News of wildlife and other issues
Jennifer Charter - a local nature-lover
...and some early memories of the Wren Group.
Jennifer Charter passed away in the early hours of the morning on 6th February 2022, at the age of 78.
She was a member of the local Conservation Group - the Wren Group - from an an era of that group which feels quite distant now. It is likely that few present members of the group will remember her now; perhaps a few ex-group members may be added to those. Those that do will include Richard Oakman – the present President of the group, Tricia Moxey – who still gives talks to the group, Gill James – the group’s secretary, Susan Winch-Furness, Peter and Valerie Saunders – who have moved to distant Clacton, and there will be a few others.
Back in the late 70’s or early 80s when I met her through our both being in the group, she was a well-known and respected member of the group, and indeed around Aldersbrook where she lived and in Wanstead Park where she would frequently be walking her whippets. She said that she often allowed her dogs to choose the route, which would then lead her into unexpected places and unexpected wildlife.
The wildlife of Wanstead Park was then – except perhaps for some historic studies by such notables as Gulielma Lister – relatively little studied or recorded. The Wren Group itself, was – considering the amount of time it has been in existence – relatively in its infancy. Much of its association (then primarily with Wanstead Park itself) was with practical issues, such as bramble clearing and keeping paths and ditches clear and the like. The Conservators of the Forest – and indeed any other than locals – paid little attention to what went on there, at least compared to the more northerly reaches of the Forest.
So people like Jennifer – who would pass on her observations to me – Pete Saunders, Richard Oakman, Colin Plant, Richard Baker, Ted Godden and just a handful of others, now mostly moved or passed away, were the ‘eyes’ on the Park’s wildlife.
Each of these had particular roles – self chosen, not imposed. Pete Saunders would almost daily walk around the Park, keeping his eye out for problems of management, mis-management, vandalism or creatures in trouble. He was good at spotting individual species – particularly birds. Richard Oakman would visit the Park, and acted as a Group representative, lead walks, introduced speakers at club meetings. Colin Plant was something of a specialist, with a great knowledge of wildlife and compiling a number of publications about those. Richard Baker was, like myself, a beginner in the identification of species – beginning with birds, going on to learn about plants and, particularly as far as Richard is concerned, about fungi, and then other wildlife. Ted Godden was a gentleman; respected in his general knowledge and appreciation of the area’s wildlife and history, and offering ‘nuggets’ of information when out on walks. All of these – including of course Jennifer – would pass on wildlife records to me when I began to compile a primitive database – a card index system – for the Group. I always maintained that we couldn’t conserve much if we didn’t know what we had.
And the other – and indeed more original – side of the Group’s activities was the practical work. This was actively engaged in by Jeff Bosher, who energetically put such a lot of effort and time into work in the Park, assisted by Pete, myself and others. Jennifer’s whippets sometimes helped with the digging. Whether Jennifer did…
Regarding the whippets, it was Jennifer that introduced me to these beautiful creature. When the Aldersbrook Exchange Lands were being opened up to the public, she and I used to walk the dogs there, sometimes accompanied by Ted Godden. I felt that it might be nice to name areas of what we knew as the Old Sewage Works (to Jennifer, sewerage works) after Ted, and I did try Godden’s Field for that open area to the right, as you come in through the stable/allotment gates. It didn’t catch on, sadly, and neither did Sadie’s Wood, which is the strip of woodland bordering that to the south, adjacent to the Bridle Path. The name was for the fact that little whippet Sadie and I used to have a regular route through a corner of the wood – with her treading in my very footsteps to avoid the dreaded whippet-stinging nettles. Indeed, many of the desire-line paths through the whole Exchange Lands that exist now were probably first trod by Jennifer, me, Sadie, Charlie….
And – as yet another aside – the naming of things (places) is a delicate matter. Those deliberate ones didn’t catch on (but Sadie’s Wood, Godden’s Field – come on!), but on the other hand Florrie’s Hill did; it’s on the maps. It was a bit accidental: Pete Saunders always knew the gate at the top as ‘Florrie’s Gate’, so I thought if that is Florrie’s Gate, then this hill will go on my self-drawn recording map as Florrie’s Hill. And I deliberately named that bit of woodland to the south of Perch Pond ‘Aldersbrook Wood’ to see what would happen. Certainly that’s how it is known nowadays by the London Borough of Redbridge. Quite a few areas on the Flats have become known by the names I gave them on my 80’s recording maps.
As for the wildlife records, back then, there were no mobile phones to text instant messages of sightings – let alone ‘apps’. What there was was the telephone when you got home, word of mouth and regular Wren Group meetings to exchange information and ideas. And a newsletter, typed out single-finger-Tippex-style on a typewriter, which was usually 4 or perhaps 5 or 6 pages in length, collated, stapled, enveloped, addressed and either hand-delivered or posted to the members. No email or e-newsletter – and not often even in any colour, just black-and white or greyscale. Early on it was reproduced on a ‘spirit duplicator’. Was that the same thing as the ‘Gestetner’ that we bought? And – think on it – hardly anyone had a camera, let alone a digital one with a lens the size of a respectable cannon, or built into a convenient mobile phone.
Thinking back – which is what we do when someone dies – ‘birders’, or ‘twitchers’ were rare around here then, and naturalists virtually unknown. When Richard Baker and I would wander through the Park or across the Flats on a ‘bird watching’ expedition, with binoculars, we would get stares. We rarely used cameras, because the disappointment of getting a 36-roll of Ilford film returned from the developers with just a few blurred photos of a Wood Pigeon to show for it, was an expensive disappointment.
became available to us (Fuji MX 1700, 1.5MP, 3x zoom) she took some nice photos of the Park – not so much the wildlife, just the atmosphere. She tried to produce some Christmas calenders for the Wren Group, but was admonished by an over-sensitive Conservators’ dictum that any such photography had to be licensed. There were deterrents in those days. Talking of stares – such as when Richard and I were seen with binoculars – I remember the puzzled looks that Jennifer and I got when using our first digital cameras! Once I was buzzed by the police helicopter on Wanstead Flats, as I bent down to examine a moss or something.Jennifer used to draw the pictures. She was a pretty good artist, and when early digital cameras
Jennifer wrote some nice little articles for the Group’s newsletter. They weren’t technical or scientific, just easily read pieces which reflected her simple observation of a swan walking across Aldersbrook Road, or the bluebells in Chalet Wood. She also contributed regular ‘Wildlife Diary’ articles to St Gabriel’s Parish Church magazine. This often led to annoyance (she was easily annoyed) because the editor would invariably – and usually, unnecessarily, in my view – edit her words, even to the extent that – for example – a Little Grebe would become a small grebe. It’s one of the reasons why when we wrote the name of a bird, plant or animal, we would capitalise the initial letters. Otherwise a Dabchick may well have become a newly-hatched dab.
But Jennifer wasn’t only interested in wildlife – an interest inherited from her mum – she had a range of interests inherited more likely from her dad, too. Early on when I met her she told me that at school she was ridiculed by her teacher, when discussing the Solar System, because Pluto was a dog. Jennifer knew better.
When I first met her and she invited me for a cuppa in her home in Northumberland Avenue, I was somewhat dismayed to find that the house that she lived in was one of the oldest – and possibly biggest – in Northumberland Avenue, right by Wanstead Park. As we approached, just visible behind one of the two great holly trees in the front garden (recognise it?), an upstairs curtain twitched back into place. Very Hitchcockian. Her mum wasn’t one for having visitors, but once I had met her and was accepted I found her to be an intelligent, although somewhat reclusive, woman, with her own natural knowledge of the wildlife around. Jennifer inherited this.
The garden was a wonder. Very overgrown in parts, and with its own stable-block. What lived in there even Jennifer and Mrs. Charter did not know - or perhaps care to find out. But the garden was a haven for wildlife, and Jennifer had made it more so, in a haphazard let’s-use-this-old kitchen-sink way. Plus an elaborate bird-feeder. The bird feeder continued to attract a range of species, including such as Coal Tits and Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers which the up-and-coming birders of the area would have perceived to be rare during some periods. Jennifer invited me round to observe some mammals that were making use of the bird-feeders fall-out. Bearing in mind that Jennifer had whippets and later greyhounds, and a cat – all good mammal-hunters – it was a pleasure to see Field Mice at our feet amongst the tipsy-topsy flower pots. These were observed by the whippets with resignation; they couldn’t catch them, and were told-off if they attempted to.
In the garden, too, were a variety of water-containing vessels – including the aforesaid kitchen sink(s). Each of these provided an alternative universe for micro and macro creatures, including, of course, frogs, toads and newts. In fact the newts in particular also used the house itself as both a winter refuge and a highway between the garden and their holiday/breeding summer quarters in Wanstead Park. I would not have been surprised if there wasn’t a bat roost in the roof, but this was never proved. There were certainly hornet’s nests in the outbuildings, and they were allowed to do their thing.
contact ‘Golf Bravo Two Royal Navy’ (GB2RN – its callsign), a warship in London, and to speak to a YL (Young Lady – or at least female) was an extra bonus. So Jennifer’s voice was not only heard around Wanstead, but around the world.I mentioned Jennifer’s other interests, touching on astronomy. She became interested – through me – in the idea of amateur radio, and I encouraged her to study for the Radio Amateur Examination (RAE) which would gain her a license to potentially speak to fellow ‘hams’ throughout the world. She studied at Barking College, passed her examinations, and gained her internationally recognised callsign – 2E1FZC (the C-for-Charlie part was chosen because at the time she had a big whippet called Charlie.) Although from her home she mostly spoke to me and one or two local Amateurs in the Ilford area, she (2E1FZC), I (G0LLE) and Martin (G0KCD) would occasionally go aboard HMS Belfast – as members of the Royal Naval Amateur Radio Club – and put out CQ (general call) calls from the Belfast. The responses were usually overwhelming. Every ham in the world, it seems, wanted to
Martin – through us – also became a member of the Wren Group for a while. He liked ‘yellow flowers’, and was great photographer. Sometimes quite apparently differing interests overlap – or you can encourage people to take an interest. That’s what the Wren Group was partly about.
More in line with the Wren Group, Jennifer would usually assist me in setting up a display for the Group at a fete in Wanstead Park, or – as used to happen – the Open Day at the City of London Cemetery. She was good at arranging the wares, and making little ‘identify the bird’ puzzles to encourage children – and adults – to perhaps learn more about the local wildlife.
She would accompany us on Group guided walks around Wanstead Park, which of course she knew very well, and on Wren Group walks further afield, perhaps to Essex reserves or the coast or the Chilterns, but eventually leg-trouble hindered those more distant or longer walks. Then it was just keeping going by taking the dogs out, but still spotting wildlife things that others may so easily have missed. I would get reports from her of ‘an interesting’ plant that she had spotted, and I would then check it out, and sometimes identify it as something I had overlooked, or simply not seen. Or a moth would land on her window or come into the house, and I’d get a report on that. All stuff to add to the database of records of the wildlife of the area – for potential ‘Conservation’.
Eventually, though, mobility problems inhibited Jennifer’s ability to get out much, but she would still supply reports of bird or moth activity around house or garden. Once you can’t get out so much – from my own experience – your face and place tends to become forgotten, and people’s memories fade.
The Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group, as it is now titled, has been through a quite long history of ups and downs – sometimes it has held on just by the continued input and support of people like Jennifer. Today, it seems, it is a thriving group with enthusiastic members providing a valuable service – not only to the wildlife and ecology of the area, but in it’s own way to the community itself. It seemed to me that Jennifer’s death might be a good time to reflect not only on her, but on the Wren Group – its history, and some memories of past members.
Paul Ferris, 12th February, 2022
The Bluebells of Chalet Wood (April 2021)
Many people are making their annual visits to Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park at the moment, to see the bluebells.
These have become quite an attraction, and even people other than us locals are travelling to see them now. It would be interesting to know how the visitor numbers may have increased over the years.
It was a good few years ago that I began suggesting to the then Wren Conservation Group – now the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group – that it might be an idea to delineate route-ways through Chalet Wood to try to encourage people not to trample on the plants. Even before the flowers were showing – and probably more so – casual walkers, and five-school-days-a-week youngsters, would unwittingly trample the emerging leaves. Trampling can cause as much damage to native bluebells as picking can. And picking isn’t much use anyway, because the flowers will have wilted into a thrown-down mess before the park gates are reached.
The response to delineated ways through the wood was mostly one of horror from most group members, as well as from the Conservators of Epping Forest when the suggestion was made to them. After all, the wood should retain its natural aspect, shouldn’t it – and be free-to-roam? I was not so sure of the natural aspect issue. For years, every winter before the first bluebells were hesitatingly pushing through and watching out for boots, members of the Wren Group would go into the woods and clear up fallen wood-litter, and particularly attempt to remove brambles. A lot of work went into enhancing the possibilities for the bluebells to increase their area, and to be seen by people. So it was hardly a natural aspect. And as for the free-to-roam? Well, my suggestion was not for great iron railings or barbed-wire fences, but simple log-edgings – not high, easily stepped over if one was inclined, but mainly acting as a psychological barrier.
Around 2007 I made a couple of temporary encapsulated notices and pinned them to posts at the main entrances to the wood. These explained how valuable the bluebells were. By April 2009 the Conservators had put up their own ones, complete with the proper logo.
It took years before any path-deliniation happened – some aspects of Epping Forest management can be somewhat reticent to accept ideas from outside their own circles – but in early 2014 a load of mixed-diameter lengths of timber – newly cut from clearance further up in the Forest – was delivered to Chalet Wood, and mainly Jill and Alan James and myself set about using pyramid-and henge-building techniques, effort and whatever muscle we had, to move some of these into place. Some we were just able to pick-up-and-put, others needed levers; it was a mixed load.
I think that there has been a fresh supply of logs in more recent years, and I understand the Wren Group have reinstated some of the old ones over the years. I am still surprised that there has never been an attempt to ‘pin’ them in place, with simple wooden place-holders; they often get moved, or roll out of position – or are deliberately moved to create the ‘shelters’ that are always being constructed in the wood.
The degree of casual and unintentional trampling has – I believe – been greatly reduced, and in the main people keep to the paths. But there are always some that like to get in close for the ‘professional’ photograph, or lay in the bluebells to look at the sky and smell the smell. And the dogs running around, of course. But it is the shelters that are the biggest damage-doers. It isn’t just the area the shelter takes up, but the removal of path edging and the dragging and trampling that takes place constructing them. It’s a difficult one. These ‘Forest School’ and ‘survival skills’ activities – and pure play – all need somewhere to be. I just wonder if Chalet Wood is the best place?
There is another problem, too. The whole reason that the bluebell wood is so beautiful is that they are native ‘English’ bluebells. These are Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and although certainly not confined to England, they are our common native one – and very different from the Scottish Bluebell, which is what in England is more often called a Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). Those, though, are not the problem. It is the Spanish Bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica that is. These are the luxurious bluebells that you are likely to see in gardens – and garden centres. They are not native, and as well as being luxurious, they are big and invasive. And they hybridise with the English ones – and eventually outbreed them. A friend recently said to me that he had a load of bluebells that he’d turfed out of his garden, and should he plant them in Wanstead Park? I hope that I persuaded him not to!
I looked at Chalet Wood the other day, and along that western edge of Chalet Wood and its English bluebells were ranks of Spanish ones, waiting to take over. It is illegal to uproot wildflowers or to take them from grounds without the owners permission, but these need to be uprooted (or up-bulbed) and destroyed. Otherwise, gradually, creepingly, we won’t have the lovely delicate Hyacinthoides non-scripta anymore, just a load of gaudy hybrids. People will still come to see them, and doubtless say how lovely they look, and ‘what a show’, but there will be something missing.
Paul Ferris 28th April 2021
Autumn Fungi - some finds in 2020
A casual look to see how a particular area of the City of London Cemetery was getting on after some renovation work a couple of years ago, and a spectacular display of fungi presented itself. The majority of the species present were Coprinus comatus - the Shaggy Ink Cap, or Lawyers Wig. This was on 20th October, on a not-too-bad day - quite warm for the season and not pelting with rain.
I'd already vaguely noticed some various mushrooms, or toadstools, as I'd walked around looking at the autumn colours, with particular reference here to the cemetery's specimen Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba) and its increasing collection of Liquid Amber or American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). And Japanese Maples - Acer palmatum Atropurpureum in particular.
Now there were all the inkcaps - some were already very much inkcaps, and some still laywyer's wigs, not as colourful as the trees, but a sight nevertheless, and worthy of a photograph or few.
I was now partially back in fungus mode - after many years of absence, so I retraced some of my route to take a more interested look at some of the specimens I had passed earlier. I went back and saw one of the Boletus that I had spotted, but didn't investigate too closely so am uncertain of the species.
In the lawn nearby were Clitocybe - I believe - rivulosa.
The orange waxcap Hygrocybe (possibly vitellina) was also present in some area of the grass, and - much larger - the Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota procera.
WansteadWildlife in 2019
No, it is not Wildlife in Wanstead in 2019, it is WansteadWildlife, i.e. the website.
I find that in 2019, my enthusiasm to "get out there" and discover more wildlife has waned. That seems sad to me, although getting out there and at least enjoying looking at (and trying to remember what the things I am seeing are called) is still present. Why the enthusiasm has waned, I am not sure, but it is probably a mixture of things. Many of the people with whom I enjoyed wandering about looking at things are no longer able to do so, or indeed are simply no longer! There are, however, plenty of people nowadays who have taken an interest in our wildlife, and local wildlife and conservation groups and similar are flourishing. That in itself may have led me to let others do all the walking about, and recording things...
But there are also negative aspects that have impacted on my enjoyment of the local environment. There is a lot of talk about making things better, but I have seen a lot of my favourite habitats damaged. This is perhaps particularly so in Wanstead Park, where - I believe - both lack of appropriate management when it was required, and an increasing turning towards 'amenity' provisions has resulted in the loss and damage I perceive. The first could be instanced by the terrible invasion of Floating Pondweed that was allowed to occur, leading to a vast amount of money spent on clearing it, involving necessary and deliberate water-reduction in the lakes. The result of this was massive loss to pond-life, and change of habitat. Another impact on some prime environments was the use of inappropriate materials on tracks (including that used on permitted cycle tracks). This led to pedestrians using the grassy areas to the sides of these uncomfortable surfaces, and thus damaging the habitat. Permitted cycles, and the lack of supervision over cyclists using other parts of the Park, plus increasing mowing presumably to enhance amenity use of the grasslands are other cases in point.
A similar situation may be seen on Wanstead Flats, here the water-plant invasion was by New-Zealand Pigmyweed. But around the Alexandra Lake where this occured there has been another invasion - by trees. On the north side, opposite the shops in Aldersbrook Road, the growth of willows is so severe that it is scarcely possible to see the lake for the trees (similarly - back to Wanstead Park - on the south side of Shoulder of Mutton.) This began when the lake-side was re-embanked, changing it from the pebble beach that had been there since the lake was created to a grim and dark vegetation-covered landscape. On the south side of the lake, willows and birches have been allowed to become established, so I predict that at some time the lake will hardly be visible from that side, either. This growth of vegetation is partly due to the lack of water, a problem with most of our ponds now. However, some of the lack of water problem here was created by the accidental damming of road-water input conduits in that re-forming of the lake-side bank. Better road water - which could be filtered by reed beds - than no water!
So, I have had me moan, and rather than make approaches to the Conservators of Epping Forest as I used to do in the past, I shall leave that to others now. These relatively small (but important) "local knowledge" issues should really be taken more seriously by "the authorities". Maybe they are, now?
Hence it seems that the website, by the nature of my backing off from the observing, identifying and recording, will become somewhat stagnant. I shall probably add bits to it now and again, and "tweak" aspects of it from time to time, but I hope that at least it will remain as something of a basis for information about local wildlife and the local environment in which it is to be found. And of course, my enthusiasm may be re-enthused!
Paul Ferris, July 2019
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.
All 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.
On 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.Most 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