News of wildlife and other issues
Uncovering the Alders Brook
The winter rain in 2014 has beaten all records, so it is not surprising that we have seen the Shoulder of Mutton Pond and Heronry Pond in Wanstead Park as full as we have seen them for many years. The Perch Pond has been overflowing – as it should – through the Dell and into the Ornamental Water. It is only the latter that is still not as high as it should be.
We know all too well that there is a significant problem with the water supplies into and out of our chain of lakes, which start with the Basin on Wanstead Golf Course. Part of the reasons why the Shoulder of Mutton and Heronry Ponds are both so full are that their outflows are blocked – the Shoulder of Mutton should be providing excess water to Heronry Pond and that to the Perch Pond. Simple maintenance!
And on Wanstead Flats, Alexandra Lake has been flowing across the pavement into Aldersbrook Road, and the water gushing down a surface drain to go who knows where. Where it should go, I am sure, is through the lake's outflow, which is a concrete structure at the NE corner of the lake, almost opposite the large house on Aldersbrook Road which is the cemetery Superintendent's house.
Alan Cornish in his investigation into the reasons why Heronry Pond is so often so lacking in water1 suggests that there is a drain from the Alexandra Lake which should transfer water to the Park's lake system, but if ever this were the case it doesn't make sense to me. If you go into the cemetery through the main gate and turn left, you will in a few yards notice a depression in contours of the landscape, which derives from near the gardens of the Superintendent's house and can be seen to fall away and become more pronounced towards the New Crematorium buildings and the Catacombs beyond. This is a natural valley, the obvious course of drainage from the near part of Wanstead Flats, in the vicinity of Alexandra Lake. Indeed, when what is now the City of London Cemetery was the the grounds of Aldersbrook Manor – once the property of the Lethieulliers – the area in front of the Catacombs, or Columbarium, was once known as Aldersbrook Pond and later the Great Lake2. Man-made lakes are typically formed by means of damming watercourses; the watercourse in this case is the Alders Brook. Beyond the east end of the lake, there is an area of land long used as a tip for waste material from the cemetery. This is known as the Shoot.
Beyond the Shoot is an area of “wild” land, part of which incorporates the cemetery's Nature Reserve, The Birches. It is only within The Birches that the Alders Brook nowadays becomes visible, as a small pond surrounded by trees which itself was artificially created as a wildlife resource. The outflow from the pond can be seen in the form of a culvert which runs under the cemetery's east boundary fence, under the Bridle Path near the Bridle Path Allotments where it can be seen as the Alders Brook proper.
The inflow to the small pond in the cemetery can also be seen: this is a culvert which tracks back underneath the Shoot area, and thus from the direction of the shallow valley through the cemetery which derives from near Wanstead Flats.
On a visit to the cemetery on 21st February I'd seen that all but one of the Poplar trees that had lined Poplar Road, at the north edge of the Shoot, had been felled. I was told that the intention was to make some use of the Shoot area for burials, as space within the cemetery is now so limited. The felling of trees around the area had provided me with something of an access to what is usually not part of the public part of the grounds, and indeed – to an area which possibly hadn't been accessed for decades! It is incredible that such a wild area can exist in such formal and urban surroundings. I found myself in an area, adjacent to The Birches, which was a hidden world of valleys, undergrowth, fallen trees and a bank of snowdrops. apart from birds, foxes were the only other sign of animal life, loping off as I approached, then standing to look at me over their shoulders before disappearing.
On a return visit on 27th February I ventured into The Shoot area proper, a desolate landscape of tipped vegetation, broken machinery and muddy turned-up ground. It is higher than the general ground level of the cemetery, so the views from the top are different from elsewhere. A large area had been dug out, once a strange mix of smoking, compost-like tippings, complete with the sound of House crickets, beautiful area of Gorse and other wild plants – and a haven, of sorts, for such creatures as Foxes. The crickets have long-gone, and much of the gorse, but on this day there was a temporary fence to stop one falling over a cliff! Below, was the dug-out area that will presumably be part of the new burial grounds. More or less in the centre of this churned up earth was what appeared to be a hole, temporarily covered up. I carefully made my way down to what I suspected to be the exposed top of the culvert that carried water through to the pond in the nature reserve area nearby. Sure enough, I could hear the sound of water below the covering board. Not much, which did not surprise me; as I've already noted, the overflow from Alexandra Lake has been all-but blocked for a long time. I just about remember when the brook ran open from just about here, and even a Kingfisher had been noted at one time. The culvert had been extended at some time to allow more use of the Shoot.
I spoke later to the Superintendent of the Cemetery, and he confirmed that the watercourse had been unintentionally exposed. He told me too that the water did indeed derive – in theory anyway – from Alexandra Lake, supplemented by surface water from the cemetery. Chatting to one or two people associated with the Conservators of Epping Forest, I was told that it would probably be the responsibility of the Environment Agency to ensure that the outlet for overflow water from Alexandra Lake be kept clear.
1. CORNISH, A. M.Sc. 2006. Wanstead Park - A Chronicle. Originally published by the Friends of Wanstead Parklands in 1982 and updated and republished by Wanstead Parklands Community Project.
2. DAVID LAMBERT 2006. The Cemetery in a Garden - 150 Years of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium. City of London Publication.
Protecting the Bluebells in Chalet Wood
In not-too-many weeks people will be visiting Wanstead Park particularly to see the show of native bluebells in Chalet Wood. This is fast becoming an annual event for some, although few will stop to think of the effort that has gone in over the years for them to appear like this. For many years – perhaps since the early 1980's – the Wren Conservation and Wildlife Group has been visiting the wood during the winter to clear fallen tree-litter and brambles so that the bluebells can grow better and look better.
The plants are almost becoming a victim of their own success: increased visitors invariably mean increased trampling. In 2010 I wrote an article in this website which included the suggestion that some form of path-delineation might be in order to guide people through the wood, and – preferably – off the bluebells. This winter, the idea has come to fruition, with the delivery some eight weeks ago of some timber cuttings from further north in the Forest, courtesy of Epping Forest staff.
The timber was dropped off for us in a few spots in the wood. It was a larger diameter than I would have wanted, but this was necessary because smaller pieces would quickly have been used to make the “wigwam” structures that pop up here and elsewhere in Wanstead Park.
As I write this article, seven weekly visits have been made to Chalet Wood to arrange the edgings along desire-line paths. At most of these visits, just three of us – Gill and Alan James and myself – have used to-hand levers and makeshift rollers to move in some cases some considerable logs into position. This is in addition, of course to lifting, moving and sawing slightly smaller ones.
Most of the comments from passers-by have been favourable, with the realisation that there is likely not to be so much trampling. Some comments have been made that some of the paths are too wide, but this could be dealt with in future if necessary. We have deliberately left the wigwams; children, and perhaps some adults, seem to enjoy building them and we'd like to encourage play in more “natural” surroundings. We have moved some of the largest logs into positions where it might be nice to sit down and appreciate the woods.
I anticipate that it will make a difference to the show of bluebells. It is not meant to be a physical barrier to walking anywhere in the wood, but might act as a psychological one. Over time the logs will rot down. By then it is hoped that the trackways through the wood will be more defined anyway, so that people can enjoy Chalet Wood at any time of the year.
Paul Ferris, 13th March 2014
Looking at Slime Moulds
Whilst working in Chalet Wood, Wanstead Park, on 6th March 2014, Gill James showed me some lovely little organisms she had found on some rotten wood. I was intrigued; they looked like balls of black metal on a stand. I suspected a slime mould, but had never seen the likes. When I say “little”, I mean tiny. The “balls” were less than a millimetre across. A photograph and a discussion with local naturalist/biologist Roger Snook eventually ran them down to - probably - Metatrichia floriformis which is a slime mould. The following day, most of the balls had gone and instead was a mass – albeit a small mass - of orangey dehiscence.
The Mycetozoa or slime moulds are an intriguing group of organisms which have been classified as fungi, as protozoa and more recently as an entirely separate class of living thing.
Gulielma Lister, a local naturalist, wrote a classic work on the Essex Mycetozoa*. In this she listed 18 species from Epping Forest as a whole, fourteen of which were noted as specifically occurring in Wanstead Park.
She was the daughter of Arthur Lister (1830-1908) and the niece of the famous Quaker surgeon Joseph Lord Lister (1827-1912). She and her father were both amateur naturalists as well as accomplished artists. They lived in Leytonstone and so visited the southern end of Epping Forest and in particular Wanstead Park on many occasions.
For some more information about Gulielma Lister, click here
Paul Ferris, 13 March 2014
* (The Mycetozoa. Lister, G. 1918. (Essex Field Club Special Memoirs vi. Essex Field Club; Stratford, Essex.)
Protecting the Skylarks in 2014
For the last couple of years the Wren Conservation Group have been working in conjunction with the City of London Corporation trying to protect the Skylark population of Wanstead Flats. Almost certainly it was members of the Wren Group that brought fully to the attention of the Conservators of Epping Forest that not only did we have a significant breeding population of Skylarks but that the numbers appeared to be decreasing.
Those trends had become clear because of surveys carried out by members of the Wren Group under the auspices of Tim Harris over several years. Each year there has been a decline in numbers of potential breeding birds. It remains unclear exactly why this decrease is happening, but an important factor may be the levels of disturbance that the birds must be subject to.
One form of disturbance that might be addressed could be in bringing to the attention of dog-owners that their dog running through the rough grassland could disturb ground-nesting birds such as the Skylark and Meadow Pipits.
Notices have been put up on posts around the edge of nesting-areas in past years asking that dogs could be kept from running loose in these areas during the breeding season - that is between the beginning of March and August.
This year, Tim Harris and Forest Keeper Thibaud Madelin are doing three Saturday morning walks aimed at finding out about our local Skylarks and how we might protect them. These are on1st, 15th and 29th March, meeting at Centre Road Car Park at 10am and aiming to finish at 11.30am.
The Wren Group in conjunction with the City of London have produced a leaflet, shown below and downloadable here (in pdf. format)
Check also the Wren Group's website, here
There is another article relating to the Skylarks here
Paul Ferris, 21st February 2014
Flooding in Wanstead Park and nearby
During the early part of February 2014, a long series of storms brought severe weather to many parts of Britain, particularly affecting western areas of the UK, as well as the South Coast. Severe flooding occurred, notably on the Somerset Levels, and later along the Thames in Buckinghamshire and Surrey.
Locally, we were not quite so badly affected by the winds, nor by the coastal waves and surges, but heavy rainfall led to Wanstead Flats becoming waterlogged, with some large areas of shallow water lying for long periods. This gave rise to some good roosting areas for gulls and even swimming areas for geese. By the 1st of February, the River Roding in Wanstead Park had backed up the channel which should allow overflow from the Ornamental Waters and had overflowed its banks so that almost all of the riverside wood between here and the Canal was underwater, and much of the Bund was a lake. North of the Canal, the riverside path by River Wood was flooded almost all of the way to the Pump House.
Across the river, Wanstead Park Recreation Ground was entirely a lake, and the trackway to Wanstead Park Road was impassable.
This isn't the worst flooding into Wanstead Park that I have seen. In late October 2000 the flooding was so severe that the lower part of Wanstead Golf Course' extension between Warren Road and the river was a lake, or rather, it was part of the Roding. Water was actually gushing through the fence separating the golf course from the Park and flowing across the track into the Ornamental Waters. The lake itself had become part of the river!
From the Aldersbrook Exchange Lands at the same time, the view across Ilford Golf Course was particularly dramatic. Apart from just a narrow strip that was the very top of the flood-bank on the Ilford side, the whole of the golf course had been inundated by the river, forming one vast lake almost from the west bank of the river.
Of course, these areas are actually part of the river's flood plain, and the natural course of things is that the river should be able to access these areas so that the water is both dissipated somewhat and proceeds towards the Thames at a slower pace. I haven't heard of people's homes being flooded this time, but in 2000 there was considerable damage done in a number of areas around Woodford and Redbridge. It has recently become much clearer to us that channelising rivers to put them where we want them to go, and building on flood plains, doesn't in the long run do us any favours. We need to have riverside areas which – if flooded – does not have such disastrous effects as would be if they were buildings, or indeed part of our transport system. The playing fields, parks, nature reserves, allotments, golf courses which do typically form our local river-side environment are all examples of uses which may recover reasonably easily and cheaply, even though the temporary loss and changes that may occur because of flooding might feel like an inconvenience, to say the least.
From a wildlife point of view, it might be that an occasional flushing-through of some of the “wilder” areas might be a good thing. We could even make use of some of these low lying areas to increase the number of scrapes, or shallow pools, which – even on a temporary basis – could be a valuable wildlife resource.
When the Ornamental Waters was built, the lake was formed by using the original curving course of the river as its basis, so that from the pump house as far as the Park's ornamental canal, the lake's shape on its east bank is more or less the shape of the river's original course. To achieve this the river was then diverted along a man-made channel, which forms its present course between the pump house and the Canal. Usually it is possible to walk adjacent to the river both within the Park and along the opposite bank. From the park-side walk, the view of the river is very much inhibited by trees and other vegetation, whereby on the Ilford bank it is deliberately kept clearer to allow the flow of water when the river is high. Here we have playing fields nearer to the Redbridge roundabout, then a bramble-thicket that used to be allotments as far as Whiskers island – the wooded area which is actually part of Wanstead Park. Wouldn't it be nice if some of this channelised river-course could be given some curves and the present flood-banks could be set much further back towards the A406 link-road? Then, if there were high waters at least the old allotment areas could act as an overflow? This then could be an area where shallow-water scrapes could be created. Apparently, though, the land is being held for the possible re-creation of allotments, so this dream would seem to be unrealistic.
These sort of things are possible, though. Mayesbrook Park in Dagenham has been given a new look by the un-culverting of the Mayes Brook, resulting in a much kinder riverside environment with the brook now following a more natural course through water-side vegetation. This was one of the first such schemes in the country.
The Roding is a lovely river, and even recovers quite well after spillage and other incidents. It could be given the opportunity to be even nicer; if effort were to be put into returning some of its length to its natural form it could become less threatening to the local human population in times of flood and more enticing to its natural partners at any time.
Paul Ferris, 12th February 2014
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