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Epping Forest Ultra and the London Eco-trail: a natural history primer!

Over the past year our dear friend Anson has been consistently helping Camino with some better knowledge and understanding of some of the ecological impacts and considerations of the things that we do and the environments that we love to spend our shared times running in x

With one month to go until our series of Epping Forest events - Anson was keen to share with us all some greater insight into the history and ecology of Epping. A huge thank you from Camino for all the wisdom and passion that Anson constantly imparts in his area of expertise.

Over to Anson x

"Epping Forest is an ancient wood pasture in east London, and has been a Royal Forest for over 800 years since the early 12th Century. It has historically been used for grazing, coppicing, and pollarding although restrictions exist as to who can now do what and where. Epping Forest is one of London’s largest green spaces, renown for its conservation, historical and cultural importance. Both our Epping Forest Ultra (50km) and 25km Eco-trail (25km) races largely follow the Epping Forest’s Centenary Walk between just south of Epping town itself in Essex, through the forest, to Wanstead Flats and Manor Park in boroughs of Waltham Forest and Newham, the southern-most regions of the forest.

The purpose of this blog post is to highlight three of Epping Forest’s most notable regions of conservation and environmental interest, that both races will pass through. By knowing more about the natural history of the trails that you are running and / walking along, we hope you’ll get a deeper appreciation of why trail running brings us closer to nature, even in human dominated landscapes of London.

  1. Epping’s “ancient” & “veteran” trees: north section of both courses

Epping Forest is home to more than 25,000 ancient oak and beech trees. 1,200 of these have been identified as ‘keystone trees’, and with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, their management and restoration are being carefully monitored.

How ancient is an ancient tree is an interesting question(!), and actually depends on the species of tree being considered. For example, a birch tree that is 150 years old would count as being ancient, but an oak tree would need to be much older (over 400 years old) to qualify as an ancient tree. At the other end of the scale, yew trees would need to be older still (800+yrs)!! Ancient trees provide therefore unique and important long-term habitats and ecosystems for hundreds of other species (including fungi and insects), as well as having strong cultural and historical importance as well.

During your run, see if you can identify any ancient trees –

  1. they often have very thick trunks in comparison to surrounding trees

  2. their canopy of leaves will be smaller and disjointed

  3. while the trunk itself may be hollowed out. These are all natural processes, and although the most ancient of trees may look like they are dying, in fact these processes allow these trees to reach great ages, and may yet still live on for decades or hundreds of years.

Photos (Anson Mackay): Ancient trees. Note thick trunks (all images), sometimes hollowed out (middle image), and sometimes more than one trunk is fused together (right image)

Also of note are Veteran trees. These can be of any age (some may be ancient, but most probably not) and they can also show ancient characteristics, such as having a hollow trunk. For many veteran trees, these are not due to the aging process however, but environmental factors, such as natural damage, management through copping etc. There is even an Epping Forest Veteran Tree Trail, which the Camino races pass near-by, just north of Loughton.

It is also worth keeping an eye out for deer in Epping Forest along the route. Deer were originally introduced for hunting centuries ago, and several species thrive through the upper and middle sections of the forest.

  1. Connaught Water & Chingford Plain: middle section of both courses

Connaught Water is a beautiful large ornamental lake, first dug out in 1880, and named after the first ever ranger of Epping Forest, the Duke of Connaught (who also happened to be Queen Victoria’s seventh child!) While it is undoubtedly a popular attraction for walkers, it is also a notable site for bird watching, with over 100 species identified in this region alone. The Camino races takes us past the southern edges of the lake, before the route then embarks into forest proper once more.

Photo (Anson Mackay: Connaught Water, a large ornamental lake constructed in 1880

People have grazed cattle on Epping Forest for cattle for thousands of years, and you may be surprised to learn that grazing is actually a very important conservation management practise in the forest. Grazing helps keeps tall shrubs and trees at bay, and created a mosaic of habitats that is crucial for maintenance of biodiversity in the forest, for birds, insects and plants. The only cattle kept on Epping Forest at the moment are the beautiful English Long Horn, a traditional English, and rare breed of cattle. These cattle were spotted just before Camino’s mid-way Aid station at Epping Forest Visitor Centre / Butler’s Retreat on Chingford Plain, approximately 1km from Connaught Water.

Photo (Anson Mackay): English Long Horn, a rare-breed cow on Chingford Plain

  1. Skylarks on the acid grasslands of Wanstead Flats: southern section of the courses, very close to the finish line

The Wanstead Flats form the most southern part of Epping Forest, where the races will start (Ultra) and end (Ultra and Eco-Trail). The Wanstead Flats comprise large tracts of acid grassland, and before the 1800s much of the area was actually a heathland, a mosaic of habitats, some dry, some very wet and marshy. The land has since been drained but the soil is still very nutrient poor, and this gives rise to the acid grasslands that are themselves biodiversity rich with many scarce and relatively rare plants and insects.

Photos: Wanstead Flats acid grassland (left, Anson Mackay), sky lark (right; image by Akis (WREN))

At just over 2km from the start of the Camino Ultra (or towards the end of both races), you will notice that sections of Wanstead Flats are fenced off. These are conservation efforts to protect Skylarks and meadow pipits. In fact, Wanstead Flats has the only significant populations of these ground-nesting birds within a seven-mile radius of the centre of London, but the numbers are becoming alarmingly small. The fencing helps protect the birds by keeping out dogs, who when loose disturb the birds when breeding, possibly contributing to their populations decline.

But biodiversity on these acid grasslands is also under threat from catastrophic fires. While fire is a natural part of the ecological cycle of these habitats, deliberate fires in recent years have the potential to damage these rare ecosystems and the diversity they contain. In fact, London’s biggest ever grassland fire occurred in 2018 on the Wanstead Flats, caused extensive damage, and was one of the biggest fires ever dealt with by the London Fire Brigade.

Photo (Anson Mackay): wildfire on Wanstead Flats in 2022

We hope that this short blog post has given you a feel for some of the natural history of the Epping Forest Ultra and Eco-trail races, and we look forward to seeing you in October.

Some background reading

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