Tim Harris from Wren Wildlife & Conservation Group shared the group’s work to protect skylarks in Wanstead Flats. This article was first published in Epping Forest Heritage Trust’s Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of ‘Trust in the Forest’ magazine.
Celebrated for its unique spring song flights, which compensate for the fact that it nests on the ground, the Skylark is one of Epping Forest’s most special birds, but it breeds only on Wanstead Flats, an area of acid grassland wedged between Manor Park and Leytonstone. Nationally, this seed-eating bird has suffered because of big changes in agricultural practice, with a 15% decline since 1995. Nesting is rare on urban grasslands because of disturbance – by people, dogs, and rats. Human disturbance is unintended but can result in eggs or chicks being deserted. It is remarkable, given the huge footfall on Wanstead Flats that a breeding population survives here at all – in fact, it is the closest to central London.
By the 2020 breeding season, just a handful of larks remained. Fears that we might lose the last population in the Forest demanded urgent action. The experience of other locations shows that once lost, these birds are near-impossible to get back. That is why, working with the Wren Group, the City of London agreed to fence off two areas of Wanstead Flats for the duration of the breeding season (from mid-March to mid-September) in 2021. This was repeated in 2022, and early in 2023 a rat control programme was also implemented.
Wren members have been crucial in engaging with the public to get them on-side. A brief explanation of the life history of this iconic bird is usually enough to convince people of the value of the fencing.
It takes time to rebuild a tiny population, but the season just gone seems to suggest a corner has been turned. We started the season with six or seven birds (three breeding pairs) and ended with 11. A minimum of four fledged young is something of an achievement and, with other suitable grassland for feeding and nesting available, we’re hopeful that 2024 will see further growth.
All images © Tim Harris
About Wren Wildlife & Conservation Group: Wren is a local charity aimed at conserving the local open spaces that are home to a vast range of wildlife, some of which is rare Through a range of activities Wren provides information and a voice for local people, to learn about and to influence the management and conservation of the beautiful and natural surroundings of Wanstead Flats, the Park and adjoining areas. Find out more about Wren Group and their work, please visit: Wren Conservation Group (wrengroup.org.uk)