Sunday, 13 May 2018

Ham Lands: buttercups

Ham Lands is a mass of yellow buttercups as well as white hawthorn and cow parsley; with three species of buttercup in the first meadow north of the  Thames Young Mariners. Buttercup identification features  are in a handy guide produced by the BSBI on Twitter below. During my walk I heard sedge warbler in the burnt out reed bed, many dunnocks and blackcaps and > 15 song thrush territories over the two sides of the Mariners; this fell short of the usual standard walk but was sufficient to confirm that this is still one of London's top sites for song thrush. A common tern was flying over the lagoon despite the water sports and a brief kestrel appearance over the grassland. Sadly only a few whitethroat and no hirundines were seen at the moment.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Kingston Biodiversity Group is now at

This is the  new website of the Kingston Biodiversity Network
Talk to Marina Pacheco about getting involved in any of the projects at
Marina at Kingston Cemetery

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Tolworth Treasure and Hogsmill Hum: Walking in the Footsteps of Richard Jefferies

Yesterday, Richard Jefferies exited his blue-plaqued villa at Woodside, 296 Ewell Road, opposite the former St. Marks school, which was built on Tolworth Common during his 5 year  residence. Here he wrote, 'The copse adjoining the back gardens of Woodside was visited by pheasants which sometimes strayed into the neighbours’ gardens. Early in the March mornings he woke to the ‘three clear, trumpet-like notes’ of a missel thrush ringing out from the copse. From his window in the evenings he could hear partridges calling. Stone-chats perched on the furze bushes of Tolworth Common.

He strolled towards Tolworth Broadway and Greenway, followed by 30+ participants keen to locate RJ's observations from 'Nature Near London'; first published as a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette for the commuting public. In 1920 the very same paper celebrated his work by reprinting excerpts from his regular column - along with joining instructions for his walks - by tram and motorbus-bus No. 105 from Ealing Broadway (kindly provided by Robin Gill).

Our first stop was at the railway where we discussed local industry  1880 style and how the needs of the growing local community was achieved through the provision of brickyards at the Fishponds and the Richard Jefferies bird sanctuary - now both nature reserves - adversley affected the local air quality, according to the District Commisioners. Today the twice weekly Tolworth freightline brings building materials from the quarries in Westbury undertaking a similar function.

He was considered to be the first to observe how successfully wild flowers had adapted to railside land and embankments, where they could flourish undisturbed, bordering the line ‘like a continuous garden’: 'Driven from the fields by plough and hoe, cast out from the pleasure-grounds of modern houses, pulled up and hurled over the wail to wither as accursed things, they have taker, refuge on the embankment and the cutting.There they can flower and ripen their seeds, little harassed even by the scythe and never by  cattle. 

So it happens that, extremes meeting, the wild flower, with its old-world associations, often grows most freely within a few feet of
the wheels of the locomotive. Purple heathbells gleam from shrub-like bunches dotted along the slope; purple knapweeds lower down in the grass; blue scabious, yellow hawkweeds where the soil is thinner, and harebells on the very summit; these are but a few upon which the eye lights while gliding by.'‘Before a dandelion has shown in the meadow,’ he remarks, ‘the banks of the railway are yellow with coltsfoot.’ 

At this point with hedgerow on the east side of the carriageway and hoardings on the west side of the carriageway, we considered how the the enclosures affected Tolworth. Coming  to the district  relatively late - not until 1820- suckering elm and a profusion of hybrid damsons in the hedgerows along the A240 may have thier  provenance from  these times. Enclosures affect the area today with  hoardings around publicly owned land - removing local enterprise - catering to outside business interests and unwanted, polluting multi-storey car parking.

From 'Britain from Above'
He led us to the Hogsmill river where a kingfisher flew over our head and back again; both ‘A Brook’ and ‘A London Trout’ describe the Hogsmill river and the bridge is that by Tolworth Court Farm. This photograph is indicative of the landscape without the mature vegetation cover we see today. The moat at the manor can be seen running parallel to the Hogsmill and perpendicular to the road. In Nature Near London there is much evidence of an increasing tenderness in Jefferies’ attitude to nature. He is no longer the sportsman naturalist out with his rod or gun but the observer, more concerned to preserve life than to take it. It was typical of the new attitude that he would watch a trout for days,  ....four seasons in all, and go to such lengths to prevent its presence being detected by the anglers who came to fish the pond near the bridge.

We filed along the Hogsmill towards the Bonesgate stream. He had his favourite ‘thinking places’, as he called them, havens from the stress of modern life. An aspen by the Hogsmill brook became one such site of almost daily pilgrimage. He saw nature not only as a medicine for the body but as a balm for the restless, unquiet mind.We listened to a blackcap singing it's territory as Lucy read a poem to us.

From here took the view across Tolworth Court Farm and contemplated his route to Chessington and Princes Covers (now Coverts- and still dead of bird life in places) or towards the springs at Ewell. Jefferies estimated that there were 2000 lapwings that took up residence on a ploughed field on Tolworth Court Farm in the winter of 1881/2: ‘It is the habit of green plovers to all move at once, to rise from the ground simultaneously, to turn in the air, or to descend — and all so regular that their very wings seem to flap together. The effect of such a vast body of white-breasted birds uprising as one from the dark ploughed earth was very remarkable. When they passed overhead the air sang like the midsummer hum with the shrill noise of beating wings. When they wheeled a light shot down reflected from their white breasts, so that people involuntarily looked up to see what it could be. The sun shone on them, so that at a distance the flock resembled a cloud brilliantly illuminated. In an instant they turned and the cloud was darkened’ (pg.157-8).

Finally to the Moated Manor where we discussed The Old Barn, which Lucy's dad remembered from
the photos in Looker's biography and Lucy read  E. Blunden's poem 'The Barn'. We passed around photo's of Italian prisoners of war  piling hay ricks on Tolworth Court Farm Fields and read June Sampson's writings of the children who lived and played in the barn while their families were labouring in the fields. We looked at a plan of the configuration of the dairy on the site and mentioned that the council want to repurpose the site as Tolworth Park at odds with its historic use as a farm since the Doomsday book. Elliot showed video footage from his camera trap of badgers and roe deer that visit the site and we discussed the archaeological interest- and how little the site has to protect it.

Convening at Court Farm Garden Centre cafe for a rest we found the tables were laid out for us by Gill and Naomi and we were joined by others who could not manage the walk. You can still contribute towards 'Tolworth Treasures' as the mulberry tree is waiting for your memories tags. Thank you to all who already have contributed and many thanks to the assistance from Kingston History Room, Ian at Richard Jefferies Museum in Coate, the proceedings from Presidential adresses by the Richard Jefferies Society and a big thanks to Lucy. We will be continuing our programe of walks with the next one across Tolworth Court Farm Fields in the summer and some of the content of todays walk will be broadcast in November. 

I will be speaking to the Surbiton and District Birdwatching Society on the wildlife of Tolworth Court Farm  8pm at Surbiton Library 17.7.18. It is worth adding that the Richard Jefferies Society will be speaking at 2pm 26.9.18 at the same library and we will be planting an elm tree in RJ's memory afterwards, next to the fence of the Richard Jefferies Bird Sanctuary.

There would be no Richard Jefferies bird sanctuary, no blue plaque on the 296 Ewell Road and no plaque in Surbiton Library if it wasn't for Hockley (Harry) Clark. He was also the founder of Surbiton and District Birdwatching Society and if you buy  a recent edition of Nature Near London you will find he wrote the foreword. Insights from our own June Sampson are numerous, they are unique, you will not find mention of them elsewhere.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Thames 21 and Kingfisher

Paul and Caitlin with Kingfisher
 Anna carrying the boat through shallow water
Thames 21 are an organisation that aims to: connect local communities with their rivers; demonstrate what is happening to them; and design bespoke solutions for them. I have blogged  some of their amazing projects elsewhere see Rainscapes in Enfield

Anna at the Ewell storm tank outfall

We are lucky that one of their research projects - using robot boats to measure water quality- includes  the Hogsmill,  and a boat known as KINGFISHER. The hulls are  made by a company called Platypus' and the first step is to install and calibrate  its monitoring systems. We met last Friday to introduce the superboat to the range of different chemical and other influences presented at different stretches including the various outfalls along the Hogsmill.This included the Ewell Storm Tank outfall where water quality can be affected by sewage overflow.

sediment from the Bonesgate
The floating labs offer benefits for rivers and local communities and want to stop localised pollution. Ordinary citizens will be able to use the boats to collect research evidence themselves and find out just how healthy their local river is.The sensors and boats will be linked to user-friendly online decision support software providing a chemical analysis, which can be downloaded on a spreadsheet by any of us.

Our rivers are still far more polluted than they should be. Heavy metals leak into them through stormwater from roads, and waste water and sewage from misconnected plumbing and pipes. The Bonesgate flowing into the Hogsmill at Tolworth brings with it  sediment, pesticides and even more nutrients.

The Hogsmill (Epsom and Ewell) Storm Tanks are both located in the upper reaches of the Hogsmill river. The tanks function as temporary storage for untreated sewage as it travels through the network of pipes towards the Hogsmill Sewage Treatment Works (STW). During heavy rainfall, rainwater as well as sewage fills up the system: to prevent it backing up into homes, there are temporary storage systems like these storm tanks, and sometimes overflow pipes into rivers, which help to relieve the pressure. Usually the storm tanks contain the sewage until the rain has passed and the sewage can drain back into the network to be treated at the Hogsmill STW. Occasionally,  the storm tanks fill up completely and will discharge any excess sewage to the Hogsmill river itself see storm tanks overflowing here

In addition, an incident took place on Saturday 27th January 2018, in which sewage sludge from the Hogsmill Sewage Treatment Works was released into the Hogsmill river. Sewage sludge is one of the final products from the sewage treatment process and so it does not contain any rag.

The crew will be out again this Friday and anyone is welcome to join them

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Reptiles in the borough

Highlight of the week: looking for sandmartins at Kingsmeadow and finding slow worms along the Hogsmill. Now the weather is warming it is a good time to spot slow worms. one was seen slithering across the path near Dickerage Lane recreation ground close to where a dead one was found a couple of years ago. Dead ones have been seen in the south of the borough.
Last weekend I visited Risborough Green - near the Beverley brook - where these animals have been recently recorded. The last comprehensive reptile  survey of the borough was carried out by LEHART as they were then  known (now the London ARG) by Will Atkins It is thought that Risborough Green has was known as Kingshill Conservation Area in these surveys.

Risborough Green, W.Park
The rough grass on sunny banks, should be retained for them as there are few places - other than allotments - where we have recent records except Tolworth where there are records of slow worms and common lizards. The latter species was recorded during surveys prior to the development of Tolworth Girls School. Other animals  such as hedgehogs will also benefit from informal management. 

Of course there are records of grass snake mainly associated with Hogsmill river crossings near the sewage works, which used to be a strong hold for this species in the borough. They are also found in the wetter areas in  the south of the borough.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Walk the Hogsmill along Hogsmill Open Space

The importance of old maps
Peter explaining river monitoring
Participants largely from Malden Manor and the Sunray Estate community  groups, joined me for a  three hour walk along the Hogsmill  organised by the Sustrans. Sharing information about our open spaces can assist in their protection. 

Mistletoe Sheephouse Way
Furzeland House
We began by looking at old maps revealing how the river had been straightened in three sections; and how former land-use was reflected in the names of local streets and buildings such as at Furzeland house, which would have been built on the site of common land  growing gorse. 

We discussed two corridors additional to the river that are considered important for animal movement: the railway used by reptiles for basking on substrates;  the pylons, where the vegetation beneath requires annual management for access and maintenance. The latter attracts species totally, dependent on  the type of management employed (ranging from traditional coppicing at Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve (LNR) to bulldozing at unprotected sites in the south of the borough). Slow -moving plants and insects are particularly dependent on these corridors for movement, including the mistletoe - prevalent in the district - and often a priority species in Biodiversity Action Plans.

We looked at the many factors now facing our LNR's, such as nitrification from dog mess. To wry amusement I read a passage  in a council bird survey report I had written in 1997,  highlighting the problems of dog mess including, increased numbers of dogs especially brought here by professional dog walkers, as well as larger and more boisterous breeds. The photograph shows how the grassland responds to constant enrichment by growing nettles and hemlock, with a loss of the more sensitive plants.

During our deliberations we saw the blue flash of a kingfisher heading up - stream. We recorded  three chiff - chaff territories; this is down on surveys, which have previously recorded at least five singing male birds (surveys used to be commissioned every two-five years up until 1997). There was no evidence of a cacophony of bird song until we reached Six-acre meadow, demonstrating the importance of larger green spaces for birds; as opposed to the increasing urbanisation of the reserve entrance  with street furniture and lighting, where only the occasional wren could be heard singing. We examined a  green woodpecker poo, resembling  the burnt white ash of a disguarded cigarette.

Good Friday grass

This is one of the specialist grasses on Hogsmill O.S. - Luzula campestris or Good Friday grass - whose pollen grains were ready to disperse on the next breeze. The importance of this meadow was recognised by a prescient council officer, Andy Watson, in the 1990's. He arranged for the sowing of a parasitic plant - emulating cattle grazing- called yellow rattle to arrest the growth of the vigorous grasses, which could smother the knapweed, sorrel, birds-foot trefoil and speedwells, so important  for attracting butterflies.

We discussed in-stream improvements that are currently taking place in the river; a project undertaken by the Environment Agency team acting as volunteers. Deflectors are being installed to create flow diversity in the channel. It seems unfortunate that little is done about the large amount of sewage spilling from the Epsom and Ewell storm tanks; we  noted the large amount of rag from recent heavy flows from the tanks as well as an amount of misconnected pipes from new extensions.

Roe deer Hogsmill OS. P. Atkinson
We looked out for roe deer, animals  suffering directly from  disturbance from dogs, and found their
slotted prints in the mud.  One was seen fleeing towards the road, during the wet recce for this walk earlier in the week. The worry is that these animals can be driven towards the road,  which has seen an increase of  vehicular traffic in recent years. Here is an excellent picture taken by one of the local residents.

After the walk it was interesting to be shown Risborough Green, where slow worms have been recorded in local gardens. The rough grassy banks are obviously good for these animals and I will record them in a database I  compile of species found in the borough.