A tour of the Reserve
The Birches Nature Reserve may be approached from the old crematorium building by walking north-eastwards and along Limes Avenue. As the road bears to the right, look out for the wooden sign on the lawn to the left : "The Birches"; this is by some mature specimens of silver birch on the lawn.
At the edge of the lawn, the boundary of the woodland is formed by bramble and bracken, and it is suggested that the left-hand entrance to the reserve is taken, formed by a log-pile which is a good place to look for fungi. The track leads into the woodland, with a mix of trees to either side including towering grey poplars - which are actually more plentiful here than birches - and Turkey oak. There is a scattering of holly, and it is worth looking at the variety of leaf-shapes and colours of the specimens here, and a mixed understory of bramble and ivy. The path is a soily gravel, and many plants may establish themselves in it. Typical of these are species such as herb robert, groundsel and Canadian fleabane. Part-way along the path some log benches have been formed, which again provide a home for fungi such as Stereum and ear-fungus Auricularia auricula-judaea. Honey fungus Armillaria mellea is frequent on the logs which have been used to delineate the path.
Where the route turns right, looking straight ahead between tall trees and through the rough undergrowth, it will be seen that the ground dips sharply away to form a valley. This is the site of the ornamental canal that once formed an important feature of the Aldersbrook Manor estate, but is now almost forgotten and unseen.
The Birches is a refuge and feeding area for many birds, as well as foxes and other smaller mammals. Of the more unusual species that have been recorded here, perhaps woodcock and snipe should be mentioned. It is the relative isolation and quietness of this are that has attracted these, but it is much more common to see birds such as wrens, blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits and - particularly in the winter when the cemetery provides a refuge for many continental visitors, wood pigeons. Great spotted woodpeckers are commonly heard or seen, and the area should provide a good habitat for lesser-spotted woodpeckers too - although in recent years these have been scarce. The smallest of our British birds, the goldcrest, is common here too.
Always, the path-side logs should be looked at for fungi, and Turkeytail and inkcaps Coprinus spp. may be found in their season. Walking parallel with the canal (to the left), large grey poplars are ahead, and yews. The path eventually turns right again, but look first at the disk-shaped logs that have been piled at the corner. These provide a home for not only fungi and slime-moulds, but a host of insects and crustaceans such as the wood louse Porcellio scaber. Before proceeding along the main track, drop down the slight slope to the wicker-fence. Beyond this is a pond created before the nature reserve was formed, but as wildlife habitat. The pond is fed by water that flows from a conduit - just visible to the left - and is the Alders Brook. This really is an out-of-the-way area, and secretive birds may use it. The small duck Teal have been seen here, making use of the shallow margins. The pond may be almost filled at times with celery-leaved buttercup Ranunculus sceleratus. On the concrete of the conduit, ferns have found a home and include hart's-tongue.
Returning up the slope, it will be noted that there are some silver birch hereabouts as well as a large numbers of yew trees. Although there are seedlings, the majority were planted in the 1980s. These are popular with the already-mentioned goldcrests. Some elegant sharp-leaved ivy will be seen on the left which contrasts well with other ivy of the more normal leaf-shape nearby. Once more, logs used to line the path are good for fungi, and as some of these are elm the patterns formed by the larvae of elm-bark beetle may be seen. These are particularly visible on the last log-pile as the path exits the Birches to return to the lawn.