Dominic North, Ranger, Happy Valley — “A guided tour of Happy Valley”
Dominic began with a brief outline of the history and geology of the 250 acre site bought in 1937 by the then Coulsdon & Purley UDC under the auspices of the Green Belt Act. The area included Devilsden Wood, Glebelands (given by Caterham & Warlingham UDC) and (later) the Parson Pightle Estate. The area forms a link between Farthing Downs to the north, bought by the City of London in the 1880s, and to the east by Coulsdon Common, also owned by the City. Foxley Wood, Kingswood and Coulsdon Court where among other areas bought by the UDC at the time. The name ‘Happy Valley’ was given in 1970. Dominic explained that the steep sided dry valley was formed during the last Ice Age and is mainly chalk with a band of clay and flint soil on the western slope.
Most of Happy Valley, along with Farthing Downs, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and as such is an important area for wildlife. It is also a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation (an SINC). The rarefied neutral chalk soil is habitat to both rare and scarce chalk-land plants. Within a square metre of meadow there can be growing anywhere between thirty to fifty different species. Dominic reminded us that this abundance of plants is good for wildlife – insects feed upon plants, birds feeds upon the insects and so on up the food chain. However, following WWII, up to 80% of the chalk grassland had been lost in part due to mismanagement. Lack of grazing, myxomatosis, which reduced the rabbit population, and the fact that the land had been leased to a farmer for haymaking which was not carried out, all resulted in the chalk meadows becoming invaded with scrub. Dominic was pleased to say that when the management of Happy Valley returned to Croydon Council in 1966 they took advice from the Surrey Wildlife Trust and a scrub clearance and grazing project carried out on the Southern slopes in 1968/69 brought improvements.
Dominic showed us photographs of some of the most rare and beautiful plant species now flourishing in Happy Valley beginning with the Bee Orchid which evolved bee-like flowers to attract male bees to facilitate pollination. However, the species growing in this country is self-pollinating. It flowers from June to July. The Pyramidal Orchid is another mid-summer flowering orchid which can be found on chalk grassland and a variety of other low nutrient sites. It can be identified by its bright pink pyramidal flowers. The Fly Orchid, which has small fly shaped flowers, is very vulnerable and is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Generally ten to twenty are found each year. Finally, the Man Orchid which gets its name from the small humanoid shape of its flowers is endangered and needs a specific management regime. It can grow to about a foot high. Among other rare plants Dominic showed us the Round Headed Rampion which is nationally scarce, the Woolly Thistle which is now rare in London and the Greater Knapweed which is particularly attractive to butterflies. Finally the Greater Yellow Rattle which is nationally rare inhabiting only six sites in Britain. Dominic assured those present that the Greater Yellow Rattle is now very abundant both on Happy Valley and Farthing Downs where its seeds continue to be spread by haymaking.
Dominic brought us up-to-date with current management plans which he put in place when he first took over. He started with a survey of the site which was divided into sections and given specific management programs. Due to this a wide variety of wildlife has flourished. There is now a good range of insects numbering around eight hundred species which have benefited from the increase in wildflowers. Butterfly numbers are another success storey around thirty species have been recorded in annual transits in response to careful management while new species like the Silver Washed Fritillary have taken up residence. The Burnett Moth, a day flying moth, is frequently seen. Chalk grassland can provide a rich habitat for butterflies and trends recorded are used to monitor results of Management Plans. The Roman Snail, a Schedule 5 protected species, is also found both on Happy Valley and Farthing Downs.
Turning to grassland management, which needs either grazing or cutting, Dominic explained that until the 1970s rabbits helped to control scrub but another outbreak of myxomatosis led to a decline in numbers and further invasive growth. Many hundreds of years of grazing by wild and domesticated animals created the grassland meadows which became populated by chalk-land flowers. Grazing was again re-introduced to Happy Valley in 2002 and is more effective than cutting by tractor – it encourages more wildlife diversity and protects ant hills. Several varieties of sheep are used for grazing and they do a good job; The Hardwicks, the breed saved by Beatrix Potter, will eat the thorny scrub; Jacobs Sheep, a hardy bread, eat rough scrub, they also protect the flock by chasing off dogs; The Speckled Face Beulah’s are a hardy Welsh mountain sheep. Dominic is helped by volunteer shepherds who regularly check the flocks for fly strike and other problems. Volunteers also help with ragwort pulling which is always burnt on site. As a general rule 120 sheep weeks are needed per hectare per year but much depends on growing conditions, public use requirements and rights of way. The valley fields are cut by a local farmer who keeps the hay.
Dominic then spoke about the ancient semi-natural woodland of Devilsden Wood which straddles both the chalk & flint and clay & flint soils of the site. The woodland dates back many hundreds of years and is populated by many different species of trees. Where the soil is a mix of both chalk and clay, Pedunculate oak, Ash and Hazel can be found along with small clusters of Beech. Here there is an abundance of Dog’s Mercury growing on the woodland floor. Wild Cherry and Hawthorne grow on the chalk and flint soil with wildflowers including Bluebells, Sweet Woodruff and Bird’s Nest Orchid – all indicative of ancient woodland. Coppicing, a practice dating back to Neolithic times, is carried out on a fifteen year rotational basis. Dominic explained that trees are coppiced by cutting back branches to a low level, new shoots can then grow back from the stool. Dominic went on to explain that by varying the height of coppices a variety of wildlife can be supported particularly the Dormouse, a protected species, which inhabits the Woodland. Coppicing creating a mosaic of different but interconnected conditions within areas of woodland benefits the population if left undisturbed. Dominic checks the fifty dormouse boxes annually and data collected is forwarded to the National Dormouse Monitoring Program.
Tree management requires felling and replanting. Hundreds have been planted and to protect the new trees from being eaten by deer they are planted in protective tubes and surrounded by a five foot fence which is left in place for three years. Open inlets are left on the woodland edge creating areas which are both sunlit and warm. Cut wood is put to good use: hedges are laid (an ancient art) which are good for wildlife; log pits have encouraged a wide variety of fungi and charcoal made by using a steel kiln is sold locally at the BTCV Office and at countryside shows. The wide variety of trees in Devilsden Wood provides good support for birds including Green and Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, Kestrels and Skylarks and provides habitat for Roe Deer, foxes and badgers.
Dominic gave a brief summary of other aspects of his conservation work on Happy Valley. Help comes from both BCTV and Corporate Volunteers who replace posts and carry out maintenance work on steps, paths, gates and fencing. Fly tipping and car dumping continues to be a problem but removal is now expedited by GPS marking. Office work includes grant applications (Higher Level Stewardship Scheme Grant from Natural England) and organising guided walks. He also works with local schools on literary projects and display work on Happy Valley. Referring to the Happy Valley & Farthing Downs Nature Trail, Dominic said that the revival of the Trail had begun with the updating of the three 1970s booklets which he reproduced as one fifty page A5 booklet. Printing costs were sponsored by the Friends. Posts and signage for the Trail were renewed and QR code discs were added – the Friends website hosts the link to the Trail pages. Dominic went on to say that this year he had worked with the Friends on a new information board which has its own lectern located at the visitor gathering area on Farthing Downs.
Dominic finished by saying that, as well as being a pretty place to walk, there is much conservation work being carried out on Happy Valley to protect and encourage wildlife but he believes he has one of the best jobs in Croydon Council.