Wildlife goes on…

The meadow pipit was once a common breeding bird on Wanstead Flats but has since been lost to the area. This is just one of many changes observed by the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group, which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this month. Chairman James Heal reports

Fifty years ago, in 1972, many things were different; miners were striking, Ted Heath was prime minister, Sir John Betjeman was made poet laureate (more on him later), a pint of beer cost 16p, and the tragedy of Bloody Sunday occurred.

1972 was also the year that a small group of young people in east London formed something called the Wren Action Group. They wanted to find ways in which young people could be motivated to take practical action to understand and protect the natural environment around them. Fifty years later, and now called the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group, we are still going strong and are celebrating our half-century anniversary.

It is fair to say that the average age of Wren membership is somewhat higher than it was back in 1972, but the driving principles of engaging locally to promote and protect the wildlife on our doorstep – most particularly the southern end of Epping Forest around Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats, but also encompassing Leyton Flats, Hollow Ponds, Gilbert’s Slade and other areas across three London boroughs – are still alive and largely the same.

Some of the challenges facing the Wren Group are different. In the mid-1970s, Wren committee members went to visit fellow young members who had been locked up in remand homes. But some of the challenges remain the same. In the 1970s, Wren was concerned about falling bird numbers just as we are today.

Back then, members were noticing falling numbers of willow and even marsh tits; sadly, those birds have long since gone from our local area. Buzzards were rare birds back then and red kite sightings unthinkable, whereas today, both are commonly reported. And we have recently, sadly, lost meadow pipit as breeding birds on Wanstead Flats, which would have been common back then.

In the 1970s, the group wrote to Sir John Betjeman to ask him to be our patron. He responded earnestly but said he would agree to be “a patron, but not the patron” and so we reached out to another public figure who agreed to join Sir John. The Wren Group is hugely proud that Sir David Attenborough has also been a patron for over 45 years. Sir John passed away long ago, but we have just agreed a new partnership. We are thrilled that renowned international but locally-based artist Dr Gayle Chong-Kwan will join Sir David as a new patron. Gayle will address the membership on 8 October at our anniversary celebrations and will, no doubt, touch on the major piece of art she did recently inspired by Epping Forest.

Since Wren was founded, we have a huge amount to be proud of. We were instrumental in getting an ancient east London churchyard recognised as a nature reserve, we have organised hundreds of bioblitz events, walks and talks, we have worked with local children and youth groups, we have lobbied to protect local wildlife (such as successfully getting temporary fencing around the skylark breeding grounds on Wanstead Flats), and we have done thousands of hours of practical work helping to protect and enhance local habitats.

Like all dynamic organisations, we have tried to adapt to the times. We know our virtual meetings during lockdown were welcomed by those who may not have felt safe to go outside. We also, increasingly, engage through social media with our members and followers as well as through our digital newsletter and I hope we will continue to adapt and grow, to help embrace new local and wider challenges (doing our bit to fight the climate crisis, stop biodiversity loss and encourage greater diversity in local engagement with wildlife). If we do that, we might even be around in another 50 years. I hope so.

For more information and to join the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group, visit wnstd.com/wren