Hello to Hainault – spotlight on a fascinating site with historical roots
Have you ever been to Hainault Forest? If not, it’s worth a visit! As you step into this magical site you are instantly drawn into a dense wood, where mysteriously shaped hornbeams line the pathway. Their contorted and twisted forms are the result of historic pollarding and their abundance owing to the site’s origins as wood pasture. Standing proudest are the mighty oak and hornbeam veterans but you can also walk through a great variety of other trees young and old, such as blackthorn, grey poplar, and holly.
The variety of habitats at Hainault include ancient woodland pasture, native broadleaf woodland, mature scrub, open grassland, heathland, and former arable fields. Streams snake their way through the woodland, with drainage ditches and ponds providing a further variety of habitat. Dwelling within and around Hainault, an incredible 158 bird species have been counted, 63 of which are associated with ancient woodland. Breeding birds include nightingale, firecrest, linnet, bullfinch, and hawfinch. A diverse range of invertebrates reside onsite, woodland butterfly species such as comma and speckled wood are commonly seen and the forest is home to the rare Midas tree weaving spider -a nationally endangered species identified as a priority species for conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP).
Hainault is bursting to the rim with nature, bluebells can be viewed in the Spring, fungal species such as earthball and candlesnuff fungus are present, and keep your eyes peeled and you might get the chance to spot mammals such as Natterer’s and Daubenton’s bat, deer, and bank vole.
Close to Romford in Essex and nestled just within the M25, Hainault is one of the few remnants of the Forest of Essex, a place historically controlled by the crown for hunting venison. It is thought that the Forest boundary was created by the Normans in the 1130s when Henry I bestowed special protections on it. The name Hainault was first recorded in 1221, as Henehout and then later Hyneholt (holt was the Saxon word for wood).
The most dramatic moment in Hainault’s modern history came in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1851, the growing pressure from an expanding and hungry London lead to the passing of the Disafforesting Act of Hainault which saw tens of thousands of trees being pulled straight out of the ground to make way for more agriculture. This dramatic change in the landscape led to what some consider the birthplace of woodland conservation. Local people led by Edward North Buxton, a liberal politician and conservationist demanded that parts of the woodland were saved. Their actions saved the forest from further loss and had repercussions for saving woodlands all across the southeast with the campaign inspiring the formation of the Commons Preservation Society and subsequently the National Trust.
The Woodland Trust signed a 50-year lease in 1998 to manage Hainault Forest (113 hectares) on behalf of Essex County Council. Hainault Forest is just one part of the wider area known as Hainault Forest Country Park, the rest of the land (100 hectares) owned and managed by the London Borough of Redbridge. In 2006 the Woodland Trust purchased 54 hectares of arable land next to and within Hainault Forest for woodland creation and in 2020 purchased more land continuing the extension of the canopy.
Today, the Woodland Trust is part of the Hainault Forest Restoration project which is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Mayor’s fund at the Greater London Authority, and the Redbridge Council. Working with the project partners, the aim is to restore and enhance Hainault Forest, for the benefit of nature and people. Plans include making improvements to the ecological condition of the site, refurbishing the historic buildings on site whilst preserving their character, developing a unified visitor experience offer, including creating a visitor centre and interpretation and diversifying volunteering opportunities, focussing on skills and learning.
Hainault Development Officer George Lewis said of the project “This is such an exciting time for what is a real gem in the crown of our estate. There is so much history that deserves to be told and this project will definitely do just that for people and wildlife.”
Amanda Brookes – Volunteering Development Officer (Central England) and George Lewis – Hainault Development Officer
Image credit – Amanda Brookes