News of wildlife and other issues

Bird Deaths at Alexandra Lake, Wanstead Flats

Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats was cordoned off from Tuesday 9th March following the discovery of a number of dead crows. It was thought that poison may had been administered in the feeding area adjacent to the car park.

Investigations into the bird deaths on Wanstead FlatsEpping Forest staff and vehicles, 9th March

Epping Forest staff wearing protective clothing were collecting dead birds on Wednesday 10th. It was reported that many crows and pigeons as well as Canada geese, a greylag goose, coots and moorhens had been found dead. A dog - reputedly a German shepherd - is also reported to have died after a walk by the lake.

A statement dated 11th March from The Warren, Epping Forest, read:

"There have been unexplained bird deaths on and around Alexandra Lake and we have also received details of the death of a dog that was taken for a walk in the area of the Lake on 8th March. The area has been cordoned off and warning signs have been erected. Natural England, in association with the Environment Agency is leading on an investigation. Epping Forest Keepers are on site to give out advice and the public are urged to stay away from the area and keep their dogs on leads. Post mortem examinations of some of the dead birds are being carried out by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. The City of London, the Environment Agency, DEFRA, Met Police and LBR Environmental Health will all take appropriate actions following on the results of these tests."

A dead crow on Wanstead FlatsCarrion Crow found dead on the playing fields on 12 MarchTests at the lake were carried out on Thursday 11th by officers from Natural England, the body which advises the Government on the natural environment, but it was necessary for tests to be carried out on specimens of dead birds by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency before the cause was known.

On Saturday morning "London Tonight" conducted interviews at the lake with Keith French - the Forest Services Manager from Epping Forest, Jonathan Lethbridge - a local birdwatcher who was one of the first to notice the dead birds, and John Smith of the Wanstead Historical Society.

Up to Saturday morning 87 dead birds had been collected by Forest staff. The crow pictured above was recovered from the playing fields that morning, and another crow and a moorhen were found dead by the lake. Whilst we were there, we watched a pigeon staggering about and then ultimately dying - a distressing sight which was reminiscent of scenes in 1992 when a build-up of toxins in the lake caused by excessive feeding resulted in the deaths of many birds and fish. (see here) The suspicion is that although that incident was accidental, the present situation may well be deliberate. It is known for example that some local residents are not happy about the pigeons that roost on their property, and people using the Flats for recreation have been heard to comment on the large numbers (up to 200 at times) of Canada geese that tend to leave their droppings around the lake. Whether or not it is found that this time the poisoning was deliberate, it may be that steps should be taken to limit the amount of food that is put down for the birds; I am sure that most of the people that bring food for the birds would be horrified to realise just what problems arise from their benevolence - be it accidental or deliberate.

biohazard_wf_100312_0077c"Biohazard" warningA news release issued by the City of London on Wednesday 30 August 2006 read as follows:

"Please do not feed the birds in Epping Forest.

The City of London, the conservator of Epping Forest, is today asking visitors to stop feeding birds on all of the ponds throughout the Forest.

Over 40 waterfowl (swans, ducks and geese) have died at Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook in the last week alone. The cause of death is confirmed by Animal Rescue organisations to be poisoning, due to food in the water.

Kevin Garten from The Swan Sanctuary said: “A fantastic amount of discarded food is being put into the ponds and this is extremely harmful to the waterfowl, resulting in poisoning and death of the birds.”

The feeding of birds, particularly people leaving large quantities of waste food, throughout Epping Forest is highly detrimental to both the health of the birds and the local landscape. Discarded food also encourages vermin, which causes problems for residents who live near to Forest land.

Epping Forest Superintendent, Mat Roberts, said: “The problem experienced at Eagle Pond last week is not isolated and we would urge people to stop feeding the birds at all of the ponds throughout Epping Forest.”

Dead Coot at Alexandra LakeAnother dead bird - a Coot by the lake on 16th March

I hadn't received any such releases or statements until the one relating to the present incident on 11th March, although there are clear signs regarding feeding birds at places such as Alexandra Lake. Maybe some on-the-spot fines could be imposed that may act as a deterrent? Notices often appear to go unheeded these days - those at the entrances to Wanstead Park that state "No Cycling" are an example  - but it was particularly worrying to see that during the afternoon of Sunday 14th - Mother's Day - people were beyond the taped-off cordon at the lake-edge, feeding the birds. This included two families with children, one of whom I judged to be about four years old. Although the Epping Forest statement of Wednesday stated that Epping Forest staff were on site to give out advice, this was not the case on a sunny Mothering-Sunday afternoon - just the time when families might take their children to "feed the ducks"!


I understand that - after watching a pigeon dying by the lake-side just before the film-crew arrived on Saturday morning - no more dead birds were found. However in the morning on Tuesday 16th there was a dead Coot near the feeding area by the lake. What was also evident was that much of the tape was now broken and streaming from the posts, and in some cases detached and finding its way into shrubs and trees.

wf _alex_130105_1237cFeeding Hazard at Alexandra Lake

By Monday 15th March morning, a number of local newspapers had also taken up the story, including the Newham Recorder and the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian. The London Evening Standard had an article in their Monday edition, and BBC News reported on the incident on Monday as well. I have to say that I haven't seen birds "dropping out of trees" as has been reported, but the sight of dead and dying birds near the feeding area (pictured above) was distressing. The water appeared to be in good condition, and those birds that would more typically not take much of the food offered by humans - such as shoveler ducks and little grebes (dabchicks) so far seemed unaffected. That said, even shoveler sometimes waddle on their short legs out of the water to take food from the ground (a difficult process, given the shape of their bills), and the dead coot on Tuesday morning seems to indicate that there is still a problem.

If the water was toxic in some way, this might have caused problems to the nearby Alders Brook - a concern expressed to me by the Manager of the nearby City of London Cemetery - because some of the outflow from Alexandra Lake is thought to be an important source of the brook. (see here)

On Tuesday 16th, a press release was issued stating that two men aged 35 and 27 had been arrested by Metropolitan Police 's Wildlife Crime Unit in the Forest Gate area at about 8am on suspicion of breaching pesticide control regulations.

alex_100319_40190cAnother poison-scare at Alexandra Lake on the 19th MarchWednesday morning showed no more dead birds, but a very sad notice had been put up by the owner of Russett, the five-year-old male German Shepherd cross that died on Monday evening after a walk past the lake. On Friday March 19th an Epping Forest keeper found a plastic bag containing a sugar-like substance by Alexandra Lake. The police and fire services were called, and by 3.15pm there were police and seven fire service vehicles on scene. Thankfully this turned out to be suger - perhaps some practical joker? - but the saga continued!

On Saturday morning, there was again the sad sight of a bird dying as I watched - this time a Carrion Crow with vomit from its mouth, hardly moving at first, but then struggling to open its wings as it lay on the gravel by the lake. The poison was still having an effect, and by now the tape cordon was being renewed apparently each morning.

Early on Thursday 25th, a metal security fence was erected at the west end of the lake, encompassing that area most used for feeding, adjacent to the car-park. Up until then, the tape cordon had been renewed apparently daily by Epping Forest staff (subsequent to the Mothering-Sunday incident!), but it seems that the main concern - as was originally suspected - was in the feeding area. I have not heard of any further deaths since the Carrion Crow on Saturday 20th, and still the water-birds that do not normally feed on land seem to have been unaffected.

wf_100325_00161Security barrier at Alexandra LakePossibly because of the fact that people had been arrested, and maybe with the possibility of criminal investigations, I received no further updates on what was happening. I have only heard second-hand that many more birds have been found dead than have been reported in the newspapers, and that at least one fox is also said to have died.

I received a call from the Newham Recorder on 1st April asking if I knew of any previous instances of deliberate poisoning like this, and I pointed out that previous problems with birds - and other creatures - dying on Alexandra Lake was the result of build-up of toxins in the lake caused by an excess of decaying food-material. I was told that the police had informed them that the poison has been identified as an agricultural pesticide of a group called Carbamates. The usual cause of death from poisoning by carbamate compounds is - apparently - respiratory depression combined with fluid accumulation in the lungs. This latter agrees with the crow that I saw dying with a foamy vomit coming from its mouth. Some of the pesticides available are highly toxic to birds, although apparently the toxicity varies from one bird species to another, let alone from one animal species to another.

The cordon and the security fence were taken down on the morning of 1st April, as it was felt that it was now safe for people and dogs.

The final outcome of this saga was that the two men arrested for the offence were subsequently tried at Snaresbrook Crown Court. Former pest controllers Mark Page, 35, and Paul Webb, 27, were accused of stealing a batch of the chemical Ficam - W from Newham Council. They each were jailed for four months and fined £7,000 for poisoning wildlife.

PC David Flint, of the Wildlife Crime Unit at Scotland Yard was reported as saying that the men "showed a complete disregard for public safety with the indiscriminate use of dangerous chemicals", that "They derived personal amusement from the death of birds and caused the death of a pet dog," and  "It is small consolation following the destruction caused that these men were brought to justice."

Paul Ferris, April 2010

a five-year-old male German Shepherd cross,

Protecting the Skylarks on Wanstead Flats

Having completed the Wren Group's "Migrant Bird Watch" on Sunday (see here), and experienced the Skylarks and Meadow Pipits preparing for their nesting season, I was disappointed to see that the notices that were put up last year relating to ground nesting birds had not been replaced.

Skylark PosterProtecting the Skylarks in 2009...

These notices were put up on the Aldersbrook area of Wanstead Flats, at dog-walking access points to the rough grassland, and read:

"This area of extensive grassland is an important habitat for ground-nesting birds which are easily disturbed. We would appreciate if you could keep your dog on a lead as you pass through this area to minimise the disturbance. Thank you for your co-operation."

It is always difficult to ascertain how much effect these sort of notices have, but even if just one dog-owner stops and thinks and puts their dog onto a lead, that might have saved one Skylark's nest. Certainly you can see dogs happily rummaging about in the rough grass - evidently searching for something! So - I was pleasantly surprised whilst doing the first of a series of butterfly transects the following Saturday to see that the notices - albeit temporary ones - were back in place. I understand that more permanent ones are on order.

We should soon be seeing notices at the access points to Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park which ask people to treat the Bluebells with care. Chalet Wood is yearly becoming more popular with people coming to see the show, and indeed the Wren Group's annual Bluebell Walk has now been supplanted by walks organised by others - including the City of London. This just emphasises how conservation work over the years has made something better - for the Group has been working on Chalet Wood for this reason for years

What we must ensure is that when we have something that is good and valuable, we use appropriate means to inform and educate people of this so they can enjoy them too. Simple notices may help in this - so long as they are removed whilst not required or replenished when old and tatty.

(for more on the Skylarks of Wanstead Flats, watch the video here)

Paul Ferris, 29th March 2010

Herons in Wanstead Park

A visit to Valentines Park in Ilford - somewhat outside Wanstead Wildlife's remit - provided me with a surprise. I had missed the report on the Redbridge Birdwatching Blogspot about a pair of herons building a nest there, and so thought I was imagining things. But there it was, on the island of the ornamental pond, and not too high off the water. One bird was hunting nearby; the other sat on the nest, with periodically the hunter flying the short distance to join its partner.

Heron's nest in Valentines Park, IlfordHeron's on the nest at Valentines Park

I hadn't been aware of any other heron's nest in Redbridge, nor indeed closer than the Walthamstow Reservoirs, though I may be wrong. Although I am sometimes told that herons breed in Wanstead Park, they don't - although they are frequently seen there, of course.

There is a story that herons were introduced to the Park by Sir John Heron, who was keeper of the estate until his death in 1521. It's an interesting story, but whether it is possible to introduce a bird like a heron to a place where you want it seems a bit unlikely. More likely they would have found their own way, if it were to their liking.

The name of Heronry Pond may give a clue as to where a heronry may have been at some time, but certainly in 1866 they were nesting on one of the islands on the Ornamental Water. This is confirmed by a report in "Science Gossip" of April 1869 when Mr. Harting describes a visit to the heronry which he describes as follows: "At present they occupy some tall elms upon an island in the largest piece of water in the park."

In "Epping Forest" by Edward North Buxton he says: "About fifty birds came to the tree in 1883." At the meeting of the Essex Field Club in Wanstead Park in 1888 Goddard, the Keeper, stated that in 1887 thirty-eight nests were counted.

There are reports that children were trying to get herons eggs in 1921, but the received story is that the herons began to leave after the park was opened to the public in 1882. The Walthamstow Reservoirs had been constructed by then, so this would have provided the birds an alternative and less disturbed site; perhaps some younger birds would have already been using the reservoirs by the time that Wanstead Park was beginning to attract visitors?

It is only relatively recently (say, about 20 years) that the herons in Wanstead Park have become anything like tolerant of humans, so it may be assumed that the then shy birds gradually deserted the Park in favour of the quietness of the reservoirs.

It is interesting to note that it seems that Wanstead Park's herons have become more tolerant in recent years, particularly perhaps since a woman used to feed them fish! Of course Valentine's wildlife - particularly the squirrels - have for long been accustomed to begging from humans; the squirrels are some of the boldest anywhere, and the herons seem to be following suit.

I have noticed a similar circumstance in the City of London Cemetery; where only a few years ago the squirrels were quite shy, now they are quite bold. And some of the foxes there will actually take food from your hand near the cafeteria.

We should keep a look-out for signs of herons returning to breed at Wanstead - and hope that the cormorants don't do so first!

Paul Ferris, 21 March 2010

Red Kites over Wanstead?

Arriving at the Warren Road entrance to Wanstead Park on 19th March in preparation for a photographic shoot relating to the state of the Grotto, I was thrilled to watch a Red Kite flying over. Travelling generally east-west, it was being harried by a crow; presumably this was one of the local population that wasn't happy about seeing another new resident so soon after the Parakeets.

It's not the first kite to have been seen locally, one was seen flying over Northumberland Avenue in September last year, and I suspect that we may see more as time goes by. * (see note below)

That sounds a bit like the title of a song, and thinking about the name, I was reminded of the words to a song by that folksy 60's singer Donovan. In a version of the traditional song "Pretty Peggy-O", Donovan sings the lines; "See the red kite in the sky, pretty Peggy- O; See the red kite in the sky, pretty Peggy- O; See the red kite in the sky, as I watch the summer die..." etc. I did wonder at the time whether he was referring to the bird Milvus milvus or a toy on a string, but whether he was referring to a bird or a toy doesn't really matter, because the thing-on-a-string was named after the bird anyway. It was probably a good idea to use the English name in the song, rather than the scientific one, though.

A couple of weeks ago I stayed for a few days near the Bucks/Berks border, and it was a daily source of enjoyment seeing a kite hanging in the sky, or two playing together, or a group over a town. They are so common in that part of the Chilterns and nearby areas that it would seem likely that they'd spread further afield - and the area around Copped Hall in the north of the Forest looks to me a likely spot (not that I can see things from a Kite's point of view, of course). It has woods and rolling hills and farmland - and plenty of carrion-suitable roads from the Epping one to motorways.

And if they did take up residence around there, then it is not to far-fetched to imagine them patrolling down here as well.

Here's my not-very-good long-distance view of the Kite and its persecutor.


Red Kite, Warren Road, Wanstead - 19 March 2010Red Kite, Warren Road, Wanstead - 19 March 2010

* This happened -  on March 24th there was one over Valentines Park,and on March 26th, again one over Wanstead Flats.

Paul Ferris

Public Consultation on Sports Facilities at Wanstead Flats

There was a public and user consultation at Harrow Road changing rooms on Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th February 2010, organised by the Corporation of London.

This is part of the e-mail sent out by the Football Development Officer for the Corporation's Epping Forest Division:

"At the end of February, we are consulting with all involved with Wanstead Flats as to how you feel our efforts should be directed in coming years and with future investments.

Following our recent investments at Harrow Road and with plans to actively seek funding for future investments across our site, this is a great time to provide your feedback. This is also your opportunity to share your thoughts on the operation of the sports facilities at Wanstead Flats as we look to offer the most effective service.

We would like feedback from all sections of the Wanstead Flats community; dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, horse riders, footballers, spectators, local residents and schools!

Please help us to circulate this as widely as possible so that everybody gets their say".

This was an opportunity for people to voice their concerns about football and other sports activities on the Flats, especially as at a meeting organisedlast year by the Friends of Wanstead Flats there was some mention of the possibility of expanding the number of pitches. Wanstead Flats is an extremely valuable wildlife habitat, with a diverse resident population that includes some quite rare species in this area. It is also being increasingly realised that it is an important stop-over point for migrant birds as well as those visiting for the winter or summer. The playing fields themselves offer feeding and grazing potential for such birds as Meadow Pipits and Skylarks and particularly for gulls and geese in winter - so their value must not be underestimated. Incredibly, the wonderful colony of Skylarks seem to exist quite happily despite the disturbance that might be perceived to come from such activities as model-aircraft flying, noisy football games or simply dogs and walkers.

That said, the value of lowland heath-type habitat, with rough grassland, is immense, so we shoud think carefully about losing any of this. In fact, perhaps we should think about increasing it and enhancing it - as is being attempted by the scraping of some areas west of Centre Road.

Although the e-mail mentioned above mentioned "all involved with Wanstead Flats", the questionnaire offered at the consultation was perhaps limited in its scope, aimed much more at sports-users than other groups. It was clear, however, that numbers of people who had attended had expressed their concern with other issues - often connected with the sports activities - such as on-street parking.

The consultation was obviously at an early stage where they are sounding out ideas but included four options, one of which  was to build a new sports changing rooms right in the middle of the Flats next to Centre Road, while another was to build a new facility next to Alexandra Lake. The other two related to either improving and maintaining the existing facilities by Capel Road and Aldersbrook Road, or renewing these perhaps along the lines of Harrow Road.

If you need any further information about issues relating to this consultation, you may try contacting Sinem Cakir at the City of London Corporation :  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.