Behind the scenes at Simon's Wood
A mixture of broadleaf woodland, pine forest and open heathland, Simon's Wood is a popular natural beauty spot in Finchampstead, Berkshire. It's looked after by a small team of rangers based at Runnymede, along with a large and dedicated group of volunteers. If you're local, you may have noticed the changes taking place within the woodlands recently, as we work to improve the quality of the woodland for wildlife and visitors alike.
Our aim at Simon's Wood is to promote a habitat of mixed native woodland, with a mosaic of variably-aged tree species and ground flora that can support a high level of animal diversity. At the moment the woodland is dominated by an invasive plant species called Rhododendron ponticum. This distinctive, purple-flowered shrub makes it very difficult for new trees or plants to establish or grow - and that's why we're progressively removing it.
The ponticum problem
R. ponticum, a native of southern Europe and Southwest Asia, was introduced as an ornamental garden plant to the UK in the mid-1700s. Because it's able to rapidly reproduce and produce seeds, it has spread through many parts of the British countryside and become extremely dominant.
A large body of research shows that R. ponticum has little to no benefit for British biodiversity, and in fact has many adverse effects. While on the surface it may seem like the rhododendron provides good cover for wildlife to hide in, in reality very little wildlife will be making use of it. It has been shown to reduce the numbers of earthworms, birds and plants, and to hinder the regenerative capacity of a site, leading to a reduction in the biodiversity of the area.
Established bushes act as a seed source for further invasions in adjacent areas, eradicating ground cover plants and interfering with the process of natural tree regeneration. There are many toxins in rhododendron that are unpalatable to invertebrates. An article published by Royal Botanic Gardens Kew shows that rhododendron nectar is harmful and in some cases fatal to many species of bees.
R. ponticum also harbours pathogens such as sudden oak death, which can infect native trees. R. ponticum is even listed as an invasive species in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it an offence to plant or otherwise cause it to grow in the wild.
Young trees have a much better chance of establishing if there is a lot of light reaching the woodland floor and no influx of seed from remaining areas of rhododendron. Clearing the rhododendron therefore helps native species to regenerate naturally, leading to a much healthier woodland habitat.
We can already see the benefit of the clearance where the rhododendron has been removed along Wellingtonia Avenue, where last year a beautiful population of stitchwort appeared in the cleared area.
While the main reasons for removing rhododendron from Simon's Wood are to improve conditions for native wildlife and enhance biodiversity, there are also several other significant benefits.
In 2015, a professional survey of all the iconic Wellingtonia trees along the Simon's Wood area of Wellingtonia Avenue found that pedestrian footfall along the path next to these trees was causing serious compaction to their root zone, ultimately damaging their health. By removing nearby rhododendron, we've been able to relocate this footpath through the woods, relieving the pressure to the Wellingtonia trees and helping them stay healthy for years to come.
Clearing large areas of rhododendron at a time has also improved the condition of some of the wet and muddy paths, as more light has been able to reach the woodland floor, drying it out more quickly. Clearing the rhododendron from the banks has also widened many of the rides, allowing people the option to walk around the wetter areas. Importantly for visitors, the car park is now also much more open and visible, deterring antisocial behaviour and creating a safer environment for everyone.
Help from the community
The difference that has been made to the habitats at Simon's Wood is due to an enormous amount of hard work that has been put in by our dedicated team of volunteers from the local community, who turn out twice a month - come rain or shine. They have been supported recently by local companies such as Salesforce and Dell, who have lent many pairs of hands through popular employee volunteering schemes.
There is still much rhododendron to clear, but the progress made so far has been encouraging, and it will be exciting to see how the woodlands develop and the biodiversity changes without the dominance of the rhododendron.