Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group statement on proposals for major music events on Wanstead Flats

Proposal for events – Wanstead Flats

Some of you may have heard that in summer 2019 there is a proposal for large scale music events on the Flats. Wren Group committee felt it should respond formally in writing to the City of London (Epping Forest) and this follows.

You might also like to read the committee report drafted by City of London officers (be warned this is quite a long document before you consider printing). It contains some coloured maps which make some of the options under consideration clearer.

Although our area of concern extends beyond Epping Forest, the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group has always seen one of its responsibilities as lobbying on behalf of, and highlighting threats to, the natural environment of the Forest, including its flora and fauna. We are mindful of one of the provisions of the Epping Forest Act (1878), that “The Conservators shall at all times as far as possible preserve the natural aspect of the Forest…”

In recent years, one of the focuses of our work has been to survey, publicise and lobby for protection of ground-nesting Skylarks and Meadow Pipits on Wanstead Flats. According to the most recent London Bird Report, published by the London Natural History Society, in 2016 there were four Meadow Pipit territories on the Flats. With the exception of Rainham Marshes, this is the highest total anywhere in London. In the same year, there were three Skylark territories, the only multiple-territory site this close to the centre of London. Skylark is a Red Data list bird because of the dramatic decline in its numbers nationally. Partly because of the work of local volunteers, but also due to the positive attitude of the Epping Forest ecological team, and their sympathetic grassland management, this number increased to five territories in summer 2018.

The value of the Flats does not lie only in its ground-nesting birds. For example, in recent years, Green Hairstreak and Brown Argus butterflies have colonized, and in 2018 had a successful season. More than 80 species of spiders have been recorded in the last few years.

The Wren Group appreciates that Wanstead Flats is not a nature reserve. It is an area of mixed usage, available for footballers, model aircraft enthusiasts, dog-walkers, those who simply enjoy being in an open space, and naturalists alike. But any damage to the ‘natural aspect’ of the Flats will diminish the experience for every user. Not everyone may recognize the Skylark’s summer song, but most will appreciate it.

While the existing footfall on Wanstead Flats is large, it is not generally concentrated. The area’s natural heritage seems to be able to cope, just about. However, the Wren Group feels that the combination of the construction and de-rigging of a large arena and the large numbers of people attending one or more music events will be seriously detrimental to this ‘natural aspect’. Although the footprint of the arena itself is not on land of special wildlife value, it is close to such areas and it seems clear that the construction process, and very large numbers of people making their way to and from the site will not impact on the more wildlife-rich areas – especially as this is the middle of the breeding season for ground-nesting birds. The Skylark nesting area by Alexandra Lake is adjacent to the arena site, and large numbers of people making their way to and from Forest Gate on foot will be passing directly through the core breeding area for Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Additionally, there is a very real fire risk in these very areas of the Flats during the summer, as witnessed this year, and this is likely to be exacerbated with large numbers of additional people on the site.

The Wren Group is also only too aware of the experience of the Police Muster Station in 2012. Before its installation, warnings were given about the threat to the Skylark population in that area. In a letter to our then chairman, the Superintendent responded “I remain unconvinced that the temporary loss of such a small area of poor grassland will have a significant impact on the nesting pairs of Skylarks on the SSSI area”. In fact, although Skylarks were breeding in that area prior to the installation, there has not been a single breeding record since.

Members of our group have invested a great deal of time and energy into highlighting the wildlife riches of Wanstead Flats. This proposal threatens long-term damage to the site, in particular running the risk of eradicating the iconic Skylark population. Just as at Chingford Plain, if the Skylarks stop breeding – given the national decline of the species – they are unlikely to return.

In summary, given the fragile state of the ecosystems on Wanstead Flats, especially after the worst grassland fire in London’s history earlier this year, we cannot envisage a scenario in which such a large scale event would have anything other than a severely damaging impact on the local wildlife. For these reasons, the Wren Group strongly opposes the plans to hold events of this kind on Wanstead Flats.

One final point is the absence of consultation. The opportunity for interested parties to seek clarification after the proposal has been signed-off in no way represents consultation. Local residents must have the opportunity to participate in a proper consultation before any contracts are signed.

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