When making your New Year’s resolutions, please think about taking more care of Epping Forest. No other city has an extensive ancient woodland so close to its heart but those of us who live nearby tend to take it for granted. Many of the trees are very old and the forest may seem as if it has been unchanged for centuries, but sadly this is not the case.

When the Epping Forest Act was passed in 1878 to preserve and protect the forest, much of the area had been cleared for agriculture or building land but the City of London Corporation were empowered to purchase the land and return it to nature. However, of the 450 or so different species of flowering plant recorded in the 1880s, one-third had disappeared from the forest by the 1980s and many more have been lost since then.

Respected naturalist and author Alfred Leutscher wrote that as a boy scout (in the early 1920s?) he camped in a field bordering the forest at Goldings Hill, Loughton, and that he remembered they gathered glow-worms from nearby hedges and used them to light their tents. These amazing creatures are very rare now and have not been recorded in the forest for many years. Snakes can still be found in a very few parts of the forest, but lizards are more numerous – though only those who search quietly and cautiously are likely to find them.

Epping Forest Guardian: The Speckled Wood butterfly taken at Pole Hill on May 7, 1983.The Speckled Wood butterfly taken at Pole Hill on May 7, 1983. (Image: Epping Forest scanned slide)

One success story is the speckled wood butterfly which had not been recorded north of the Thames for nearly a hundred years when it reappeared in the 1950s. The photograph taken on Pole Hill in 1983 was a first record in Epping Forest but the butterfly is now a common sight on the brambles, particularly where there is a patch of sunlight. Muntjac deer were introduced to Woburn Park over 100 years ago but they are also a common sight in the forest these days, though they may be mistaken for a large dog from a distance.

Epping Forest Guardian: Male Adder in a forest woodpile on April 22, 1985.Male Adder in a forest woodpile on April 22, 1985. (Image: Epping Forest scanned slide)

Fallow deer numbers have fluctuated quite dramatically over the 140 years but these beautiful animals are on the increase now. While driving south from Epping at about 10pm recently I had the amazing experience of seeing an adult doe (female) trot across the road in front of my car. Thankfully I was travelling at about 35mph so I braked and had a wonderful view of this beautiful creature in my headlights. Had I been doing 55mph I would probably have hit the animal, damaged the car and delayed my arrival home considerably!

Epping Forest Guardian: Oblong-leaved sundew, photographed at Sunshine Plain where there were just a few plants in 1985, but not seen in recent years.Oblong-leaved sundew, photographed at Sunshine Plain where there were just a few plants in 1985, but not seen in recent years. (Image: Epping Forest scanned slide)

This huge natural wonderland sits almost entirely inside the M25. Vast numbers ‘discovered’ our forest during lockdown and visitors increased dramatically. Much of the forest is designated a Site of Special Scientific interest but visitor numbers need to be managed to keep the ancient ecosystems healthy. Traffic pouring through forest roads causes pollution to the detriment of the ecological balance and this is another major concern.

Today we are beginning to appreciate that connecting with the natural world is vital for human health and psychological well-being. We are coming to understand that we need trees to capture carbon and to help reduce climate change and improve the balance of local air quality. Epping Forest is one of the largest areas of wood pasture in Europe and much of it is legally designated a Special Area for Conservation.

Epping Forest Guardian: Epping Forest has one of the largest areas of wood pasture in Europe.Epping Forest has one of the largest areas of wood pasture in Europe. (Image: Georgina Green)

Epping Forest is beautiful and it is legally protected, but it needs to be better appreciated by those of us lucky enough to live nearby. If you love Epping Forest and would like to get involved ask at one the forest information centres, or visit the Epping Forest Heritage Trust website at www.efht.org.uk

Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and is the author of several local history books. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.