What and Where is Wanstead and its Wildlife?

Ten years ago - in 2007 - when I really got the Wanstead Wildlife up and running, I wrote an introduction to it which included a number of questions as to what the website was about and for, and some problems that I'd discovered in deciding what it should contain. The problems and questions were these:

• What comprises Wanstead?

• What constitutes wildlife?

• Why is the wildlife here?

• How do I present the findings?

• Where and when do I stop?

I'm not sure that I have really answered all or even any of these, and in effect the website contains what it contains, and its value is whatever I and anybody else that accesses it finds. Ten years hence, and a fair bit of work, and during that time there has been a significant increase in the numbers of people that have an interest in our local wildlife. The question about how I present the findings certainly deserved the inclusion of lists of records of species found here. I have always believed that in order for any local conservation group to help to conserve things, they need to know what and where the things are. Hence there are a good few lists, and I did hope that these would be added to by the inclusion of records sent to me by the increasing numbers of enthusiasts, and particularly passed on by the local conservation group - namely the Wren Conservation Group. These hopes in the main have proved difficult to fulfil. Others' records have been kept and presented in so many different forms that I have found increasing difficulty in keeping up with them. Some are in private records, others in group records, others on websites, blogs and social media. Therefore, I have slightly re-organised the contents so that Wanstead Wildlife's records are presented primarily with those that I have collected myself. However, I have appended records that have been presented to me, and many that I have researched from other sources. In future - if I keep the website going - fewer "others'" records are likely to be added. In fact, I suspect that fewer of my own records will be added; ability and enthusiasm seems to be lacking these days! At least the website may act as a repository which may be of interest to some.

I also included a light-hearted look at Wanstead itself - for those who don't know it and those who think they do, and I thought I might update this slightly as I reproduce it here. So:

Wanstead is an area of east London approximately 6.85 miles north-east of the City of London. This distance is taken from St Paul's Cathedral to Christ Church near Wanstead High Street, and is as a Crow (Corvus corone) flying in an incredibly straight line, might fly.

It is an east London suburb which still has something of the feel of a village about it - though only just. It is located between the River Lee (or Lea) to the west, which is the historical boundary between Middlesex and Essex, and the River Roding to the east; which is the more recent boundary between the postal districts of London and Ilford, Essex.

In 2010 the census details gave a population of 63021, although this also includes the neighbouring area of Leyton, because Wanstead is part of the Parliamentary Constituency of Leyton and Wanstead. The population of Wanstead itself - included within the Suburbs and Small Towns: Commuter Suburbs  designation of the UK census data - was 11543 in 2011.

Wanstead is in Greater London, part of the London Borough of Redbridge. It is also in Essex. In fact, so deep rooted is the fact that Wanstead is in Essex (that is, east of the River Lee or Lea) that many inhabitants insist that letters sent to them via the Royal Mail postal service are addressed as "Wanstead, Essex". This is despite the fact that they are actually in Leytonstone, LONDON, E11, as far as Royal Mail's routing codes (addresses) for letters are concerned.

But Wanstead is greater than a routing code; the Red Bridge itself (or at least the bridge that replaced the Red Bridge) is to the east, crossed by the Eastern Avenue (the A12); beyond is Redbridge. This is part of Ilford (in the London Borough of Redbridge), but definitely in Essex if only because the postal addresses say so (ILFORD, Essex, IG...)

Just to the west of Wanstead is that part of Wanstead which is called Snaresbrook, and a little further west still the Borough boundary is crossed, and Waltham Forest (London Borough of) is entered. Here we are in Walthamstow (LONDON, E17), so we have left Wanstead.

But Wanstead contains within its boundaries a little known marvel - Wanstead Park. It is part of Epping Forest as is Wanstead Flats - although these may not be percieved to be in Wanstead, in so far as true (is there such a thing?) Wanstonians are concerned

Other areas - not in Wanstead - but within the remit of WWL, are Bush Wood, Leyton Flats and Gilbert's Slade - all parts of Epping Forest. Wanstead Park is separated only by a single road from Bush Wood. This in turn, is separated only by the Green Man roundabout from Leyton Flats (in fact, adjacent to Leytonstone). Leyton Flats is not flats (ie high-rise buildings) at all - but a mainly flat area of grassland - with lots of trees and shrubs! It is part the London Borough of Walthamstow, which we entered north of Snaresbrook.

Just across the Snaresbrook Road, north of Leyton Flats, the Forest of Epping continues northwards through an area known as Gilbert's Slade. It is not far from Wanstead, and adjacent to it, and the wildlife (I'll get round to that in more detail) is just as interesting, so it has been included in the "in and around Wanstead" label. But at the north end of Gilbert's Slade, Epping Forest has been gashed more severely even than at the Green Man roundabout in Leytonstone. Thus this part of Epping Forest is probably known more to drivers than to naturalists. It is Waterworks Corner. And here - at least in a northerly direction - it is convenient to limit the extent of "in and around Wanstead"

The western delineation - at leat that by Leyton Flats - is quite conveniently made by the A104 Lea Bridge Road between Whipps Cross roundabout amd Snaresbrook Road. However the Forest stretches to either side of the continuation of this road nortwards to Waterworks Corner roundabout, and the Forest and study area here comprises a variety of small roads and allotments.

And what about the southern boundary? It follows Capel Road and Forest View Road by Wanstead Flats. By "the Flats" are the enclaves of Lake House and Aldersbrook - both rather nice estates of houses adjacent to parts of Epping Forest. The Lake House estate is situated between Bush Wood and Wanstead Flats and is in Leytonstone E11 (or Wanstead, Essex) in the London Borough of Redbridge, and Aldersbrook is situated between Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats and is in Manor Park E12 (or Wanstead, Essex) - in the London Borough of Redbridge.

The south edge of Wanstead Flats abuts on to Forest Gate in the London Borough of Newham. This is the Forest Gate that is LONDON, E7, although it is probable that a few people would prefer to be in Wanstead, Essex. The nearest railway station in Forest Gate to Wanstead Flats is Wanstead Park, so this may support their claim (though not their routing code). The Flats themselves are in Redbridge (mostly). As the post-Olympic development of Stratford with its much-hyped transport facilities progresses, a spread into neighbouring areas - perhaps particularly Forest Gate - is becoming apparent. So much so that even addresses Flats-side of Wanstead Flats, such as Capel Road, is finding newcomers having their mail addressed "Wanstead Park".

The western edge of Wanstead Flats, nearer to Forest Gate, still abuts on to Forest Gate (E7), although in the vicinity of the Jubilee Pond, the houses in Forest Gate are in the London Borough of Walthamstow. Indeed, by Sidney Road in Forest Gate, even what is considered here to be part of Wanstead Flats (LB Redbridge - remember?) is in LB Waltham Forest. Further north - across Lakehouse Road, the houses that act as a boundary to the Flats are in Leytonstone (E11). The Flats here merge into Bush Wood.

So that brief outline encompasses Wanstead itself, (the village/town), and neighbouring parts of Epping Forest which are incorporated into the study area dealt with here. But still - where to stop? Because the wildlife doesn't necessarily stop anywhere; it is no revelation to anybody that a totally wild fox may be seen wandering through any of the streets, housing estates or forest already mentioned.

Within Wanstead - for example St Mary's churchyard - or near to it (eg the City of London Cemetery or the Alders Brook) are areas of "wild" or semi-wild habitats that have a host of wildlife. They also have a host of non- "wild" life, particularly species of plants that have been deliberately introduced but nevertheless contribute enormously to the diversity of habitats, species and the ecology of the area.

'Wanstead Wildlife' strives to take account of the area primarily looking at the animals, birds and plants that may be found here, something of the history which has led to how it is today, a little of the ecology of the area, and issues that arise relating to these aspects.

Paul Ferris, 10th January 2017

Loss of Creeping Willow on Wanstead Flats

I have tried to hang back a bit on being critical of work taking place on Epping Forest – or elsewhere, for that matter - for a lone voice in the “wilderness” doesn't have the clout a conservation group or a 'friends' group should have, and kickbacks and disappointments in the past have led to a feeling of “Don't bother” in more recent times..

Creeping Willow flower wf 060503 8513artIn flower on 3rd May 2006However, sometimes those groups miss small things that experience might show can lead to larger problems. I can cite New Zealand pigmyweed and floating pennywort as examples of small problems growing larger, and I can harp back to the loss of a nice insect-rich area of grassland in Wanstead Park which wasn't protected during and after path-laying. And today I saw another example – one which I have been afraid of and seen gradually increasing.

Creeping willow 160428 7700artThe Creeping Willow on 28th April 2016, after mowingWe have on Wanstead Flats five distinct patches of a low-growing shrub called creeping willow Salix repens. Country-wide, this isn't a rare plant, but apart from some on Leyton Flats, this is all we have locally. It is special enough to have been mentioned in some of the City of London's own publications relating to the Flats. It mightn't have the appeal of the Park's bluebells, but it may be the equivalent in “specialness”!

Creeping Willow bramble wf 110401 50472artThe other patch nearby, almost brambled - and canned - outI know that those five patches have been carefully plotted by GPS by Epping Forest staff, so they know where they are. In the past I have mentioned locally that one patch of two near Alexandra Lake is getting brambled out. That patch is hanging on – but the bramble may well prove the winner. The other patch nearby is just coming into flower, but unfortunately is at the edge of the playing fields. And that is where my worry has been for a long time. Each time the mower goes round, a little bit more is eroded away. This time, however, a lot more has been taken away – about two feet off the whole length of the west edge of the patch, I would say. The playing fields expand, and the wildlife diminishes.

So – two out of the five patches potentially lost. We should remember too, that it isn't just the loss of one plant that we might bemoan, but of the other life that might be associated with it. Collecting records of species found in our area is increasingly showing the associations that one organism has with another. And that might include people, as well.

Just to finish, I mentioned the floating pennywort, which many realise now is threatening the health of Perch Pond. Well, this year I have seen and reported three very small rooted clumps of this highly invasive species in the Ornamental Water, far from Perch Pond. They could easily be removed now, especially as the water-level is so low. I hope they are, or these small things could lead to larger problems. (note: I was unable to find these on a much later-in-the-year visit. The water level was very low and they had been close to the bank, so it is possible someone else saw them and simply grubbed them out.)

Paul Ferris, 28th April 2016

Balloon tethers or fence posts?

The myth has been expanded over the last decade or so by numerous photographs and many mentions in all manner of documents, publication, talks, presentations and websites that the posts on Wanstead Flats between the “East Copse” and “Centre Copse”, north of Capel Road, are barrage balloon tethers.

I have been pointing out to a variety of people – many of whom did not want to know, presumably because that isn't quite as historically interesting as balloon tethers – that they had been fence posts.

As a child, I used to watch practice jumps from a barrage balloon on Wanstead Flats. My viewpoint was from my grandparents house in Windsor Road, Forest Gate. I'm pretty sure that the actual location where the balloon was tethered was in the rectangle formed by the posts. I believe that a lorry used to bring the balloon in, and it was probably tethered to that. There used to be big concrete tethering points up at Chigwell, and I think that you can still just about see one in Wanstead Park, if you know where to look. Concrete. Heavy. Tie a large balloon to the posts on Wanstead Flats and – I'm no engineer – but if that balloon was blown about in the wind, those posts would have been bent much more so than they are now.

wf metal post 070302One of four fence posts in 2002The “tensioning handles”, as they appear on the Flats posts, were used to tension the wires between the posts to form the fence around the perimeter of the area. I remember that wire fence. I also remember that for a time the area was used as a bit of an informal speedway track.

It was somewhat rewarding to read in the spring issue of the Friends of Epping Forest Newsletter that Mike Smith had led a walk which included a look at the posts, and that they also concluded that they were just fencing posts. Let the myth go.

Another bit, relating to East Copse and Centre Copse. It's quite fun that those terms have been used in that article. The term copse can be used for a small group of trees, because that is what they are, but the word derives from coppice, which originally meant a small wood grown for periodic cutting. These groups of trees were planted towards the end of the 19th century as a response to efforts by the Epping Forest Committee to break up what was perceived as a monotonous area of grassland. They consist of quite a variety of tree species. These include Birch, Beech, Lime, English Oak, Red Oak and Locust Tree. The last of these – also known as Robinia – is now spreading by suckers onto the grassland. It makes a grand tree, but when it is cut down or suffers badly it throws out suckers with vicious double-thorns. Quite understandably, the foot-track that passes just south of the trees has moved southwards a couple of times in recent years, with the southwards spread of the thorn-thicket.

So what is fun about “East Copse” and “Centre Copse”, which aren't truly copses? Well, I named them thus, for convenience, when I drew a map of the Flats for recording purposes back in the late 70's. Not very inventive or romantic names, but they seem to be in use!

Paul Ferris, 2 February 2016

A bird report from 1919, plus a Wonderful Visit from H.G. Wells

Trying to discover something more of the history of the land now known as the Exchange Lands - or Aldersbrook Exchange Lands, which is slightly more descriptive - I came across the following passage from the Medical Officer of Health's Report of 1919 relating to Wanstead Sewage Works:

All the work on the farm is carried on practically without noise, and as the Council have thoughtfully forbidden the use of guns the place has become a bird sanctuary. I have seen on the farm in my time the following less common birds : the Kingfisher, the teal and mallard ducks, the snipe, the heron, many varieties of finches, sand martins, pied and yellow wagtails, and partridges. One of the older men on the farm has told me that the former farm manager captured a "golden heron." This may have been a specimen of the bittern.

Some fifteen years earlier H.G. Wells had written a fantasy novel - although that term would not have been in use then - called The Wonderful Visit. I won't go into the plot, suffice to say that it contains satirical elements and describes and to some extent mocks some of the Victorian values of the time. This passage from the novel may have been just as prophetic as some of Wells' science-fiction novels:

H.G. Wells on collecting specimens, from The Wonderful Visit published in 1895 -

If it were not for collectors England would be full, so to speak, of rare birds and wonderful butterflies, strange flowers and a thousand interesting things. But happily the collector prevents all that, either killing with his own hands or, by buying extravagantly, procuring people of the lower classes to kill such eccentricities as appear. It makes work for people, even though Acts of Parliament interfere. In this way, for instance, he is killing off the Chough in Cornwall, the Bath White butterfly, the Queen of Spain Fritillary; and can plume himself upon the extermination of the Great Auk, and a hundred other rare birds and plants and insects. All that is the work of the collector and his glory alone. In the name of Science. And this is right and as it should be; eccentricity, in fact, is immorality—think over it again if you do not think so now—just as eccentricity in one's way of thinking is madness (I defy you to find another definition that will fit all the cases of either); and if a species is rare it follows that it is not Fitted to Survive. The collector is after all merely like the foot soldier in the days of heavy armour—he leaves the combatants alone and cuts the throats of those who are overthrown. So one may go through England from end to end in the summer time and see only eight or ten commonplace wild flowers, and the commoner butterflies, and a dozen or so common birds, and never be offended by any breach of the monotony, any splash of strange blossom or flutter of unknown wing. All the rest have been "collected" years ago.

The Chough - happily - has returned to Cornwall, its presence there for many years being only on the Cornish Coat of Arms. They nested there until 1952 and its final demise was hastened by it becoming more and more of a prize for egg-collectors and other trophy hunters. It wasn't until 2001 that four returned to take up residence and there has been a gradual increase since then, with lots of volunteers keeping a look-out for eggers and the like.

The Bath White Butterfly is an extremely rare migrant and appears always to have been so. Similarly, the Queen of Spain Fritillary is known now as an extremely rare migrant to Britain, though it may never have been much more than that even in its heyday when it was seen in every year from 1818 until 1885. Mind you, if every one seen was caught...

The Great Auk had a most peculiar end in Britain. Three sailors from St. Kilda spotted the bird on a nearby rock stack, saw that it was evidently different from the other sea-birds they were used to, and caught it. They kept it alive for four days, but on the fourth day a storm blew up and the superstitious sailors feared that it was caused by the bird. They called it " A maelstrom-causing witch" and stoned it to death! It has never come back.

In the main, we don't treat our witches like that any more, at least not in Britain. And there has also been a change in values regarding collecting of specimens - at least just for the sake of collecting. We can now keep our collections in the form of digital photographs. I've always liked the idea "Take only photos, leave only footprints", and many of us are at least attempting to do something like that now. I try to do this whenever possible, and particularly regarding animals - however "lowly" they may be (or appear to be). As for collecting, there is a strong argument that it is necessary at times to take specimens, particularly to determine species or for other scientific studies. However, I prefer to stick to the photos and try to leave the animals undisturbed - or at least not too alarmed. It is probably a lot easier to edit a photo as part of a collection than dismantle an animal to determine species or prepare a biological specimen anyway.

It's nice to know that even in this busy, populated and relatively polluted part of England, we can still find more than the "eight or ten commonplace wild flowers, and the commoner butterflies, and a dozen or so common bird" that Wells mentioned. I suspect that it is the quantity of flowers, insects and birds that we are missing. That is no longer due to collecting, but the way we are treating our land and our environment as a whole.

Paul Ferris, 31 January 2016





January Spring

The beginning of the new year of 2016, and January continued the trend of what may well prove to be one of the mildest winters in memory. There were frosts, however, plus a day when the sun – and the air – felt so warm that a dog-walker on Wanstead Flats suggested to me that it felt like summer.

There is a big trend nowadays – especially perhaps amongst the bird-watching enthusiasts – of seeing as many species as possible in a given place (or “patch”) or in a time – whether a day a month or a year. There seems to be a competitive element in this, too, but also has given rise to the phenomenon of the “bio-blitz”.

In our local area, there is a year-long scheme called the Wanstead 1000, which aim is to record a thousand species in the Wanstead area in 2016. That shouldn't prove too difficult, given the database and knowledge of the whereabouts of many species that has been built up over the years.

Cherry wp 160119 06756artThe Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group made a start on this on the fourth day of the year by organising a flower-finding walk. A few hardy souls chose to look for plants actually in flower, and chose a few of the more likely habitats to explore. One of these was around Jubilee Pond on Wanstead Flats and another the Green Man underpass system, by the roundabout of the same name.

The Jubilee Pond area was a good choice, as it provides a variety of habitats and has also recently been disturbed, so a collection of plants have taken advantage. Nearby is Dames Road, and roadsides are often good places to look for plants, and the Green Man roundabout is an exceptionally productive area, as it was seeded with all manner of nice flowers during its construction. The results weren't disappointing: about 40 species were found to be in flower. That's certainly a good number to find during an English winter, although when I looked at the list there wasn't much that I hadn't seen flowering during winters before. The ones that I hadn't were Chicory, Field Scabious and Musk Mallow by the Green Man roundabout, and Alexanders, by Dames Road. Here is the list, kindly provided by Tim Harris:

Alexanders, Common Ragwort, Yarrow, Gorse, Smooth Sow-thistle, Dandelion, Common Field Speedwell, Guernsey Fleabane, Canadian Fleabane, Chickweed, Annual Mercury, Wild Cabbage, Green Alkanet, White Dead-nettle, Red Dead-nettle, Hedge Mustard, Hoary Mustard, Scentless Mayweed, Broom, Holly, Bramble, Wood Avens, Sun Spurge, Nipplewort, Common Vetch, Small-flowered Cranesbill, Hedgerow Cranesbill, Chicory, Groundsel, Musk Mallow, Common Mallow, Cow Parsley, Daisy, Hornbeam, Periwinkle sp.

A couple of weeks later, on 19th, Rose Stephens and I walked along the wayleave track between the gardens of the houses in Woodland Avenue in Aldersbrook, and Reservoir Wood in Wanstead Park. This has always been a favourite of mine in early spring, to see some of the first flowers plus associated insects such as hoverflies and bees. There weren't too many insects – some flies, one or two hoverflies, no bees, but there were flowers. Approaching from Park Road, we were greeted by the flowers of a Wild Cherry. Further down the wayleave, Greater Periwinkle, Spring Snowflake and Honesty – all garden outcasts, these. Then White Dead-nettle, its flowers frosted with ice, for it was in the shade and the night had been cold. Snowberry was in evidence, but from its white berries rather than flowers, and tucked into the woodland edge numerous Herb Robert plants with flowers – and just about Herb Bennett, too. Then there was a couple of plants clustered together that were mostly leaves. I was just about to remark that I wasn't sure if they were Pendulous Sedge or perhaps... when I saw the berries and they were...Stinking Iris. Not in flower – just berries again – but these were only the third Stinking Iris I know of in the Park. Now, are these garden outcasts? I have seen an increase in this species near Whipps Cross Hospital, where I believe they have spread from ornamental plantings in the hospital grounds to the woodland edges along James Lane.

Lesser Celandine wf 160125 06797fpMore or less lastly for the flowers that day, I deliberately looked for a particular Hawthorn that grows a fair way in from Woodlands Avenue Road-side. Sure enough, it was easily found because it already had fresh leaves on, and also had flowers. Why this one plant should always flower significantly before other local hawthorns I do not know. It looks to be the Common Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna. I said more or less the last flowers for the day, for walking home along Wanstead Park Avenue were some of my favourite Ivy-leaved Toadflax, on a garden wall, as well as a non-flowering plant – a liverwort Marchantia polymorpha. These do not have flowers and hence seeds, but in this specimen the leaves were supporting the gemma cups that contain the spores. On 25th January, a cursory look at mosses in the City of London Cemetery showed Grey Cushion Moss and Capillary Thread-moss to be well-endowed with their fruiting capsules.

Some Daffodils are already in flower, in gardens and on Wanstead Flats roadside edge for example - but these are not wild ones. Non of the flowers mentioned here, to my mind, are really spring flowers, just plants that have happened to flower very early. However a flowering Lesser Celandine on Wanstead Flats on 24th January is truely a spring flower, and next day's glorious display of the native Early Crocus in the City of London Cemetery - introduced or not, but certainly naturalised - was another. Spring is just a flower away – or already here, come snow or what may.

Does any of this, perhaps, put a climate-change perspective on something I wrote back in 1978, or is it just weather?


January Spring


Dreary early morning rise.

Lifeless pre-dawn trudge through rain-soaked suburban streets.

Saturated concrete slabs reflect mock-moon street lights;

And occasional pollarded plane-trees – still dripping –

Imitate the night’s incessant drizzle.

Somewhere behind the cloud-curtain the sun rises;

Unseen until noon, hanging low over the house-tops.

A soft south-west wind succeeds the rain-clouds;

And a clear sky cleverly depicts a still-distant spring.

Between the last and the next cloud-belt,

A single, leafless flowering cherry displays a few flowers,

And a pigeon coos and fan-tails to its mate.

For a few moments - fooled with mirages of summer –

Life returns.

And the streets are trod with a lighter tread.

Paul Ferris. 25th January 2016