The Selborne Society and Perivale Wood

Rae Hall and Andy Pedley

A clearing in the wood
There are clearings in the wood to give glades and marginal areas

Open Day visitors enjoying the bluebells
Open Day visitors enjoying the bluebells
(photo: David Howdon)

Volunteers coppicing
Volunteers coppicing

The meadows have been grazed for about 100 years.
The meadows have been grazed for about 100 years.

Investigating bumblebees at a field meeting led by naturalist Fiona Barclay
Investigating bumblebees at a field meeting led by naturalist Fiona Barclay

Except where otherwise stated, all photos by the Selborne Society.

Situated in the west of London, and just yards from the London Underground Central Line, Perivale Wood is a remarkable place... containing about 19 acres of mainly pedunculate oak woodland, old (unimproved) pasture, a marsh, a stream and five ponds, together representing several types of habitat in a relatively small area: perivale wood was declared a statutory local nature reserve in 1974.

The Reserve has been managed since 1902 by the Selborne Society, initially as a bird sanctuary; it was leased by the Society in 1914, and purchased outright in 1923. It is thought to be one of the first nature reserves in the UK.

The Selborne Society itself was created in 1885, by George and Theresa Musgrave, of Torquay, Devon. The Society was formed in order to 'perpetuate the name and interests of Gilbert White, the Naturalist of Selborne' and the Objects of the Society were the 'Preservation of Birds, Plants and Pleasant Places'. It became a national society with an office in London and branches across the UK, including one in Ealing.

A member of the Ealing branch was so impressed by the birdsong he heard coming from Perivale Wood that the branch agreed with the farmer (who leased the wood) that he would maintain the woodland hedges and appoint a keeper to coppice the wood and protect the birds from the army of poachers, bird catchers, egg collectors and flower sellers who had regarded it as a free hunting ground up till then.

Inevitably, the First World War curtailed the growth and activities of many voluntary bodies; including the Selborne Society. But even so, when Perivale Wood, with some adjoining land, was put up for sale, the Society was able to purchase it outright in 1923, designating it as a memorial to Gilbert White. This was mainly thanks to one anonymous donor who gave about 5,000, the lion's share of the purchase price. Further pasture was bought in 1931, so a total of 27 acres were saved for nature conservation.

The Second World War was even more damaging to the Society - by the 1950s most of the Society's branches had ceased to function. There is no doubt that acquiring Perivale Wood had given purpose and focus to the Ealing branch, which otherwise would have likely come to an end after World War 2, like almost all the others. As it is, the Society now has over 1000 members, and there is little doubt that acquiring Perivale Wood protected the land from becoming a sprawl of urban roads and housing. But, at the end of World War 2, the Wood and the Society's future depended on the small remaining nucleus of members whose interests centred on Perivale Wood itself.

Even though the Wood was in a sad state of neglect, the range and quality of its animals and plants were sufficient for the Nature Conservancy to register the area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in December 1957. About then, the Society began to strengthen, and an intensive management programme was initiated at the Reserve, which continues today, to preserve, protect and enhance this very special place. It was also about then that groups of pupils from local schools started coming to the Reserve for open-air lessons in natural history, and a Junior Section was started in 1964, with its own programme of activities. That Junior Section also continues today. School - and other - parties continue to be welcomed to the Reserve.

For adult members, a wide range of indoor meetings and field excursions were organised over the years, which appealed to differing tastes and attracted more members - again this programme continues to the present - and the Society is able to provide speakers, on Gilbert White, the Society and Natural History, to other local societies.

In 1970, the Society held its first Open Day at the Reserve, and this became an annual event, now usually the last Sunday in April. About 1500 visitors are welcomed to the Reserve, to be inspired by it, and to enjoy the carpet of bluebells.

The Wood continues to be managed mainly by voluntary work from Society members with monthly working parties, though recently we've used Community Payback - the Government scheme under which convicted offenders are required to do unpaid work as part of their sentence. Most Mondays, a team of 8 offenders and one supervisor work at the Reserve. The tasks completed include the removal of unsightly temporary fencing, which has greatly improved one of the Reserve's boundaries. Their present project is to remove holly bushes - recently holly has become highly invasive and, following a review by the Society's Scientific Officer, Peter Edwards, the programme commenced.

The Society engages contractors for specialist work, or work that is best done by machine, and horses are grazed in the paddocks - as they have been for about the last 100 years! The continuity is an important part of the management. Conservation Volunteers are used for some work, and recently we also welcomed 25 volunteers from Imperial Innovations, part of Imperial College, through the Business in the Community initiative.

Situated on the west edge of London, there are threats and opportunities to the Society and the Reserve - the biggest threat is High Speed 2 (HS2), the first leg in the proposed new, national, high speed rail network. The track is planned to run along the southern boundary, parallel with the Central Line. The Environmental Impact Assessment is currently being undertaken, so that 'mitigation' can be planned. Exactly how one mitigates for the disturbance created by 14 trains an hour whooshing by at 200 kph remains to be seen. It is unlikely to enhance the biodiversity in the Reserve. The opportunities are to increase the educational work that we undertake; with plans afoot for a new education centre that will enable greater educational work to be undertaken. It is a difficult balancing act, to increase the use of the Reserve without affecting its sensitive ecology.

You can find out more about the Society and the Reserve by visiting www.selbornesociety.org.uk.

The Reserve is usually kept locked to protect its delicate environment. The Reserve Open Day 2013 will be on Sunday 28 April from 10am to 4.30pm. Non-members are also welcome at the field meetings on the first Saturday of each month and at the conservation management (working parties) on the second Saturday. A full diary of events can be found on the website.

For enquiries about group visits please email: contact@selbornesociety.org.uk.