Wellfield Plantation and Grasslands are a set of roughly linked sites that form a complex of secondary woodland and chalk grassland over approximately 2 hectares (5 acres), at the very northern-most part of the North Downs on Upper Chalk deposits.
In the early 20th century, the site lay within the extensive grounds of the former Queen Mary’s Hospital, which was built in the early 1890’s. The remnants of Queen Mary’s Hospital are now occupied by Orchard Hill Hospital, which has been owned and managed by the Sutton & Merton Primary Care Trust since 1959. Queen Mary’s Woodland abuts the eastern edge of Wellfield Plantation and Wellfield South.
In the late 1990’s, a development of 36 homes was accepted and built on the area of an old Medical Research Council site, just to the southwest of Orchard Hill Hospital. As the development would be within the Green Belt and would affect areas of species-rich chalk grassland, The London Borough of Sutton negotiated for the areas of undeveloped grassland. These are now termed Wellfield Grasslands.
Wildlife & Habitats
As the site name explicitly states, the site is a mixture of plantation woodland and grassland. The plantation, as noted above, is secondary woodland that is likely to be self sown, that is, the woodland has arisen as a direct response to lack of management, once the original conifer plantation was finished with. The majority of trees within the plantation woodland are sycamore (Acer pseudoplantanus), with some mature ash (Fraxinus excelsior) forming the canopy, with hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and elder (Sambucus nigra) as understorey species. There is a great deal of ivy (Hedera helix) covering a large number of the trees and it dominates the ground flora too.
The small ‘grassland’ area within the plantation woodland (referred to as C3) was dominated by large and dense strands of bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.), with some mature sycamore trees providing a large amount of canopy cover to the area. Some of the sycamores are trees-throws; they were blown over in the storm of 1987 but have continued to grow, throwing up lots of stems from their now horizontal trunk.
The grassland areas (Wellfield West, East & South) are roughly 0.9ha (2.2 acres) in size. Wellfield West and East are good examples of chalk grassland with several notable flowering plant species. Wellfield South has not been managed since the housing development in the late 1990’s and consequently is very rough. It is hoped that the London Borough of Sutton will be able to manage this area for nature conservation in the very near future.
The chalk underlying the site is particularly valuable habitat for many species of plant; amongst the most notable are kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), majoram (Origanum vulgare), wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare), meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis) and the occasional pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pryamidalis). These play host to numerous species of invertebrates, including butterflies, spiders and beetles.
The plantation itself is quite good for birds, with several common species breeding there. In late 2007, early 2008, bird and bat boxes, including an owl box, were erected within the woodland.
In 2005, work started at Wellfield Plantation to clear the grassland area C3 of bramble. Over the last few years, through a combination of cutting, scrub clearance and grazing with Herdwick sheep, provided by our partners the Downlands Countryside Management Project, we are starting to get larger and larger areas of grass coming through. Within the grassy areas, cowslips (Primula veris) have made a welcome return. It is likely that they have lain dormant for several years, unable to compete with the bramble. By clearing the bramble, we have enabled this species to regain a foothold on the site.
A major phase of work on the plantation woodland started in 2007. Apart from the dominance of bramble on the grassland, shading from sycamores restricts the spread of grasses. By thinning the multiple stems from the fallen sycamores, we allow more light and heat to the floor, enabling grass (and other plant) species to move in. As at The Warren, the cut branches are used to create compost bins for cut grass and other arisings from the management work. We are also thinning areas of sycamore within the plantation woodland. This helps understorey species, such as hawthorn and elder thrive but also reduces the amount of ivy, allowing other species of plant to establish.
The grasslands are either mown or grazed with sheep to reduce the amount of scrub and rank grasses getting establish on site. Grazing creates an uneven sward (height and patchiness of grasses) due to the slow and selective grazing of the sheep. This creates lots of ‘micro-habitats’ that various plant and invertebrate species can use, increasing the amount of biological diversity on the grasslands.