Wild Wanstead


Planning some building work at home? Why not make sure it offers net gain for nature? Susie Knox explains why in the 23rd article of a series charting the Wild Wanstead project

In the last 25 years, an area of countryside and green space almost the size of Cornwall has been lost to development. Built-up areas in Britain increased by nearly 3,500 square kilometres, according to the UK Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, most of it in England. If someone had proposed to concrete over the whole of Cornwall, there would have been an outcry. But development is much more insidious than that. A little bit here, a little bit there. Each pretty insignificant, but collectively, adding up to a vast area of land lost to nature. 

The researchers calculated that between 1990 and 2015 there was a net loss of 1.9 million acres of grassland.

With so much more development still to come, it is good news that in the new environment bill, the government is embracing the concept of net gain for nature. It means that big developments will (allegedly) have to leave the natural environment in a measurably better state than it was beforehand. By measuring the value of existing habitats in biodiversity units, the net gain approach will hopefully encourage habitats of high biodiversity value to be avoided or preserved, given the difficulty and cost in compensating for them. It should also lead to new developments integrating wildlife-enhancing features into plans to boost their score of biodiversity units.

It seems a shame that in places like Wanstead, where most development is small scale or residential (extensions and driveways), no such rules will apply, and the gradual concreting over of suburbia looks set to continue. A little bit here, a little bit there. I wonder how many George Green’s worth of gardens have been concreted over in Wanstead during the last 25 years?

Maybe, as individuals, we should embrace the concept of net gain for nature, even if we aren’t forced to by law. For example, if garden land is being lost to make way for an extension, why not ensure the remaining garden becomes a haven for wildlife? Or put on a green roof and create a new area of vegetated land?

Suburban gardens are home to nearly 700 different species, and probably many thousands of individual creatures. What to us seems like a lovely extension or patio, or a neat driveway, is Armageddon to insects, birds, frogs, toads, hedgehogs and the many other creatures trying to live alongside us in Wanstead. Many people say they feel reconnected with nature following lockdown this year. Let’s hope those feelings turn to actions by ensuring our own home building projects result in an improved habitat for our local wildlife.

Ways to help nature gain while achieving the house of your dreams:

  • Incorporate green features in your new development.
  • Compensate for any loss of vegetation or habitat by making the remaining land even better for nature.

For example:

  • Use a small amount of hard surfacing and maximise space for vegetation.
  • Put a sedum or wildflower roof on extensions, sheds or garden rooms.
  • Opt for a green driveway.
  • Don’t put down plastic grass.
  • Switch areas of your lawn to no-mow in spring and early summer.
  • Plant trees and hedges around the edge.
  • Allocate an area to become a wild corner – with leaf piles, wood and dense vegetation.
  • Create a wild flower mini-meadow.
  • Start growing ivy or other climbers up your fences.
  • Add a wildlife pond or water feature.
  • Lift up old areas of gravel and slate and plant low-maintenance shrubs instead.

For more information on the Wild Wanstead project, visit wnstd.com/wild