Local botanist, Iain Ambler, reports on the plants and insects thriving in Wanstead's new wild areas.
Lots of Wanstead residents will be familiar with the term re-wilding. It’s a term that’s gaining increasing currency in the UK in the conservation debate. It refers to the restoration of an area of land to its natural state, particularly to re-introduce species of animals or plants. The most famous example is the Knepp estate in Sussex which since 2001 has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife. Rare species like nightingales, and purple emperor butterflies are breeding well there and populations of common species are growing at an astronomical pace. Re-wilding is bringing hope to old and young that the UK can reverse the frankly alarming trends of biodiversity loss seen over the last 70+ years.
So far so good … but could a form of re-wilding happen … in an urban environment. Say – in the middle of urban Wanstead? What would happen if nature was allowed to just do its thing here?? Wild Wanstead has been working with Redbridge council to undertake a trial to find out exactly that. Areas of parkland and several road verges have been left unmown to see what might emerge naturally, and to allow native wildflowers and plants to grow taller over the summer, providing nectar and habitat for insects, and to set seed by the autumn and be dispersed, spreading biodiversity. The trial site at George Green was reviewed to see what had emerged and the value of this approach for wildlife.
George Green has an interesting environmental history that we can see many remnants of today. It appears to be a fragment of old acid grassland or heathland, probably in or at the margins of, Epping Forest. In 1683, John Evelyn visited Wanstead and recorded the costly planting of avenues of trees by Sir Josiah Child around his recently acquired estate. The remaining massive sweet chestnut trees standing on the Green today (four in a line, three together, one towards the St Mary’s end of the green) formed part of one of these double avenues of trees radiating out for some distance from the focal point of the grand house which was located on part of what is now Wanstead Golf Course. With the break-up of the Wanstead Estate in the 19th century, the Green remained as a patch of poor quality pasture surrounded by buildings. It is owned by the City of London Corporation and protected by the Epping Forest Act of 1878. The day to day management of this urban amenity has been passed to the L. B. of Redbridge. The tall plane trees you can see today along the western edge of George Green were likely planted under the supervision of Alexander Mackenzie, who was Superintendent of Epping Forest from 1879 until his death in 1893. In the 1990s, it became an environmental battleground focused on one of the chestnut trees on the site due for removal as part of the M11 link road construction, and probably inspiration for environmental activists like Swampy later in the decade. And – of course – it’s named after the beloved pub. So – enough history already. What did we find on George Green? The signs are quietly encouraging:
We recorded over 80 species of flora (that’s trees and plants) with the vast majority native plants (i.e. not garden escapes). Just think about that for a second – picture George Green in your head. Would you have said even 10 species existed on the Green?
Many native British wildflowers that grow tall, that would otherwise have been razed, have flowered as a result. Some examples: the beautiful pink of common mallow, the tall spear like shape of goats beard, or jack-go-to-bed at noon, lemon balm and common ragwort, which will provide food for the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth. All of these are providing colour on our Green, providing heaps of nectar for insects.
We found some nice insect species in the long grass areas, including the Essex Skipper butterfly. Why are they here? Their caterpillars will typically eat grasses such as cocks-foot, timothy, and common couch, all native grasses which have grown tall in central areas of the site. Butterflies like the understory that the long grasses provide, as shelter from predators.
Finally we found indicator grass and plant species, evidence that all but confirms that George Green is a likely fragment of old acid grassland. The sort of place where highwaymen and bandits of old might have hidden out.
Then there’s just the sheer beauty – at least to this eye – of the wind blowing waves through stands of wildflowers and long grass of different colours, forms, and heights, against the backdrop of local residents enjoying the Green on a hot summer’s day.
So – signs that, when left alone, nature returns – even to the middle of an urban environment. And last of all – an appeal to you all. If you have enjoyed George Green and other areas in Wanstead left to return to nature over the summer, do let the Borough know via their parks email, firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s vitally important they know we care as the project extends in 2020. Let’s re-wild Wanstead!