Even in lockdown you can take a walk in the woods - just you or the rest of your household. It'll be good for you.
Actually it’s not that easy. The great majority of the woods in Saffron Walden and its surrounding north Uttlesford villages are ancient woodlands with sufficient wildlife importance to be designated as Local Wildlife Sites by the local councils and conservation bodies. There are 92 such woods and practically all of them are oxlip woods – famed for the oxlips that, in England, only grow within a few tens of miles of Saffron Walden.
Out of those 92 woods, the public are only allowed to roam in seven with another eight that have a public footpath through the wood. The rest are “No entry, pheasants and pheasant shooters only”
Fortunately, the seven woods you can explore fully include some of the best. Four of them (Great & Little Bendysh, (Radwinter) Rowney Wood (Debden) and Little Hales Wood (Ashdon)) belong to the Forestry Commission and are designated as “right to roam” countryside which is distinguished by a special colouring on Ordnance Survey maps. All four have wide, easy to walk, rides but none have any signs visible from the road to say you are welcome to enter or where you can park. The other three open access woods belong to the Essex Wildlife Trust (West Wood, Sampford and Shadwell Wood, Ashdon) and Walden Countryside (the tiny Noakes Grove, Sewards End).
You need a decent map, or visit the excellent www.wildessex.net and find the page for the wood you plan to visit - just click the wood below:.
So all the woods you are allowed to enjoy belong either to the taxpayer or a not-for-profit conservation body. Government grants are available to the private owners of woodlands in return for wildlife conservation management and/or allowing public access. It’s a shame none of the local wood owners seem to have taken any interest in using these grants.
You can find out all about the woods in your area (even the private ones) by clicking “Walden Local Wildlife Sites” Maybe the next time a local woodland comes on the market a village community group could get together and buy it (as Walden Countryside did at Noakes Grove)? Woodland costs about £5-£6 a sq metre: the same as wallpaper at Homebase but it lasts forever.
Autumn is a good time for a woodland walk: the fungi are up in good numbers and if you feel confident about their identification you can harvest an excellent meal. You also stand a good chance of seeing some deer (or hearing the stags or bucks roaring and groaning as they fight for the affections of the does and hinds). There are four kinds of deer you might see in the large, Forestry Commission Woods but the non-native Fallow deer (introduced in the 11th century by the Normans) and Muntjac (introduced in the 19th century by the Duke of Bedford) are by far the most common. The native Roe and Red deer went extinct in Essex in Victorian times but recolonised naturally the Reds by 1970 ad the Roe more recently.
Four species of deer inhabit the Walden Countryside. The patterns of their rear ends are the best guide to identification (and also their size).
Red Deer are the largest land mammals native to Brit rain. They recolonised the Walden Countryside in the 1970s but are now very rare, This is a hind at Bendysh Woods
The easiest way of identifying the deer you see is to look at it as it runs away. The size of the deer and the characteristic rear-end design around the tail will tell you which kind it is. At this time of year, any buck (Muntjac, Fallow, Roe) or stag (Red) will have antlers.
Large numbers of deer can be a problem for wildlife conservation bodies as well as commercial foresters. They damage the regrowth of coppiced trees and seem unduly fond of eating oxlips. Our deer have no natural predators so control by humans seems inevitable. It you fancy some truly local, wild food buy yourself some venison steaks or deer burghers at the Radwinter Wild Game stall at the Friday Thaxted Market. Although three of our deer species are fairly common the Red seems to have got much rarer, It is the largest land mammal in Britain and the a small population colonised used to commute between Bendysh Woods and the (private) Hempstead Wood. I’d be very pleased to hear from anyone who sees a Red Deer anywhere locally.
If you enjoy a Walk in the Woods please donate and help Walden Countryside in its efforts to make more of the countryside open to visitors