In the 16th of a series of articles charting the Wild Wanstead project – which aims to transform Wanstead into a multi-garden nature reserve – Iain Ambler provides an update on work to rewild parts of George Green. Photography by Alex Deverill
Lots of Wanstead residents will be familiar with the term rewilding. It’s a concept 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 reintroduce 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. Rewilding is bringing hope that the UK can reverse the, frankly, alarming trends of biodiversity loss seen over the last 70-plus years.
So far, so good… but could a form of rewilding 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 surveyed to see what had emerged and the value of this approach for wildlife. And the signs were quietly encouraging:
We recorded over 80 species of trees and plants, most of them native (not garden escapes). Just think about that for a second. Would you have said even 10 species existed on the Green?
Many native British wildflowers grow tall if left unmown, and these have flowered as a result of the project. Some examples: the beautiful pink of common mallow, the tall spear-like shape of goat’s beard (or Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon), lemon balm and common ragwort, which will provide food for the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth.
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 the long grasses provide as shelter from predators.
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, overall, there are signs that, when left alone, nature returns, even to the middle of an urban environment.
If you have enjoyed George Green and like the idea of areas in Wanstead being left to return to nature over the summer, do let the council know via their parks email, (firstname.lastname@example.org). It’s vitally important they know we care, so we can continue and extend this experiment. Let’s rewild Wanstead!