Update on the Wanstead Flats fire - 16/10/2018

Three months after the fire – which was the biggest-ever grass fire in the London area – I revisited that part of the Flats closer to where the fire began, and much of which is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). I believe it was granted this designation because of some rather special insect species – including mining bees – that live there, and of course the reason that such specialised creatures live there is because of the habitat in general.

This area has large areas of Gorse Ulex europaeus, and is also the prime site – just about the only site – on the Flats where Heather Calluna vulgaris is still present. For some years management of of top layers of soil has taken place in an attempt to encourage the Heather, and indeed this has shown an increase over these years. Fires are often deliberately started on heather moorland to promote new growth of this and grass species to provide fodder, so the Flats fire may be beneficial, though this will depend on how deeply the fire penetrated into the soil. Gorse also burns very readily, but is also good at regenerating. Previous fires on this part of the Flats – which occur to some extent almost annually, have not led in the long run to any diminution of the amount of Gorse present. Tufted Hair-grass, Deschampsia cespitosa, is a significant grass-species in this area, and there is a considerable amount of Silver Birch Betula pendula, mainly originating from suckers, which is proving to be very invasive.

wf heather 181016 60040artAll of these species, and many others too, were considerably affected by the fire. I could find no Heather that had not been touched and was any more than blackened twigs. Similarly the Gorse, although there are still numerous patches in areas that the fire did not reach. That is true also of the Silver Birch, which although much of it was burnt to blackened and dead saplings, is still present in untouched areas. The Tufted Hair-grass – apart from that outside the fire-affected area – was completely burnt away, but just a week or so after the fire I had seen green shoots of this resilient species showing at the base of the charred mini-mounds that the grass forms.

wf tuftedhairgrass 181016 60036artOn my return visit three months later, the Tufted Hair-grass was growing well, Silver Birch had newly-formed leaves at the base of supposedly dead saplings, and there was lots of bright green patches of a Polytrichum moss, commonly called Haircap Moss, which is also prevalent around this area.

Of the Heather there was still no sign of growth, but I did pay particular attention to those plants that were more evidently actually flowering. At some time after the fire, it seems that a machine had been used on the southern edge of the burnt area. I believe that this may not actually be a designated part of the SSSI, so perhaps it was thought that some – perhaps experimental – remedial work be may be done on the charred soil here, rather than on the SSSI? The machine was – I suppose – some form of rotovator, to break up the compacted topsoil. This – or a similar machine – was also used more extensively on the burnt areas to the east of Centre Road, i.e. not on the SSSI. wf thorn apple 181016 60031artMost striking on my visit, when I crossed Centre Road towards the Fairground site and walked north parallel to Centre Road to the ploughed area, was the delicate yellow flowers of Common Toadflax Linaria vulgaris, bright against the broken and darkened soil. There were some considerable groups of these. Other noticeable species, in flower, were Groundsel Senecio vulgaris, White Campion Silene latifolia, Fat Hen Chenopodium album, plenty of Creeping Thistle Cirsium arvense – but not many flowers – some Creeping Cinquefoil Potentilla reptans, Petty Spurge Euphorbia peplus and – not surprisingly and quite aptly – Rosebay Willowherb Chamerion angustifolium, known as Fireweed.

The roadside verge adjacent to the west side Centre Road had made considerable recovery, looking quite green and with numerous plants in flower. These included - apart from those species already mentioned - Common Chickweed Stellaria media, Red Campion Silene dioica, a single plant of Flax Linum sp. (possibly L. usitatissimum) and a nice specimum of Thorn Apple Datura stramonium - the first record of which from Wanstead Flats.

For a report on the fire itself, with photographs taken at the time, Click Here

Paul Ferris, 16th October 2018