On the numbers of Teal
“This very prettily marked species, the smallest of our Ducks, but one of the best as an article of food, is an early and constant winter visitor”
So Mr Yarrell (he of Pied Wagtail fame – the British sub-species is known as ‘yarrellii’) opens his description of my favourite duck when he was writing 170 years ago.
In the early Victorian era there seemed to be some confusion about whether Teal actually bred in the UK (BTO estimates about 2000 pairs breed in the UK), although Yarrell gives plenty of examples from his network of contacts to prove that they do.
But we all know that this is largely a winter migrant in the UK when their numbers increase one hundredfold (literally) on the summer residents. The Wanstead Flats/Park patch is not a noted site for Teal, where only small numbers appear, and somewhat irregularly, during the winter. On last weekend’s Wetland Bird survey on the patch, we counted 22 Teal in Wanstead Park and this morning one of the local birders counted 26 on a single lake in the Park – possibly a patch record – especially if any had also been on the Ornamentals or Alexandra lakes at the same time.
But… I haven’t just been reading Yarrell. I was perusing another one of my antiquarian bird book collection *he boasts* and read something very interesting.
In his book, Birds in London (1924), W.H. Hudson writes about Wanstead Park and says: “this park is peculiarly rich in wild bird life, and among the breeding species may be mentioned mallard and teal”. Teal breeding on Wanstead Park less than a hundred years ago?! This doesn’t sound like a record of a rare occurrence, but rather the statement of a common fact – mentioned in the same breath as Mallard no less (no other ducks were mentioned as breeding here). In Andrew Self’s recent book The Birds of London, historical records of Teal breeding in London are scarce – the first ever recorded being in 1880 at Epsom and then other sites listed, but no mention of Wanstead.
I wondered at first if the lack of mention of Teal was because a hundred years ago, Wanstead was more of an Essex village than a London suburb, but Epsom is even more rural and distant from central London. Hudson could have been wrong, of course, but he was an eminent ornithologist (a founding member of the RSPB no less!) and a London resident who, as we shall see, clearly personally knew the area well. I would be willing to wager he had personally witnessed evidence that Teal bred at Wanstead.
On a vision for the Park
Furthermore, Hudson’s list of breeding birds in the park contained some other surprises: Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale! I would be delighted to see any of those birds – even fleetingly – on the patch now (I should add that all three have been seen, but are rare birds on the patch), let alone have them breed.
As many know, the three bird species mentioned above all have ‘red’ conservation status in the UK, so the fact they no longer breed in Wanstead Park would not be a surprise to anyone. I am actually quite surprised that they bred as recently as the 1920s.
Hudson was ahead of his time in being conservation-minded, and he was also full of praise and hope for Wanstead Park which he described as: “perfect wildness” (many decades before rewilding was recognised as a ‘thing’). He set out a vision for the park, suggesting: “it would be well to make Wanstead Park as far as possible a sanctuary for all wild creatures.” He also singles out the City of London Corporation for praise in the way it managed the Park:
“The Corporation are deserving of nothing but praise for their management of this invaluable ground. Here is a bit of wild woodland nature unspoiled by the improving spirit which makes for prettiness in the Royal Parks”
Hudson goes on to describe specific practices, or the lack of, which support wildlife.
My concern is that recent ‘management’ of the park has seen a shift in the direction that Hudson clearly saw as a being a threat to nature: valuing ‘prettiness’, or tidiness, over wildness. Those who care about the wildlife on our patch have watched with dismay as a slash and clear policy has sometimes been used in the name of ‘management’ or to (re)create ‘vistas’ (from a long lost age when the park was a private garden) whilst destroying habitats for who knows how many living creatures.
I would encourage the City of London Corporation and those involved in the management of Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats to heed Hudson’s words with care otherwise there are breeding birds – Skylark, Song Thrush, Lesser Whitethroat for example – which could go the same way as Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale!