Cattle in Capel Road and on Wanstead Flats c 1960s. The fencing was temporarily erected after the prefabs were removed and the area re-instated as playing fields.
Commoners have had the right to graze cattle on Epping Forest for perhaps a thousand years. Regulations dating back to 1790 allowed "the release onto the Forest of two cows or one horse for every £4 per annum rent paid on the Home Farm". Commoners had to live in Forest Parishes and own over half an acre of free land within a Forest parish. The lords and tenants of Wanstead manor had a special right of sheep pasture on Wanstead Flats, unusual for the forest.
Cattle from farther afield also made use of Wanstead Flats. Up to the end of the 18th century and just into the 19th, a great cattle market was held annually during March and April. Cattle were brough from Scotland, Wales and the north of England. Business relating to this event was transacted at the Rabbits public house on Romford Road in Manor Park.
West of Manor Park, Forest Gate derives its name from a gate erected in the 17th century to stop cattle straying onto Romford Road from Wanstead Flats; the gate is first mentioned - as "The Woodgrange Gate" - in 1693. In 1851 the Lord of Woodgrange Manor erected a new five-bar gate across Woodgrange Road. and existed until about 1883. The gate was situated near by the Eagle & Child public house, which was shown on a map of 1741, but which has now closed.
In more recent years, from time to time measures have been proposed to restrict the grazing of cattle. In the early 1960s the City of London (Various Powers) Bill contained the proposal to tether the cattle. This was introduced on the grounds that they constituted a danger to road safety and damaged public and private property. Eventually it was ruled that the proposal be deleted, but only after petitions by Wanstead and Woodford Council, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society.
A look at how many cattle grazed on the flats is interesting. In 1912 there were as many as 972. In 1970 the highest number was 543
In 1977 after a motorcyclist was killed when he hit a steer in thick fog, the Corporation of London bought out the Commoner's rights to winter grazing, and since 1978 the cattle were allowed to graze only between April 16 and November 14. An interesting aspect of this is that the highways that cross the forest were established only by passage over common land; that is to say that the highways are as much common land as the land either side, and that the grazing animals have the right to pass over them!
In the early 1980's, farmers in the Waltham Cross area released sometimes 200 cattle onto the Forest . They were referred to locally as "cows", although most were bullocks, and were a familiar sight wandering through Loughton and Woodford towards Wanstead Flats - the cattle's favourite feeding area. When the vegetation was good, the cattle tended to stick to their favoured grasses on Wanstead Flats, but in dry summers and in the latter parts of the summer when they had gained confidence, they were often tempted towards peoples gardens and wandered into adjacent roads. People who had lived in the area for many years were used to this; although inconvenienced and even annoyed, they were usually prepared to put up with it for the unique experience and pleasure of the cattle being there at all! For many newcomers to the area, however, this was an unexpected and unwanted aspect of the area, and from time to time complaints were made to the Corporation of London, to the cattles' owners, and to the newspapers. Controversy would continue for some time, then abate. At the beginning of 1986, a letter from the Manor Park Cemetery Company was distributed to local householders suggesting they write to the local newspaper - The Newham Recorder - if they had been troubled by cattle. The object was to "get the area (Wanstead Flats) re-designated from Common Land and thus prevent distant farmers taking advantage of a very ancient law which causes inconvenience and harassment to our neighbourhood". The response published in the newspaper was three letters in favour of keeping the cattle and one against. About 150 cattle were released onto the Forest that year.
In 1991 only four commoners - from the Waltham Holy Cross area - were releasing cattle, and that year they were fitted with small coloured buttons in their ears to identify the owners. This replaced the former system of branding by means of a hot iron. This meant that people troubled by the cattle could report them to their owners, but the responsibility for keeping them out of your garden was your own! Historically, in Wanstead Manor and neighbouring Aldersbrook, the parish cattle mark was a "Q" surmounted by a cross.
The onset of BSE or "Mad Cow Disease" in the mid 1990s led to the cattle being kept off the Forest; this disease being followed by Foot and Mouth meant that no more cattle were released after 1996. Though by 2002 the possibility of seeing free-ranging cattle on the Forest seemed highly unlikely, some indications still remained of their past presence: road warning signs as for example approaching Aldersbrook Road from Manor Park, cattle grids at the Green Man Roundabout, a corral between the playing field buildings and Heatherwood Close. Perhaps coincidentally, this small area of housing and the adjacent petrol station stands on the site of Aldersbrook Farm, which was all that remained of the extensive Aldersbrook Farm - the sale of which provided the land for the City of London Cemetery!
It has been realised that not only do cattle grazing freely on the Forest provide something of a spectacle - particularly perhaps in the southern reaches where many children may have never seen cattle - they are also part of a historical link dating back thousands of years. Perhaps an even greater realisation has come about when the value of their grazing habits is taken into account. It can be seen that already the vegetation in areas such as Wanstead Flats is ranker than it used to be; there has been a phenomenal growth in tree-scrub in some area whilst other lower-growing species have declined. Perhaps less obvious to more casual observations is the reported loss of some insect species and a decline in others, even including butterflies.
In the early spring of 2002, the Conservators of Epping Forest announced that they proposed to re-introduce cattle in an area of the Forest between Chingford in the south and High Beach in the north. Mr Andrew Davies has a small herd of English Longhorns, a breed which have been used as part of a grazing project at Long Running in Epping Forest, and these would be available for grazing during the summer. A stockperson would herd the cattle during the day, and two cattle pounds would be erected, at Fairmead Bottom and on Chingford Plain, where they could be kept overnight. Two other potential graziers have been identified. These are Mr Graham Matthews and the Lea Valley Regional Park
A fence was erected around the boundary of this area, and was completed by June 2002. A number of cattle were by this time allowed to graze part of the area. The cattle seemed to settle in well, and early in 2003 it was proposed to supplement this herd with another 50 animals.
Even if these efforts are successful, it will probably be years before cattle might return to Wanstead Flats. The longer it is, the less likely it will be that that it will happen!