Sunday, 15 July 2012

Interview with Ashley White

As I write this, a close friend of all us here on the blog, Ashley White, will be heading off to pastures new, in the dark depths of the Wiltshire countryside. Needless to say we're all thrilled for her but thoroughly jealous at the thought of having Great Bustards on our doorstep. Ashley is the former Conservation Projects Officer for London Wildlife Trust in Southwark and as such has been instrumental in highlighting local conservation issues for a number of years. She also oversaw the management of Sydenham Hill Wood, one of south London's most important nature reserves and a real fragment of 'wilderness' in the capital's urban sprawl. Before she left, we thought it would be great to get Ashley's views on urban nature conservation, her role and some of the challenges the area faces.

Many thanks for taking the time to answer questions for the blog Ashley. Firstly, perhaps you could start by telling us how long you’ve been involved with urban nature conservation in South London?

I’m extremely flattered that you’ve asked me to interview. I’ve only been involved in nature conservation in south London for just under four years, so I’m really still a newby.
I moved to south London in 2007 while working in west London and began working at London Wildlife Trust’s Centre for Wildlife Gardening in 2008 in a community engagement role. I was lucky to be given the opportunity to manage Sydenham Hill Wood in 2009 and I’ve been there ever since.

We've recently seen plans to develop Crystal Palace Park in the headlines, what do you think are the biggest challenges to the environment and our green spaces in urban areas?

People’s lives seem to be so busy that I think many homeowners with gardens are often looking for a low-maintenance and tidy option. There was a 12% loss in vegetated garden land between 1999 and 2008. Recent changes to planning regulations should mean that it is more difficult for front gardens to be paved over, but the loss is particularly stark in areas like east and north London where there is comparatively little public green space.

London is a growing city and people need somewhere to live and the associated increase in infrastructure. However, it’s a shame that more development is not concentrated on the Capital’s many empty buildings. The most recent application for development on Crystal Palace Park is a reminder that even protected Metropolitan Open Land is not truly protected.

Excessive tidiness is also an issue. Parks do seem to be improving by relaxing their mowing regimes, for example, but there often seem to be complaints about scrubby “unkempt” areas with the idea that something should be done to improve them. These areas, although not perhaps aesthetically appealing to some people, can be relatively undisturbed and provide prime refuges and habitat for many species.

Sydenham Hill Wood is an amazing site, steeped in history and home to an impressive range of flora and fauna – what have been the key changes here over the last few years? And is there anything you’ve found particularly challenging in your role here?

Sydenham Hill Wood is an open access site and has become increasingly well-used over the past few years. While it is fantastic that people are visiting and enjoying the wood and experiencing a connection with its wildlife, the balance between access and protection of sensitive habitats can be tricky to achieve. Some visitors also have well-intentioned but misplaced ideas, for example that dog poo is a good fertiliser for plants, that ivy kills trees and should be severed, that foraging is a harmless way to find food, and that collecting dead wood for fires is a free way to be more environmentally friendly. Most of the examples above are actually illegal without permission of the landowner, but importantly they are damaging to the ecology of the wood. Unfortunately these myths are quite persistent, so engaging with, and informing visitors about the consequences that actions such as these have on the flora and fauna of the wood is a vital part of the role.

Thinking of Sydenham Hill Wood in particular - do you have any favourite memories from your time there or in the area?

In the past ten years I have lived in west, north, east and most recently south London. By comparison the southern boroughs are very green and I’ve really enjoyed visiting and getting to know the green spaces.
It’s the chance encounters that make the most enduring memories. You never know what you’re going to observe or stumble on; the elusive white-letter hairstreak that made an appearance one sunny afternoon during a family event, the cuckoo we heard during a workday in spring, the fox that repeatedly visited us when we were moth trapping (running off with a clipboard during one survey), the hedgehog scampering across Cox’s Walk and the brown-long eared bat we found hibernating in the tunnel.

One of the aspects about my role as wood manager that I have loved the most has been working with an amazing bunch of diverse volunteers, it’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been humbled by their dedication. There have been far too many special moments to mention.

This area of South London is home to a great variety of species, some obvious, some not so much – is there anything in particular we should be looking out for?

South London is a hotspot for Britain’s biggest beetle, the stag beetle. The stag beetle is Endangered, partly due to loss of habitat caused by the excessive tidiness I touched on earlier. This summer London Wildlife Trust is carrying out a city-wide survey of stag beetles. Please submit your sightings to the Staggering Gains survey:

 The ridge is particularly good for bats and we have recorded at least seven species in and around Sydenham Hill Wood including Southwark’s first record of the brown long-eared bat. The brown long-eared is very elusive; it is light phobic and hard to pick up on a bat detector. It huge ears so it doesn’t need to echolocate very loudly.

And finally, have you got any favourite South London birding memories? Anything that surprised or amazed you?!

Where to start? Summer doesn’t really start for me until I hear the swifts screaming overhead. There appear to be nest sites near the road I live on, just off Lordship Lane, and the swifts swoop down low flying along the road and above my garden. The first swift I heard this year was actually at LWT’s East Reservoir and I was surprised to find it brought a tear to my eye. They really are utterly amazing birds and herald the return of my favourite time of year.

I have been lucky enough to encounter some impressive birds of prey at Sydenham Hill Wood from time to time. One morning last year I was standing in the main glade with Sologmig’er Dave Clark. We heard a lot of noise then observed a hobby and kestrel fly in towards each other then swoop away. It was pretty awesome and a great chance for me, as someone who hadn’t previously seen many hobbies, to contrast its distinctive sickle-shaped wings with those of the similarly-sized kestrel.
On my way back to the tool sheds at the end of a workday this past spring I heard a repetitive call and realised there were three tawny owl chicks overhead. They were testing out their wings and swooping from tree to tree. One of the adults later joined them. I watched the owlets for about 20 minutes, amazed to see them so clearly during the day.

A huge thanks to Ashley for answering our questions, some really interesting points made. I think I speak for everyone here when I say that it won't be the same without you! We wish you all the best in your new role.

Cue violins...

Words - Peter Beckenham

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