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Wanstead Flats fire: Skylarks escape London’s ‘biggest ever grass fire’ - but other species may have perished

PUBLISHED: 16:58 16 July 2018 | UPDATED: 17:26 16 July 2018

Firefighters tackle a wildfire in Wanstead Flats on July 15 2018, London's

Firefighters tackle a wildfire in Wanstead Flats on July 15 2018, London's "biggest ever grass fire". Photo: Helen Mathias / EyeContact Photography

HelenMathias-EyeContact Photography

Wanstead Flats’ iconic skylarks have escaped the wrath of the huge wildfire that engulfed the grassland yesterday (July 15) - the biggest grass fire in London’s history.

The skylark is one of the iconic birds of Wanstead Flats, it nests all year round. Picture: Barry ChapmanThe skylark is one of the iconic birds of Wanstead Flats, it nests all year round. Picture: Barry Chapman

But the grassland’s other bird species may be reduced next year as much of their habitat has been destroyed, according to a Wanstead conservationist.

Firefighters were called to reports of a grass fire in Wanstead Flats at 4.05pm yesterday (July 15), receiving more than 100 calls - many from Lake House Road and Centre Road.

At the height of the fire, more than 100 hectares of grass was alight and smoke drifted across busy roads, which was visible for miles, causing local road closures.

This is roughly the same size as 10 football pitches.

More than 225 firefighters were called to the scene and 40 fire engines attended from stations including Walthamstow, Leytonstone and Hainault.

The Recorder spoke to Tim Harris, chairman of Wren and Wildlife Conservation Group, to understand the impact of the fire on Wanstead Flats’ ecosystem.

“The good news is that, although the fire covered an extensive area, and jumped Centre Road, the key ground-nesting species - the skylark and meadow pipit - are nesting just south of the affected zone, so they escaped,” he said.

“Thanks are due to the fantastic work of London Fire Brigade in making sure fire extended no further.”

Firefighters tackle a wildfire in Wanstead Flats on July 15 2018, London's Firefighters tackle a wildfire in Wanstead Flats on July 15 2018, London's "biggest ever grass fire". It was one of 47 fires in July in Redbridge. Photo: Helen Mathias / EyeContact Photography

Wanstead Flats is the closest location to the centre of London where skylarks nest and their population is in decline naturally due to agricultural practices, he said.

He added: “The wildlife affected [by the fire] will be birds nesting in patches of broom, gorse and bramble, including whitethroat, dunnock and wren.”

The chicks of these species usually become fledged – meaning that they are able to fly - between April and July each year.

Any unfledged chicks will have likely perished in the blaze.

He said that was impossible to estimate the number of casualties but that the grasslands are home to about 40 pairs of wrens and 20 pairs of both white throats and dunnocks.

The fire will also likely reduce the numbers of these bird species next year, he added.

“There will be very much less habitat also when the birds return next spring,” he said.

“So they will have to try to find other areas nearby.

“And if there are too many birds trying to establish territory in the same area they won’t have the same breeding success.”

While these bird species will reduce next spring, he estimates the grasslands should be return to their original glory by spring 2020 assuming there are no further fires.

He added: “The first signs of re-growth should be evident in a few weeks if we have rain.

“By next spring there will still be signs of the burn, but vegetation will be growing up again.

He said that the main damage of the fire will have been to invertebrates, with the larvae of a whole range of moths, butterflies, beetles as well as grasshoppers and bush-crickets destroyed.

Mr Harris has also noticed how the fire has exposed a large amount of litter that had been hidden among the bramble.

Once the immediate situation has been taken care of, he intends to arrange an event to remove it all.

He said: “There is an opportunity now for a community litter pick to go and do the whole area and get rid of the rubbish that is lying around.”

The City of London’s Epping Forest committee, who manage Wanstead Flats, has been contacted for comment.

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