News of wildlife and other issues
Food for Free!
Roger Snook of East London Nature was looking for mosses recently and noticed three men coming out from under the concrete bridge over the Roding which gives access from the recreation grounds on the Ilford side into the Exchange lands. They all had with them plastic bags which were stuffed full of something, so he decided to brave asking one of them what they'd - evidently - been collecting.
It was explained that they were collecting what they called "Wild Brocolli" for an Italian restaurant possibly somewhere near Gants Hill. Roger thought that it looked like some sort of brassica, and I suspect that it is Brassica rapa var. sylvestris, or Bargeman's Cabbage, which grows in profusion along the river banks. Now it really does grow in profusion along there, but then I understand that primroses used to frequently be found by English roadsides - until they were all picked - and Roger is always telling me how sparse the fungi growth is now in Epping Forest - now that they are all harvested for restaurants!
This brassica incident took place at much the same time as Kathy Hartnett of the Wren Group and I, having spotted a large and impressive clump of potential comfrey in the Exchange Lands, returned a week or so later to find that all of the growth had been taken down to ground-level. I am told that this is used to make an excellent wet-compost, or may be used medicinally. I have seen groups of people on the Plain in Wanstead Park harvesting Common Sorrel, it is oft reported that fish are taken from the lakes in the Park and elsewhere, and even birds have been known to disappear off the lakes.
I reported on this website some time ago how I'd listened to a R4 programme (click here) that not only talked about mushrooms taken from the Forest, but also included a recorded comment from a stallholder at the City of London's own Spitalfield Market that sounded very much like he were a perpetrator. Just a few days ago there was a "Women's Hour" programme that dealt with the different types of "Wild Garlic" - including Ramsons - that could (and should?) be used for cooking. When we are faced with national broadcasts that promote food for free backed up by an increasing number of people that have been used to obtaining much of it that way - then some of our wildlife may be in trouble!
Paul Ferris, 19th April
Grey Mining Bees, Andrena cineraria, in Wanstead Park
Visiting the Temple in Wanstead Park on 11th April 2010, my attention was drawn to numbers of small bees that were busy about the slope leading up to the Temple's portico.
An attractive black and light-grey colour, with the wings giving a somewhat bluish tinge, they were burrowing into the somewhat sparsely-vegetated ground on the slope. After trawling through various identification guides, what I came up with was the Grey - or Ashy - Mining Bee Andrena cineraria, which is listed in the Essex Red Data List as "Vulnerable". The Red Data List consists of species that are classified into different categories of perceived risk.
The photograph to the right was taken from directly above two bees, one above ground and the other just showing as a tail in a hole.
As there appeared to be only three areas within Essex from where these bees have been reported, I reported the find to Peter Harvey, the recorder for Hymenoptera in Essex. He sent an encouraging reply, saying that the only other modern records were also from the Epping Forest area, but all quite a bit further north. He also mentioned that there is another mining bee that looks similar, Andrena nigrospina, but this is only adult later in the season, late May and June. He suggested that the discovery was worth a note in the Essex Field Club Newsletter or the Essex Naturalist.
The bees appear to have a very limited period when they are observable as adults, and this may have been the reason why they have not been recorded before - they have just been missed. This seemed to prove true when a return visit was made to the slope on 18th April. Only a few bees were present, and no holes were visible. The weather conditions were broadly the same - that is to say fine - although the visit was made a few hours earlier than last time, at 1pm instead of 4pm. But it is also true that the condition of the vegetation on the slope has changed within the last few years, with increased usage by humans as the Temple has been opened at weekends and the Temple grounds used for an increasing number of events. This may have led to thinning of the vegetative cover, giving the bees more of an opportunity to burrow.
The slope is home also to a rare plant in this area, Birdsfoot, Ornithopus perpusillus (photo), which is very low growing and perhaps may not be affected by the trampling. However another rare plant in the area which grows here is Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia (photo). This, I suspect, will not benefit from humanity in the same way as the bees may be doing!
Doing a search on the internet for Andrena cineraria a day after contacting Peter, I was surprised to find an entry; what was even more surprising was that it was my own - a record from 2009. I had photographed a bee that I hadn't seen before and had tentatively identified it as A. cineraria. However it was so tentative an identification that I'd forgotten it! That particular specimen was found a little further south in the Park than the Temple, on 19th April.
Paul Ferris, 18 April 2010
Habitat loss on Wanstead Flats
I have lived beside Wanstead Flats for 38 years, and in that time, as a botanist and natural history enthusiast, the Flats have been brought me so much pleasure. I have tracked its changes in mood, the effects of climatic cycles and the influence of man's activities. I have helped to set up the East London Nature group (www.eastlondonnature.co.uk) and have photographed many of its plants. Over the past few years I have been increasingly concerned at the way in which man-made changes have dramatically changed and impoverished the diversity of topography and species on the Flats.
I will illustrate this first of all by referring to the pond near the site of the old bandstand at the junction of Capel Road and Centre Road. In my early days I found a wonderful range of grasses, rushes and sedges around its margins. Succeeding years saw dumping go unchecked, curious and inexplicable dredging, and a general lack of understanding or apparent concern about this important feature of the area. I attach a few of the pictures that I took in the 80's and early 90's to illustrate my point. (see Fig. 1 below). All of these species could once be found in many places on the Flats. Alas, this is no longer true. The cutting off of water supplying 'The Spring' (near the junction of Aldersbrook Road and Centre Road) has lost us a wonderful little habitat where many long-gone species thrived such as the Celery-leaved Buttercup. The Black Sedge (once common) and the Glaucous Sedge (once rare) are now no more.
The recent pipe-laying works also brought casualties as in Bush Wood North, on the Wanstead side of Bush Road. Here, a small population of Harebells has gone and, more importantly, we have lost one of the few occurrences of Silver Hair-grass in this part of the world. The disappearance of a permanent wetland to the east of Jubilee Pond has caused the demise of many species including a beautiful stand of Tufted Hair-grass and leafy liverworts in the damp ditches beside it. On a ridge running from below the Spring southward parallel to Centre Road was a healthy growth of Yellow Oat-grass - not so today. These things, amongst others, have been allowed to happen.
The removal of the invasive birches in recent times was unfortunately accompanied by destruction of the small birch copse that provided an environment for a wealth of fungi including Fly Agaric and Brown Birch Bolete. I now fear that current mowing regimes may threaten other species - Heath-grass, Mat-grass, Grass Vetchling and Marchantia polymorpha to name but a few (see Fig. 2 below).
Local naturalists will know the wonderful diversity of the Flats and just how fragile and vulnerable are its small communities. One imagines that such local naturalists are consulted before these seemingly draconian management and public works initiatives are embarked upon. Since the Flats is 'ours' - Wanstead Villagers, Forest Gate-ites, Leytonstonians, and the wider community for generations to come - I sincerely hope so!
P.S. Has anyone noticed the single clump of Upright Brome in the grassland near the 'Big Beech' at the corner of Aldersbrook and Centre Roads. It has been there for all my 38 years in the area - if no one else has noticed it, how much longer will it remain?
The Bluebells of Wanstead Park
The bluebells of Wanstead Park are increasingly being realised as one of the best colonies of these plants in the area; in Chalet Wood and in Warren Wood particularly, there are thousands of them.
Perhaps the best place to appreciate the show is in Chalet Wood, within sight of the Temple and convenient for visitors to the Park from either the Wanstead end at Warren Road or the Aldersbrook end at Northumberland Avenue. The local conservation group - the Wren Group - has been working on this wood for years to enhance the show - and from the numbers of visitors this seems to have worked. Back in the 1970s, I wrote that the wood was one of the best places in the Park to find ferns; this is no longer the case because much of the undergrowth that supported these has now been removed to make way for the bluebells.
Probably the wood would support an even better show than it does, but there are problems with invasive bramble and - sad to say - people. Because of the nature of the wood particularly during the autumn and winter, there are few clearly defined pathways through the woods; even those that are tend to get covered in leaves. This means that in early spring, just as the bluebells are beginning to show above ground, people tend to wander at will - and damage to the plants and compacting of the soil means that the plants struggle each year to make any new ground. Even the very visitors that come to enjoy the show can add to this, by walking amongst them (however pleasant this may be), or stepping on them to take photographs. Other activities that are not deliberately harmful to the flowers yet significantly inhibit their increase include the construction of "camps" in the woods - where large logs are dragged through the wood to typically erect a tent-like structure around the bole of a tree. The areas around these structures in particular are so trampled as to leave little vegetation growth.
It might be possible - and has been suggested - that defined routes are created. Just how the definition is made is the problem. No-one wants to see fenced-off areas in Wanstead Park - indeed it would probably be against bye-laws - but perhaps just a well-formed low log edging might at least act as a psychological deterrent to some to keep to the paths?
Last year, notices were put up on simple boards at appropriate access points to Chalet Wood that explained to visitors that the bluebells were special and were easily damaged, and asked that not only that they should not be picked but that they should not be trampled upon.
It is hoped that the notices will go up again this year, as the increasing show is generating increasing visitors, and without care we might see less rather than more of these beautiful flowers.
The bluebells in Chalet Wood are all of our native species, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and Wanstead Park holds an important population of them. However, many other woodlands have been invaded by the more vigorous Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which are sold as garden plants and if discarded may interbreed and spoil the native population. And Chalet Wood is threatened in the same way; along much of Northumberland Avenue - which borders Wanstead Park to the south, Spanish Bluebells are flourishing, discarded from houses along the road. Even very close to Chalet Wood itself, between the Sweet Chestnut avenue and the vegetation that borders the southern edge of Chalet Wood, clumps of the invaders are present. I suspect it wouldn't take much to dig these out and dispose of them before they hybridise with our own species - but without permission from the Park's owners - the City of London Corporation - this would be illegal.
There are thousands of bluebells in Wanstead Park, other than in Chalet Wood, and there could be some sweeping views elsewhere. The problems elsewhere are that in many cases the pathways are now blocked or brambled, or the numbers of fallen trees or branch-litter inhibits the views. Without wishing a tidying-up process anywhere near the extent that has been carried out in Chalet Wood, much could be done to make the bluebell experience in Wanstead Park as a whole a glorious thing!
Paul Ferris, 5th April 2010
Butterfly Transects in Wanstead Park
What is a transect? You may well ask; the word does not appear in the Concise Oxford, but in the somewhat larger version shows up as "A line or a belt of land along which a survey is made of the plant or animal life or some other feature; a survey of this kind"
So it was a suggestion made to a few individuals from the Wren Group and Wanstead Wildlife by Sam Jarrah Moon, one of the newer Epping Forest Keepers, that it would be useful to do such a transect in our part of the Forest.
The idea was to obtain more precise data relating to the species of butterfly that inhabit this area, particularly in Wanstead Park. My own records show that 23 species have been recorded - all of which either are or could be found in Wanstead Park. My own recording of just about all types and species of animal and plant life (and a few things that are neither one or the other) have not generally been very precise as to numbers - although particularly with plants they have been sometimes very precise as to location! This is mainly because I have never had the resources to carry these detailed researches out.
So on Saturday 2nd April, Tim Harris, Kathy Hartnett and I met Sam at the refreshment kiosk in the Park to discuss the idea. Sam had already a prepared route for the transect, plus instructions and recording forms. Even with four people keen to start this undertaking, it could be seen that resources would be stretched so as to be able to commit to the required once-a-week survey. We all have either our jobs or other commitments!
Nevertheless - certainly as far as I am concerned that some information is better than none - we proposed to begin there and then and walk our first butterfly transect. It must be said that the day wasn't the best for butterflies - or even humans. It was chilly and rain-threatening. The instruction say that surveys should only be carried out if the temperature is above 13°C., and it was a bit less than that! But we walked the route anyway, to get used to the requirements, the route itself and the time it would take. We didn't see any butterflies.
The following day, we met on Wanstead Flats to determine yet another transect there. The possible route here is perhaps less obvious, because of the many and sometimes faintly distinguishable trackways that it might be possible to follow. It is important that the same route is followed each time, so we marked it of carefully on a map using a route that would be readily identifiable next time around. The weather was slightly better and even slightly warmer, but it didn't reach 13° and the butterflies were huddled up warm.
It will be interesting to see how the butterfly transects develop - whether as individuals or a group we can continue to maintain the once-a-week requirement, but whatever, we should get some data, see some butterflies, see some other things, and get out for a walk.
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