for THE FUTURE OF HAPPY VALLEY
(Perspective by Friends of Farthing Downs) – July 2017
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Friends of Farthing Downs, AGM, 9 November 2016
Presentation by Dominic North, Ranger, 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.
Happy Valley Park history
When it was purchased under the Green Belt Scheme in 1937, Happy Valley was described as 'One of the most beautiful valleys in the whole neighbourhood'. Under this scheme, a total of 860 acres of Green Belt Land were brought by the old Urban District Council of Coulsdon and Purley and the cost equally shared by the London County Council, Surrey County Council and the UDC.
In addition to Happy Valley, the areas purchased included Foxley Wood, Kingswood and Coulsdon Court among others, the idea being to keep an area of unspoilt countryside within the easy reach of Londoners.
Happy Valley was acquired, in part, to link town neighbouring areas of open owned and managed by the City of London - farthing Downs and Coulsdon Common. The area included the steep-sided valley itself, and the adjoining areas of Devilsden Wood, Glebelands (given by Caterham and Warlingham Urban District Council) and at a later date the Parson Pightle Estate.
Originally known as the 'Coulsdon Greenbelt Lands', the name 'Happy Valley park' was adopted for the whole area in 1970. More recently the site has become known simply as Happy Valley, reflecting the fact that it is now regarded and managed more as an area of open countryside than a formal park.
Happy Valley consists of just over 250 acres of downland grass and wooded slopes, dominated by a steep-sided dry valley at the centre. For centuries the natural regeneration of woodland and shrubs on both Farthing Downs and Happy Valley was held back by sheep and rabbit grazing, but in 1937 systematic grazing was discontinued and 'scrub' was also due to the drop in numbers of nature's lawn mower, the rabbit, which was greatly reduced by the disease Myxomatosis.
Between 1956 and 1966 much of the area was leased to a local farmer for hay crops, which were not taken, and during these years scrub invaded many of the fields that had previously been open land. When the lease on the land was terminated, the Surrey Wildlife Trust gave advice on the clearance of some of the scrub, and in 1968 and 1969 large areas of the south facing slopes were cleared, creating a wealth of new downland flora and fauna. Some dense areas of scrub were left for nesting birds and as cover for foxes and badgers.
Happy Valley is an important reserve for all kinds of animal and plant life, including many rarities. The majority of the site lies within the Farthing Downs and Happy Valley Site for Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature (SMNI).
The valley is of nature conservation value for its extensive chalk and neutral grassland and ancient woodland habitats. All the grasslands are important for their populations of the nationally rare plant 'greater yellow rattle'. In addition, the chalk slopes support many notable plants, including round-headed rampion and eight species of wild orchid. The chalk grassland on the steep valley slopes is particularly rich in wild flowers, and this in turn attracts a wide variety of insects and other invertebrates. Over 25 species of butterfly have been recorded in Happy Valley.
Bird life in the valley includes skylark, kestrel, cuckoo, nightingale, green and great spotted woodpecker, yellowhammer and several varieties of warbler. Among the mammals found in the valley are roe deer, badgers, foxes, stoats, weasels and the nationally rare and elusive dormouse, which breeds in the woodland.
The ancient woodland is very diverse and contains a wide variety of trees, including oak, beech, ash, cherry, sweet chestnut, field maple and hazel. Throughout the site there are a number of large ancient yew trees which were planted in lines many years ago to define the property and parish boundaries.
The variety of Happy Valley's wildlife can only be maintained by careful maintenance and management of the area. Most of the grassland is managed by a variety of hay cuts at different times of year, depending on the type of plants growing in each area. Since 2002 parts of the chalk grassland have been summer grazed by cattle, sheep and goats, which provides more effective scrub control and gives more wildlife diversity than cutting the fields by tractor.
Much of the woodland is coppiced on a 15 year rotation and this again provides a greater variety of habitat for plants and animals to make use of.
A nature trail, which was originally devised in the 1970's to guide visitors around the area, has recently been updated, and a booklet is available to explain what can be seen on a walk around Happy Valley and the adjoining Farthing Downs.
During 1968, permissive horse rides were opened across the park to connect with horse rides on Farthing Downs and Coulsdon Common as well as the bridle roads Drive Road and Magazine Road, creating a total of five miles of horse rides.
From an archaeological point of view, little is known about the valley, but there are interesting sites close-by. The nearest is the Saxon settlement on Farthing Downs which borders Happy Valley to the west.
Status: Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
Notified under Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
Farthing Downs and Happy Valley
County: Greater London, Borough: Croydon
Local Planning Authority: LONDON BOROUGH OF CROYDON
National Grid Reference: TQ 303572 Area: 120.5 (ha.) 297.8 (ac.)
Ordnance Survey Sheet 1:50,000: 187 1:10.000: 25 NE & 35 NW
Date Notified (Under 1949 Act): 1975 Date of Last Revision: –
Date Notified (Under 1981 Act): 1987 Date of Last Revision: –
Other Information: This site was formerly known as Farthing Downs and Devil’s Den. There are several boundary changes, including extensions at Happy Valley.
Reasons for Notification: Farthing Downs and Happy Valley support the most extensive area of semi-natural downland habitats remaining in Greater London. The site is of particular interest for its species-rich chalk and neutral grasslands, and for an area of ancient woodland known as Devilsden Wood. These habitats hold a large variety of herb species of restricted distribution in the County, including some which are nationally scarce. In addition the grasslands support the largest British colony of the nationally rare greater yellow-rattle Rhinanthus angustifolius.
The chalk of the North Downs comes to the surface over most of the site but is overlain by clay-with-flints on the western slopes of Happy Valley. The distribution of grassland and woodland communities reflects this variation in geology and the associated changes in soil types.
The most diverse chalk grasslands occur on the thin rendzina soils on the eastern and north western sides of Happy Valley. The sward is dominated by upright brome Bromus erectus with quaking grass Briza media and other typical chalkland grasses. The herb flora is especially rich containing many species that are characteristic of unimproved chalk grassland but are of restricted occurrence in London owing to loss of this habitat. These include dwarf thistle Cirsium acaule, wild basil Clinopodium vulgare, horseshoe vetch Hippocrepis comosa, field scabious Knautia arvensis, common milkwort Polygala vulgaris, sainfoin Onobrychis viciifolia and hairy violet Viola hirta. These grasslands are also noted for their orchid flora with eight species being recorded, including the nationally scarce man orchid Aceras anthropophorum. Round-headed rampion Phyteuma orbiculare, another nationally scarce plant, also occurs.
The clay soils support a neutral grassland community. Sweet vernal-grass Anthoxanthum odoratum and red fescue Festuca rubra are the most abundant grass species, with crested dog’s-tail Cynosurus cristatus, tall fescue Festuca arundinacea and a range of other meadow species. Amongst the rich herb component are meadow and bulbous buttercup Ranunculus acris and R. bulbosus, common sorrel Rumex acetosa and yellow-rattle Rhinanthus minor. Woolly thistle Cirsium eriophorum, an uncommon species in the county is found on the lower slopes.
The chalk grasslands of Farthing Downs have been disturbed by the encroachment and subsequent removal of thick scrub. In consequence the flora is intermediate between the chalk and neutral grasslands of Happy Valley. This area contains a large population of dropwort Filipendula vulgaris, an uncommon plant in London.
All three grassland communities are of particular importance for the great abundance of greater yellow-rattle. This plant is nationally rare and specially protected by legislation, being known from only six localities in Great Britain. Farthing Downs and Happy Valley supports the major part of the total British population and is actively managed to safeguard and increase its abundance.
Devilsden Wood lies on the western side of Happy Valley and straddles both chalk and clay soils. It has a high forest structure with ash Fraxinus excelsior, pedunculate oak Quercus robur and hazel Corylus avellana throughout. Over chalk, yew Taxus baccata features in the understorey with a diverse ground flora predominated by dog’s mercury Mercurialis perennis. Small groves of small beech Fagus sylvatica are also found here with white helleborine Cephalanthera damasonium, a scarce London plant, on the forest floor. The woodland over the clay-with-flints is distinguished by large stands of mature wild cherry Prunus avium. Species indicative of ancient woodland include midland hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, sweet woodruff Galium odoratum, bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta, yellow archangel Lamiastrum galeobdolon and bird’s-nest orchid Neottia nidus-avis.