News of wildlife and other issues
The Bluebells of Chalet Wood
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 certainly 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 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.
I looked around for some more... (which I will add later!)
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 dug to a grim 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
The Wanstead Flats Fire
Those of us living anywhere in the vicinity of Wanstead Flats, and even much further afield, will probably be aware that there was a major grass-fire on the Flats beginning at about 4pm on Sunday 15th July, 2018. This was severe enough to be mentioned on various news programmes, radio and television, in the London area and elsewhere. It was stated that 225 personnel and 40 vehicles were in attendance to deal with it. This was the largest grass fire ever recorded in the London area and - with 40 vehicles in attendance - one of only three fires in London in 2018 to have as much resources used in dealing with it.
I had said just the day before to friends that I was surprised there hadn't been fires earlier. After all, it's an annual event. I have often thought at this time of year – and particularly at weekends – that there ought to be patrols out on the Flats (and in Wanstead Park) warning people against their barbecues, and keeping an eye out for problems in general. That could include litter warnings, too – because even on the news there was the usual explanation that discarded bottles could have caused it. They never mention that matches could have caused it. (cynic that I am). Of course, the City of London (i.e. the Conservators of Epping Forest) resources are just not available, but just look at the cost because they are not. All those fried grasshoppers and cooked snails! And the monetary cost of all that fire-fighting equipment and manpower, the police helicopter flying round and round (and all the pollution from that). There is a health cost, too. I slept (not much) with all my windows closed because of the smoke, and people with lung and breathing problems may well have suffered.
Realising that major damage would have been done to such vegetation as grasses, broom, gorse and the relatively small but increasing area of heather, I was afraid that some of the trees in the copses may have also have been damaged severely, but they seem to have survived okay. The worst tree-damage appeared to be along the west side of Centre Road, presumably where the fire "jumped" the road. I think Long Wood is pretty much okay, but there may be some superficial damage along the southern edge. The Coronation (1953) Plantation also survived. Again, there may be some damage along its northern edge, because the firefighters were still damping or trampling down smouldering patches immediately adjacent, that is to say between the plantation and Aldersbrook Farm Wood (the petrol station trees). That grass is as far east as the fire reached. The football pitches stopped it jumping to the grassland south of Alexandra Lake and beyond.
It looks to me – as has been suggested – that the fire may have begun somewhere between Blake Hall Road and the Fairground site, I estimate somewhere opposite the Belgrave Road wayleave. That means much of the SSSI is just blackened remnants of vegetation, with lots of dead grasshoppers to be seen. Surprisingly, the hedgerow and grass parallel with the track alongside Blake Hall Road has survived. The Heather has not.
The major area east of Centre Road – has been affected just around perimeter of the model aircraft area, but much more so to the east of that, and nearly to Long Wood and across to the Coronation Plantation. As I said, all the copses seem okay. This is part of the Skylark’s main breeding area. Meadow Pipits, too. There were some Skylarks singing. Not all of their nesting territory has been damaged, so they still have a chance next year, though I did encounter one on a track that – even apart from its awareness of me – seemed distraught. And on the day of the fire I heard a Skylark and a Meadow Pipit near Alexandra Lake whilst the fire was blazing further west on Sunday. These may have been displaced individuals. The Skylarks here are a very important population in the London area, and have been decreasing in recent years. The hope is, of course, that there will be enough nesting sites for them next Spring.
All in all, though, fire is a natural phenomena – however it began (probably through some form of human agency) - and although distressing and concerning regarding environment and wildlife, things will recover. It might even do it good – especially if opportunity was undertaken to clear some of the long-remaining litter now exposed. The effect, however, might be profound – especially if it destroys the Skylark and Meadow Pipits's continued habitation
I had a message that Alexandra Lake had been used as a water-supply. It was already low, and I was later told that the fire-service was pumping water into the lake on Monday afternoon, to replenish it somewhat. With regard water, the fire has exposed the ditch that runs parallel to the west side of Centre Road. Blocked pipes/conduits are visible, which presumably should have been taking rain-water off the road. That ditch used to have water in, and was great for mosses etc. It has been abandoned, and hence adds to the drying out of the Flats. I have complained about this for years. Now could be an opportunity to re-dig it, re-establish the drains and get a bit of water back. Doubtless, that opportunity won't be taken.
Paul Ferris, 16th July 2018 (For an update on the regrowth following the fire, Click Here)