East London Rewilding at Castle Green and Mayesbrook
We took a trip to see rewilding in East London and found young forests, a somewhat failed approach, and a hidden (accidental) wild haven in London's Suburban Circle.
Did you know that London qualifies as a forest according to the UN? And while the first question that comes to mind might be ‘what are those UN parameters?’ we can also see that there are definitely parts of London with a share of forested spaces. An effort to extend London’s forest density has recently kicked off at Becontree, in East London. We were invited to take a look.
Castle Green Park, a very young rewilding project, is part of a Europe-wide initiative to extend forests in urban spaces. At just 2 years, we thought it would be valuable to highlight and celebrate this rewilding effort because as we know the early years of any rewilding project are difficult and the public can take offense at what, to the layman’s eyes, just seems to be a somewhat raw, untended green space.
Castle Green Park is alongside a highway, and backed by runs of single occupancy homes - when you’re in it its difficult not to feel like you’re in an urban space - it perhaps lacks, as yet, the scale and density to ‘escape to the wild’. However, a rewilder would notice straight away that they are approaching a space that has had some attention put to it. That there has been some effort to encourage new green growth. In particular, there is an intelligence to the placement of the young saplings, along the side of the park against the highway, offering a glimpse of the future tall wood able to buffer the sight and sounds of the road.
It reminds us of the early days of LettsSafari’s Dalwish Park on the outskirts of another UK city (Exeter) which just 10 years ago had some similar, somewhat barren characteristics. Today it is a model city park cherished by planners, landscapers and other rewilders throughout the UK and beyond.
At Castle Green a dense planting approach has been adopted to produce the greatest amount of growth. And it seems that thinning was done and the excess trees were transplanted to nearby spaces, where new, smaller, sparser copses are developing. The sparser copses almost seem like an afterthought and are actually growing ahead of the general reforesting effort. As often happens in rewilding, areas that develop more naturally with less human interference eventually overtake the more tended to areas.
However, all of this belies what is the fatal flaw of work at Castle Green: the rewilded spaces have not been fenced off. It is abundantly clear that human interaction is hindering the rewilded forest’s potential. The thickest spaces of young trees are littered with paths, footprints, garbage and disturbance, it makes it neither an attractive, nor a healthy environment for growth.
The flaw is so easily overcome. A simple low fence would provide the basic barrier that would prevent the majority of this interaction, and even if you could not arrest all the activity, you would nevertheless give the efforts a much greater fighting chance. A low fence would signal to the public that what some might perceive as just a bit of unmowed mess is actually a future wood.
The work done with transplanted trees - spreading them out so they naturally integrate with wider spaces also seems to have helped. The transplanted trees have are larger, taller and don’t have the scars of human interference.
Somewhat disappointed with Castle Green, we wandered out of the back of the park, and on the walk back through Becontree, we came upon Mayesbrook Park, and it’s Southern Lake. In general, Mayesbrook Park, has seen a good bit of manicuring. But within the Park, the Southern Lake appears to have been overlooked and left to its own devices. Here, Mayesbook Park has seemingly acquired a unique rewilded water space by itself. And as I wandered along the frozen shoreline, I was taken by the way the natural world seemed to open up ahead of me.
Most importantly though, the nature of the lake at Mayesbook Park, hidden away somewhat by the rest of the park, and the absence of a clear walking path, as well as some well placed small fences, make it undesirable to walk around. It’s spared a majority of human interference and interaction while it rewilds. In fact that makes the rewilding possible.
Intentionally or not, the Park has followed, some key principles. Fallen trees, or simply large fallen branches have been left on the ground and are visible all around the lake. New trees are provided support and protection to grow.
While many focus on the canoeing shed where you can get small boats to take around the North Lake, the South Lake shows almost no evidence of frequent human activity. The nature has been left to do what it does best: rewild.
What Castle Green and Mayesbrook evidence is that just setting out to produce a rewilded space is not enough. You need to follow the right steps, you need to introduce a few important compromises, largest among them the need to prevent access for the early period of development or carefully protect seedlings with tree guards. Most importantly though, you need time and trust to allow the natural space to develop itself, yes you need to intervene sometimes, you need to make small efforts to protect young growth, but if there is one thing guaranteed in rewilding, it’s that the wild is so much better at it than us.
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