How Coulsdon’s downland oasis is helping to save the planet

High rise: Farthing Downs holds many historic secrets

NATURE NOTES: The City of London rangers who look after Farthing Downs, Coulsdon Common and other precious green spaces are as hard at work over the bleak midwinter months as the rest of the year, including important projects to unlock the area’s Iron Age history

There is little doubt that a warming climate will have a profound impact on people and planet.

One of the overriding themes to come out of the UN’s COP26 conference in Glasgow last month is the importance of not only reducing our carbon emissions but how to store carbon, namely through the chief protagonist: trees.

This was the theme at a recent talk in Old Coulsdon organised by the Friends of Farthing Downs and Happy Valley, including speakers from the Woodland Trust, Croydon Council’s street tree team and rangers from the City of London.

While tree-planting does have its part to play, the recent drive to plant more trees in the ground to offset carbon has been somewhat oversimplified.

The right trees in the right place: the City Commons grassland has an important role in carbon capture and storage

In Glasgow, several organisations made the carbon storage case for grasslands, for their ability to store immense amounts of carbon – often vastly more than newly established woodlands but with added bonuses for biodiversity. More than 38 per cent of terrestrial carbon is stored in grasslands, with older, undisturbed grassland, like those found on the Coulsdon Commons, sequestering the most carbon.

Species-rich grasslands are also extraordinary ecosystems, with diverse wild plants, animals and fungi at their core – not just essential for carbon storage, they also reduce flooding, boost pollinators and stop soil erosion – all essential elements to supporting threatened wildlife, giving humans areas for recreation and tackling and adapting to climate change.

Much of the South London Downs National Nature Reserve is historic or restored nationally-rare chalk grassland and one of the main reasons why sites such as Farthing Downs and Riddlesdown are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

The rangers, in their latest newsletter, say, “Although we get many genuine requests to plant more trees to supplement the existing ancient and secondary woodland, old hedgerows and veteran trees that come under our care and management, the reality is that planting requires the ‘right tree in the right place’.

“Ultimately, biodiverse habitats should not be prioritised over more suitable places like gardens, parks and streets, where they can have the biggest impact. Much can be done to plant trees in private gardens.

“Gardens across London have been disappearing at a staggering rate, with many being paved, tarmacked or lost to development at a size equivalent to 2.5 Hyde Parks per year.

“The Woodland Trust offer some good points to get started and some tips for planting and looking after trees in private gardens and streets.” Click here for more information.

SEEKING OUT WINTER COLOUR: Even in winter, Farthing Downs is still colourful, from beech trees in the woodland to the fungi in the grassland.

One of the most vibrant things to be seen is the wide colour forms of waxcap mushrooms (pictured left).

These small mushrooms are usually the last to appear in the season and are so-named because of their wax-like texture. The presence of waxcaps is considered to be an indicator of old, unimproved grassland (permanent grassland that has not been cultivated for many years).

Two of the most colourful types found on Farthing Downs are the pink waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis and blackening waxcap Hygrocybe conica (this first appears bright red and fades to black).

Unearthing Farthing Downs’ ancient past

Last month, rangers on Farthing Downs met with Historic England, the government body associated with looking after England’s historic environment, to discuss the creation of new information panels that will bring the area’s rich heritage to life. Thanks to a small fund, there will soon be a series of panels on some of the most important heritage features on Farthing Downs.

Digging for history: archaeologist and broadcaster Brian Hope-Taylor working on the Downs in the 1960s

Farthing Downs is the site of a large Anglo-Saxon cemetery and more than 16 graves are spread out across the site in a mixture of barrows and flat graves, some of which are still visible to this day.

Etched onto the downs there are also multiple linear features including Iron Age field systems, trackways and, from the Second World War, ditches to prevent an airborne invasion.

There have been many archaeological digs on the Downs including those by Brian Hope-Taylor. The most recent was conducted in 2005. Sadly, much of the finds by the Victorians are in unknown personal collections, but many discoveries are stored in local and national museums’ archives, including the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

With so much history under our care and protection, how to interpret it for all to discover has always been a mammoth task for the City of London, and this latest project with Historic England should help to unlock some of that hidden history for the public.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in City Commons, Croydon parks, Education, Environment, Friends of Farthing Downs, Gardening, History, Nature Notes, South London Downs NNR, Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How Coulsdon’s downland oasis is helping to save the planet

  1. Lewis White says:

    Thank you for this article.
    It was very interesting to read that old, species rich grasslands with wild flora (as present in large areas at Farthing Downs and Happy Valley) capture a huge amount of carbon.

    The article was thoughtful, making it clear that if tree planting is to be considered, and carried out, it is vital to get the right tree in the right place. A knee jerk “must have trees, trees, trees” can easily become a conservationist mantra.

    The local landscape of the countryside to the South of Croydon is a combination of woodland, much of it occupying the wetter clay with flints areas on top of the North Downs Plateau, with big sweeps of downland –like Farthing Downs– on the bare chalk areas, often the steep sides of the Chipstead, Coulsdon/Hooley and Caterham valleys. It is a rich tapestry of landscapes , on the flat plateau, and the bare hills, and the valley sides.

    To plaster the whole lot with trees would destroy not only treasured openaspect landscapes, but wipe out habitats for the majority of indigenous butterfiles and moths.

    The statistic about the conversion of lawns and planted gardens to paved areas is horrific.

    One serious fact locally about trees and street is the ongoing loss of street trees due to the construction of more and more vehicle crossovers. When a street tree dies of old age or disease or gets killed by vehicle impact or gas leaks, or salt damage, the tree has to be removed. Sadly, far too often, there is no money to replant. Tree planting locations remain vacant, for years, even decades. Many never get replanted, and get tarmacked over. Unless there is a brick edging to the pit, which is a traditional detail in Croydon streets, the tarmac patch just looks like an other taramc repair, so the tree pit can easily “go missing”.

    It is fairly cheap to plant a new tree in a grass verge. It is much more expensive to break out a site that has been tarmacked over, and add a cubic metre or so of new topsoil to form a new “tree pit”, and plant a new street tree.

    I really hope that the new Elected mayor will look at this issue.

    It is deeply ironic that at the very time when the general public are getting more and more aware of trees and their benefits — taking dust out of the air, removing pollution and adding moisture to dry urban air — we are spending less on street planting than we did decades ago.

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