News of wildlife and other issues
The Bluebells of Wanstead Park
The bluebells of Wanstead Park are increasingly being realised as one of the best colonies of these plants in the area; in Chalet Wood and in Warren Wood particularly, there are thousands of them.
Perhaps the best place to appreciate the show is in Chalet Wood, within sight of the Temple and convenient for visitors to the Park from either the Wanstead end at Warren Road or the Aldersbrook end at Northumberland Avenue. The local conservation group - the Wren Group - has been working on this wood for years to enhance the show - and from the numbers of visitors this seems to have worked. Back in the 1970s, I wrote that the wood was one of the best places in the Park to find ferns; this is no longer the case because much of the undergrowth that supported these has now been removed to make way for the bluebells.
Probably the wood would support an even better show than it does, but there are problems with invasive bramble and - sad to say - people. Because of the nature of the wood particularly during the autumn and winter, there are few clearly defined pathways through the woods; even those that are tend to get covered in leaves. This means that in early spring, just as the bluebells are beginning to show above ground, people tend to wander at will - and damage to the plants and compacting of the soil means that the plants struggle each year to make any new ground. Even the very visitors that come to enjoy the show can add to this, by walking amongst them (however pleasant this may be), or stepping on them to take photographs. Other activities that are not deliberately harmful to the flowers yet significantly inhibit their increase include the construction of "camps" in the woods - where large logs are dragged through the wood to typically erect a tent-like structure around the bole of a tree. The areas around these structures in particular are so trampled as to leave little vegetation growth.
It might be possible - and has been suggested - that defined routes are created. Just how the definition is made is the problem. No-one wants to see fenced-off areas in Wanstead Park - indeed it would probably be against bye-laws - but perhaps just a well-formed low log edging might at least act as a psychological deterrent to some to keep to the paths?
Last year, notices were put up on simple boards at appropriate access points to Chalet Wood that explained to visitors that the bluebells were special and were easily damaged, and asked that not only that they should not be picked but that they should not be trampled upon.
It is hoped that the notices will go up again this year, as the increasing show is generating increasing visitors, and without care we might see less rather than more of these beautiful flowers.
The bluebells in Chalet Wood are all of our native species, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and Wanstead Park holds an important population of them. However, many other woodlands have been invaded by the more vigorous Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which are sold as garden plants and if discarded may interbreed and spoil the native population. And Chalet Wood is threatened in the same way; along much of Northumberland Avenue - which borders Wanstead Park to the south, Spanish Bluebells are flourishing, discarded from houses along the road. Even very close to Chalet Wood itself, between the Sweet Chestnut avenue and the vegetation that borders the southern edge of Chalet Wood, clumps of the invaders are present. I suspect it wouldn't take much to dig these out and dispose of them before they hybridise with our own species - but without permission from the Park's owners - the City of London Corporation - this would be illegal.
There are thousands of bluebells in Wanstead Park, other than in Chalet Wood, and there could be some sweeping views elsewhere. The problems elsewhere are that in many cases the pathways are now blocked or brambled, or the numbers of fallen trees or branch-litter inhibits the views. Without wishing a tidying-up process anywhere near the extent that has been carried out in Chalet Wood, much could be done to make the bluebell experience in Wanstead Park as a whole a glorious thing!
Paul Ferris, 5th April 2010
Butterfly Transects in Wanstead Park
What is a transect? You may well ask; the word does not appear in the Concise Oxford, but in the somewhat larger version shows up as "A line or a belt of land along which a survey is made of the plant or animal life or some other feature; a survey of this kind"
So it was a suggestion made to a few individuals from the Wren Group and Wanstead Wildlife by Sam Jarrah Moon, one of the newer Epping Forest Keepers, that it would be useful to do such a transect in our part of the Forest.
The idea was to obtain more precise data relating to the species of butterfly that inhabit this area, particularly in Wanstead Park. My own records show that 23 species have been recorded - all of which either are or could be found in Wanstead Park. My own recording of just about all types and species of animal and plant life (and a few things that are neither one or the other) have not generally been very precise as to numbers - although particularly with plants they have been sometimes very precise as to location! This is mainly because I have never had the resources to carry these detailed researches out.
So on Saturday 2nd April, Tim Harris, Kathy Hartnett and I met Sam at the refreshment kiosk in the Park to discuss the idea. Sam had already a prepared route for the transect, plus instructions and recording forms. Even with four people keen to start this undertaking, it could be seen that resources would be stretched so as to be able to commit to the required once-a-week survey. We all have either our jobs or other commitments!
Nevertheless - certainly as far as I am concerned that some information is better than none - we proposed to begin there and then and walk our first butterfly transect. It must be said that the day wasn't the best for butterflies - or even humans. It was chilly and rain-threatening. The instruction say that surveys should only be carried out if the temperature is above 13°C., and it was a bit less than that! But we walked the route anyway, to get used to the requirements, the route itself and the time it would take. We didn't see any butterflies.
The following day, we met on Wanstead Flats to determine yet another transect there. The possible route here is perhaps less obvious, because of the many and sometimes faintly distinguishable trackways that it might be possible to follow. It is important that the same route is followed each time, so we marked it of carefully on a map using a route that would be readily identifiable next time around. The weather was slightly better and even slightly warmer, but it didn't reach 13° and the butterflies were huddled up warm.
It will be interesting to see how the butterfly transects develop - whether as individuals or a group we can continue to maintain the once-a-week requirement, but whatever, we should get some data, see some butterflies, see some other things, and get out for a walk.
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.
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."
Tests 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.
A 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.”
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.
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.
Wednesday 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.
Possibly 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.
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
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.
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.
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