both to wildlife and to human visitors due to it being so overshadowed by trees and its isolated location within the wood. Only with the creation of the nature reserve has it been possible for visitors to view it with any ease at all.

Whereas the stream that constitutes the Alders Brook flows out of the cemetery eastwards through a culvert towards the River Roding, some of the water - when there is much flow at all - actually backs up from the pond into a wide gully that stretches slightly south of west through the wood. As the whole of this area is very overgrown with bramble, ivy and other plants, it is difficult to appreciate that this gully is actually the remains of the Great Canal, an important landscaped asset of the Manor of Aldersbrook!

Since the nature reserve has only been established since about 2005, and only "officially" open since 2006, a comprehensive survey of the site has not yet taken place. However, an introduction to some of the plants that may be found is given below.

The Birches

Although called the Birches, perhaps the most significant tree of the woodland is grey poplar Populus canescens, with numerous mature trees and young ones. Silver birch Betula pendula is present within the wood and particularly along the edges and just outside of the wood proper. Some mature specimens are to be found by the boundary fence. It readily seeds itself.

There are some large horse chestnuts Aesculus hippocastanum seeding readily, as does sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus. There is some scattered holly Ilex aquifolium, elder Sambucus nigra, and numerous yews Taxus baccata, some of which were planted in the 1980s. However, as is true of nearby areas of Epping Forest, this species is regenerating readily. The ground cover is somewhat sparse, except for ivy Hedera helix, which in some parts is the dominant ground cover. As well as a more normal form of leaf, an attractive cut-leaved form is also present (photo). Nettle Urtica dioica exists on the edges of the wood, as does daffodil Narcissus spp. and Spanish bluebell Endymion hispanicus, both likely to have been introduced by way of throw-outs. Nearer to the tip area is a large expanse of ground elder Aegopodium podagraria. There are some pedunculate oaks Quercus robur, some tall Turkey oaks Quercus cerris, great sallow Salix caprea, and wild cherry Prunus avium along the northern edge of the wood. The wood is a quiet area of the cemetery, and rarely visited. Much use is made of it by a variety of birds, even woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) and snipe (Gallinago gallinago) have been seen.


col_birches_051027_7379The Birches Nature Reserve


A tour of the Reserve

The Birches Nature Reserve may be approached from the old crematorium building by walking north-eastwards and along Limes Avenue. As the road bears to the right, look out for the wooden sign on the lawn to the left : "The Birches"; this is by some mature specimens of silver birch on the lawn.

At the edge of the lawn, the boundary of the woodland is formed by bramble and bracken, and it is suggested that the left-hand entrance to the reserve is taken, formed by a log-pile which is a good place to look for fungi. The track leads into the woodland, with a mix of trees to either side including towering grey poplars - which are actually more plentiful here than birches - and Turkey oak. There is a scattering of holly, and it is worth looking at the variety of leaf-shapes and colours of the specimens here, and a mixed understory of bramble and ivy. The path is a soily gravel, and many plants may establish themselves in it. Typical of these are species such as herb robert, groundsel and Canadian fleabane. Part-way along the path some log benches have been formed, which again provide a home for fungi such as Stereum and ear-fungus Auricularia auricula-judaea. Honey fungus Armillaria mellea is frequent on the logs which have been used to delineate the path.

Where the route turns right, looking straight ahead between tall trees and through the rough undergrowth, it will be seen that the ground dips sharply away to form a valley. This is the site of the ornamental canal that once formed an important feature of the Aldersbrook Manor estate, but is now almost forgotten and unseen.

The Birches is a refuge and feeding area for many birds, as well as foxes and other smaller mammals. Of the more unusual species that have been recorded here, perhaps woodcock and snipe should be mentioned. It is the relative isolation and quietness of this are that has attracted these, but it is much more common to see birds such as wrens, blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits and - particularly in the winter when the cemetery provides a refuge for many continental wood pigeons which supplement the resident population. Great spotted woodpeckers are commonly heard or seen, and the area should provide a good habitat for lesser-spotted woodpeckers too - although in recent years these have been scarce. The smallest of our British birds, the goldcrest, is common here too.

Always, the path-side logs should be looked at for fungi, and turkeytail Trametes versicolor and inkcaps Coprinus spp. may be found in their season. Walking parallel with the canal (to the left), large grey poplars are ahead, and yews. The path eventually turns right again, but look first at the disk-shaped logs that have been piled at the corner. These provide a home for not only fungi and slime-moulds, but a host of insects and crustaceans such as the wood louse Porcellio scaber. Before proceeding along the main track, drop down the slight slope to the wicker-fence. Beyond this is a pond created before the nature reserve was formed, but as wildlife habitat. The pond is fed by water that flows from a conduit - just visible to the left - and is the Alders Brook. This really is an out-of-the-way area, and secretive birds may use it. The small duck teal have been seen here, making use of the shallow margins. The pond may be almost filled at times with celery-leaved buttercup Ranunculus sceleratus. On the concrete of the conduit, ferns have found a home and include hart's-tongue.

Returning up the slope, it will be noted that there are some silver birch hereabouts as well as a large numbers of yew trees. Although there are seedling yews, the majority were planted in the 1980s. These are popular with the already-mentioned goldcrests. Some elegant sharp-leaved ivy will be seen on the left which contrasts well with other ivy of the more normal leaf-shape nearby. Once more, logs used to line the path are good for fungi, and as some of these are elm the patterns formed by the larvae of elm-bark beetle may be seen. These are particularly visible on the last log-pile as the path exits the Birches to return to the lawn.



Acknowledgements :

Acknowledgements are due to Mr. Ian Hussein, previously Director of the Cemetery, to Xa Naylor, previously Service Development Officer, and to Gary Burkes and other members of the cemetery staff who have been so helpful in gaining access, providing information and establishing the nature reserve.