About the Great Wood



Northaw Great Wood is a remnant of the extensive forest that covered much of the area before the Norman conquest. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the area was owned by Norman Barons. In the 16th century, it was recorded as a Woodland Common and as such would have been used for grazing, while pollarding the Hornbeams provided commoners’ fuel.

In 1806 the Common of Northaw was enclosed by Act of Parliament. From then until 1938 it was a private woodland used for timber production. In 1811, the original pollards were cut down and replanted with Oak and Scots Pine. Some of the older Hornbeams can, however, still be seen in the adjacent Cuffley Camp site. Coppicing of the planted Sweet Chestnut and Hornbeam took place in the 19th century. Most of the Pine were felled in the late 19th century and a final crop of Oak was removed in the 1920s. Since then, the remaining timber has re-established itself and because of its original heathy habitat, cleared areas are dominated by Birch with some Oak, Hornbeam and Sweet Chestnut.

In 1937, Hertfordshire County Council acquired 290 acres of this land and the site is now managed by Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council.


With no commercial exploitation or commoners’ activities as in the past, if left to itself, the Wood would become overgrown, possibly with unsuitable species such as Sycamore and the dense canopy would reduce the ground vegetation. This in turn can have a dramatic effect on the overall bio-diversity. Regular management is therefore essential to encourage a wide diversity of plants, birds and animals. Work is carried out in line with a Management Plan, approved by English Nature (now Natural England) and the Forestry Commission and agreed with the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust.

The key objectives of the current Management Plan are therefore:

  • Open up, extend and maintain existing glades (possible cattle grazing)
  • Open up the ride network extending it where necessary to link glades
  • Encourage oak regeneration
  • Re-establish pollards principally hornbeam but also oak using both young trees and some of the old coppiced hornbeam which may have originally been pollards.
  • Control and where possible remove invasive exotics
  • Consolidate the coppice area which should be moved into a traditional rotation
  • Maintain ponds and water courses
  • Revise path network to provide less disturbance in some areas
  • Maintain thickets of thorn and willow near streams
  • Implement survey work to identify particular habitats for rare species
  • Establish and support a Friends Group

The full management plan can be found here.

About the Wood

Prominently situated in two valleys dissecting the London Clay plateau of South Hertfordshire, the Great Wood and the adjacent Well Wood together comprise one of the county’s most extensive areas of ancient Hornbean dominated woodland. The acid soils range from poorly to freely draining with a corresponding richness in plant communities.

Traditional woodland management practices of coppice with standards and pollarding are still pursued, to ensure the survival of the woodlands wildlife features. Tall Hornbeam coppice is found almost throughout in association with both Sessile and Pedunculate (English) Oak, though Silver Birch is a constant member of the tree canopy. Also present in more or less well-defined groves are Sweet Chestnut, Aspen, Beech and Ash. Rowan and Holly also occur throughout.

In places, ground flora is absent under the densely shading Hornbeam and both bracken and bramble can be dominant with Honeysuckle and Bluebell abundant in some areas. Rides, glades, streamsides and springs add considerably to the diversity of the wood’s herb layer. Foxglove, Wood Sage, Heath Bedstraw and Common Bent characterize the drier areas. In the wetter, the less common Marsh Pennywort and Skullcap have been found. Elsewhere are Pendulous Sedge, Yellow Pimpernel, Lesser Spearwort and Lady and Broad Buckler-ferns occur.


Because of its importance for nature conservation, the Great Wood has for over 50 years been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and in 1999 was awarded the status of a Local Nature Reserve. The Wood also has the status of a Country Park, wherein lies the tension between the wood as a public amenity for which wide access and use is to be encouraged and its status as a Nature Reserve and SSSI where access may need to be restricted to protect the environment and its wildlife.

The Great Wood faces a range of current challenges. Many areas are overgrown. But areas that have been coppiced suffer from extensive damage from Muntjac Deer, see the SSSI Assessment. See also here. The wood contains too many exotic tree species, that is, trees that are not considered to be part of the native woodland flora. These include Sycamore, Sweet Chestnut and Rhododendron. The Oak trees are all even aged with very little natural regeneration. There are not enough areas of heathy acid grassland. This is the natural habitat derived from when the wood was part of a much larger mediaeval wood pasture common.

The extensive and invasive Rhododendron is subject to a programme of clearance. The ‘Friends’ hope to be able to add to the limited resources currently available to address these issues.

The above area of the wood, close to the Centre and the Red Route, was cleared of Rhododendron in 2007 to encourage regrowth of an open mix of more suitable native species. The area was fenced to prevent the Muntjac Deer from browsing on any regenerated growth. In Summer 2008, a very encouraging regeneration of heather was discovered at the southern end of this area and by 2010 it has flourished into a carpet:-

This is the large cleared area on the Blue Route at Justice Hill. While this  looked rather barren immediately after clearance, it has now regnerated, producing several plants like gorse and broom which demonstrates the original heathland origins of the area.

More about the Wood

See the Wood as it was: Then and Now

Learn about the Tracks & Trails

Find out about some of the Interesting Features

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