Our work at Hatfield Forest
Hatfield Forest National Nature Reserve is a managed landscape, created by centuries of human intervention. Learn how we continue the traditions and practices of those who've previously cared for our special place, so we can ensure it lasts for everyone, for ever.
While Hatfield Forest may look like other forests or woods you’ve visited, it’s actually a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, so there are steps we must all take to look after it and keep it special for everyone. Hatfield Forest’s roots can be traced back hundreds of years, and today it welcomes nearly half a million visits every year, that’s twice as many as over a decade ago, which is a lot of pressure upon nationally important wildlife.
The Forest’s rides (footpaths) are particularly at risk, so to help manage the most vulnerable paths, we need to let some rest and recover. We periodically monitor the health of our paths by scientifically examining the vegetation and bare ground in different zones. We’re already seeing good signs of recovery, but there is still more to do and nature needs time to rest, recover and rejuvenate.
The Forest’s rides and Forest edges are the most species rich habitat across the whole of Hatfield Forest. Gaps in the Forest canopy allows warmth and sunlight to reach the Forest floor, promoting a diverse range of ground flora and invertebrates. This in turn attracts birds and mammals to feed, and reptiles to bask. Nationally rare species such as Nightingales, Purple Emperor Butterflies and Slow Worms are amongst the thousands of species that call this valuable habitat home, which unfortunately, is in decline across the country.
You will find diversions in place where paths have been closed for their protection, so please help us by finding another route and giving the path, and nature time to recover. In the depths of Winter, if you come across a very muddy path, please retrace your steps and find an alternate route as walking along the edges will widen the path causing further damage.
The Shell House Restoration
The much-loved Shell House at the centre of the Forest was restored to its former glory after a five-month restoration project concluded in mid-2023, thanks to the generous gift left in a will.
The restoration was carried out by Cliveden Conservation and included repairs to the timber structure, laths and the lime render involving highly skilled an intricate work. Using traditional techniques and following original patterns, knapped flint, blue glass slag and a variety of exotic and native shells have been fixed to the outer walls using original materials where possible.
Following the restoration of the exterior, a deep conservation clean is being carried out and it’s hoped visitors will be able to step inside this beautiful building once again.
We have a flock of about 30 heritage breed sheep, mainly Hebridean, plus some Jacob and Manx. These are used to graze areas of the Forest where we have previously cleared scrub, to encourage the final phase of regeneration. Sheep are far less fussy than cattle, so will eat brambles and hawthorn. They are present all year round and cause less damage to the ground.
Red Poll cattle
From early May to late October, the plains are grazed by Red Poll cattle. They are natural lawnmowers, helping to keep down scrubby plants and so encouraging the growth of native wildflowers.
The lake has a population of signal crayfish. This is a non-native, invasive species, introduced from North America. We are undertaking a wide-ranging study to assess their ecological impact, including trapping, removal and study.
Over the last decade we have been carefully monitoring our deer population of fallow deer and muntjac. Students work with our volunteers using a variety of different methods to estimate deer populations. Thermal imaging cameras, dung counts along a transect and counting the number of paths leading into the coppices all help us to determine how best we can manage the health of the herd.
Beetles are one of the many invertebrate species we monitor in the Forest. We have a number of Red Data Book species which are internationally rare or endangered. By tracking changes in their numbers, we can identify the effects of changes in climate, pollution and habitat robustness.
We have been carrying out butterfly surveys since 2005. Our volunteers learn to identify the different species and familiarise themselves with the survey routes. They walk these routes every day (weather-permitting) and record what they see.
Our volunteers continue the traditional management technique of coppicing, to encourage new growth. They work throughout the winter cutting coppice poles in Elgin's Coppice and protecting the stumps.
Hatfield Forest has over 850 veteran pollard trees, each with its own management plan. The aim is to keep the trees alive as long as possible.
Once dead, we try to keep the trees standing by turning them into monoliths, by removing all the branches. Standing deadwood is a rare and therefore more valuable habitat than fallen deadwood. Once fallen, deadwood rots quickly and so the habitat is lost.
Restoring wood pasture
One of the special features of Hatfield Forest is the open areas between the coppices, known as wood pastures. These include ancient, sometimes pollarded, trees and provide a rich habitat. We are undertaking a long-term project to restore a 25-hectare area in the north west of the Forest by Elmans Green, as well as creating some new pollards.
It is with this ongoing project that we then hope to establish new wood pasture at a landscape level, creating a mosaic of habitats for wildlife whilst developing one of the Forest’s key features for the enjoyment of future visitors.
We have a scheme for commemorative benches at Hatfield Forest. You can see examples of these in the lakeside area and by the path across the dam at the end of the lake. These are very sturdy, hand made from oak, and should last for many years.
We have suspended our commemorative tree planting scheme as the site is currently at full capacity for young, planted trees.
If you would like to have a commemorative bench placed at Hatfield Forest, please contact the Hatfield Forest estate office for an application form.
The Wall Wood Restoration project
Wall Wood is ancient coppice woodland adjacent to Hatfield Forest. This is important for its wildflowers such as the violet helleborine, bluebell and the nationally scarce oxlip.
Woodland wildlife has declined dramatically over the past 30 years, largely due to increasing fallow and muntjac deer pressure, resulting in habitat loss. With help from Natural England and the Forestry Commission, we have decided to halt this wildlife decline by re-commencing coppicing and protecting the young growth from deer again, after a 50-year gap.
Restoring the historic lakeside parkland
The Shell House was built in the 1750s to provide a shelter for parties visiting the Forest from nearby Hallingbury Place. Evidence from the late nineteenth century suggests that the area in front of the Shell House was laid to lawn and the eastern bank was planted with a few specimen trees, allowing fine views across the lake.
The team is undertaking a programme of work which aims to restore this part of the Capability Brown landscape. They are replanting native trees and creating a variety of new habitats for wildlife to flourish. Visitors will also be able to enjoy the newly restored views across the main lake and towards the Decoy lake.
Restoring Woodside Green
Woodside Green lies to the south of Hatfield Forest, next to Wall Wood. It is mainly open pasture, with a few isolated mature trees. Maps from over 100 years ago show there were many more trees there, mostly around the margins. We secured funding from the People's Postcode Lottery to restore this historic parkland.
Trees were planted in late 2018. Species planted included hawthorn, sessile oak, hornbeam and crab apple. It was probably a wider range of species than were grown on the Green in the past, but all are native to the locality. Over time, we will see the slow restoration of this historic landscape, revitalising one of the largest grazed commons in Essex.
In 2010 we started a project to restore the marsh area between the lake and London Bridge. The marsh had slowly been taken over by scrub (shrubby tree regrowth) and this was changing the habitat. To maintain the marsh and increase biodiversity we removed the scrub. A year later some dormant species had returned.
Across the nation, kingfisher numbers have been dropping and the rise in water levels has meant their habitats are being lost. To counteract this problem, our volunteer rangers built an artificial kingfisher bank. Thanks to this, we now have two resident kingfishers who can occasionally be spotted in the Marsh and on the Decoy Lake.
With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.
Hatfield Forest is home to an established population of both fallow and muntjac deer. Visit the coppices to see how many you can find.
Find out about some of Hatfield Forest's rich and varied history, including how the original royal hunting forest was created and then, later, how Lancelot 'Capability' Brown left his mark.
Visit a royal medieval hunting ground with mighty ancient oaks, fallow deer and wildlife aplenty. Enjoy a walk followed by a treat from the Forest Café in the beautiful surroundings of the Georgian lake and Shell House.
We believe that nature, beauty and history are for everyone. That’s why we’re supporting wildlife, protecting historic sites and more. Find out about our work.
Read about our strategy 'For everyone, for ever' here at the National Trust, which will take the organisation through to 2025.