Tag Archives: brownfield

I’m not the only one finger-tip searching

On a bright and sunny 9 June 2004, I left London down the A2, exited through Strood, across the Rochester Bridge, and turned sharp left into the bluntly named Gas House Road. Parking near the gas storage holders, I emerged from the car to find, not the rolling Kent countryside, but a post-industrial landscape of derelict warehouses, disintegrating riverside wharfs, and piles of bulldozed rubble. Acres of old tarmac lay crumbling beneath broken street lights and straggly bramble bushes; there were several burnt-out cars, and fly-tipping by the lorry-load had been carried out on a criminal scale. A perfect place to look for insects.

This may not be everyone’s idea of prime habitat, but the brownfields of South Essex and North Kent, now grandly titled the Thames Gateway, have revealed many invertebrate wildlife wonders over the last 25 years. The crushed brick and concrete from buildings demolished long ago has become mingled with a meagre topsoil, and nature has taken back what was once her own. It’s hot and well-drained, but sparse vegetation sprouts, just enough to give a delicious softening green haze to the harsh edges of half-buried foundations and crumbling walls.

Rochester Castle overlooks prime wildlife habitat as far as I’m concerned.

Brownfields are poorly named — this, like many, was a riot of colour as sea aster, ox-eye daisy, yellow hawkbit, bristly ox-tongue and yarrow flowers vied for my attention. And with the wild flowers, more diverse than on ancient chalk downland, come the insects: this is why I was here.

Anticipation was high, and my excitement was soon justified. A green hairstreak, living up to its name, dashed past at full pelt over a sunlit corner of bramble flowers, and a six-belted clearwing moth flitted by soon after. The tiny round yellow fly, Gymonsoma nitens, was visiting the white flowers of wild carrot. A parasite of shieldbugs, it was thought to be virtually extinct in Britain until it was found in the Gateway — it’s now a regular.

Brownfields are particularly good for ground beetles; they thrive on the hot sunny ground. I soon adopted the standard entomological pose — head down, bum in the air, scrabbling with my fingers in the crumbly root-thatch and loose soil. This being an official environmental survey I decided to put in some pitfall traps for them — plastic disposable cups, tops set in flush to the ground to catch whatever might fall in. Unfortunately, the broken rubble was completely defeating my garden trowel. Undeterred, I started to use my sheath knife, the one with the stout 20-cm blade. On my knees, using bone-jarring double-handed stabs into the hard ground I was making some headway when I noticed I was being watched by a smartly dressed man carrying a clip-board.

Not the knife I use to cut the apple in my packed lunch.

I stopped and looked up, thinking he must be a planner or engineer connected to the proposed redevelopment of the site. He introduced himself: he was a police detective. A body had recently been hauled from the River Medway nearby, those uniformed men over there were the finger-tip search team examining the area where the sawn-off shotgun had been found, and I was in the middle of a murder enquiry.

The Rochester Police search line.

Trying not to look too guiltily at the large Bowie knife in my hands, I explained what I was doing. He was mildly interested, but unconcerned. Maybe, though, I could keep a look out, during my own hands-and-knees searches, for anything that might be helpful to their enquiries. I unhesitatingly agreed.

Needless to say, I spent the rest of my time in Rochester in a state of heightened wariness. Now I can make light of it, but I’m still thankful I didn’t find anything more suspicious than a drift of bee orchids and a nationally scarce tortoise bug. Oh, and there were several interesting ground beetles.

The streaked bombardier beetle needs you — now

This just in, a plea from Buglife…

Buglife urgently need some volunteers to help us create habitat for the rare and endangered streaked bombardier beetle.

Brachinus sclopeta, the streaked ground beetle, painfully beautiful and mythically rare.

Why do we need help? The streaked bombardier is one of the UK’s most endangered invertebrates. It lives on brownfield sites that have been abandoned and where nature has taken hold.  It is only known from 2 sites in the UK both in London. One of the sites is in the process of being destroyed and we want to create suitable habitat for the beetles to move to. It is crucial that the habitat is created ASAP to prevent the beetles from becoming extinct.

What is the task? Creating habitat mounds for the streaked bombardier beetle. The work will involve loading wheel barrows with soil, bricks and chalk and moving it 30m then positioning it in ‘S’ shaped mounds. After the mounds have been created we need to plant plug plants and sow wildflower seeds.

Where: University of London Docklands Campus

Easy to get to via public transport only a short walk (less than 5 mins) from Cyprus station on the Docklands Light Railway. Buglife staff will meet you at the station. Or if travelling by road the postcode is E16 2RD, University Way.  Once on University Way, take 2nd barrier on the right going into the Sports Centre car park.  At the barrier, press the button and state you are here for the Buglife work on the Teardrop site. Once through the barrier, take an immediate left on the red bricked path, through the gates and park in the tarmac area. Once at the site please call Buglife staff and we will meet you.

When: Thursday 3rd May and Friday 4th May

What time: 10am- 4pm

What you need to bring: warm water-proof clothes, stout boots (steel toe capped if you have them). Buglife will provide thick gloves and eye protection. Bring a packed lunch too!

Contact details:  If you can help please contact Sarah Henshall on 07968 976213 or email sarah.henshall@buglife.org.uk

The search for Britain’s rarest beetle

Monday 9th January 2012 and the first field visit of the year — in search of Britain’s rarest beetle, Brachinus sclopeta. At about 6 mm long, the streaked bombardier beetle is hardly going to cause many heads to turn, but is a charismatic and pretty little thing. When I turned over a square of roofing felt on a derelict site near the Thames Barrier in June 2005, and one scurried away under the bright sun, my heart soared. Instantly recognizable, painfully beautiful and mythically rare, this was my equivalent of what Simon Barnes brilliantly described in How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, as his avocet moment.

Although immediately identifiable because of its pretty colours and markings, very little was known about this insect’s occurrence in Britain. It was always reported in the old beetle monographs as “doubtfully British”, “said to have been captured” or “reputed to have been taken”. Like it was a unicorn or something. It might have been found in Devon. Or Norfolk. Who knows. In an almost comical example of the parlous state of early 19th century invertebrate recording, J.F. Stephens, one of the founding fathers of British entomology, wrote of the single specimen in his huge collection “I rather think mine came from Hastings”. Pathetic really.

The last vaguely reliable sightings were probably from Southend (Essex) in about 1820, and Margate (Kent) in 1830. For 150 years it remained a fascinating, but enigmatic insect, until an old specimen was unearthed in the National Museums of Wales in 1985, labelled ‘Beachy Head, 1928’. This is likely to have been the last time this beetle was seen alive in the British Isles.

But in 2005, there they were, dozens of them, amidst piles of bulldozed rubble and twisted metal, on a most unprepossessing brownfield site, long derelict and abandoned. Ordinarily such a find might raise the spirits. Brownfield sites are often alive with strange and unusual insects, including many nationally scarce and even red data book species. But, as ever, the shadow of destruction loomed; the site was due for imminent development — more luxury flats with a river view.

The site is now razed, crane gantries tower over it and the first rather brutal-looking department blocks have been built. But the beetle might still be hanging on. Because, believe it or not, this is perhaps the smallest nature reserve in the country, just for a beetle:

Britain’s smallest (and ugliest?) nature reserve.

Before the land was cleared, the developers were cajoled into creating a mound of the same bulldozed rubble, crushed brick and concrete with a bit of topsoil, in which the beetles were living. They even fenced it off. There is no interpretation board though.

It’s just an overgrown heap of rubble.

Then, on Friday 5th October 2007 assorted volunteers and eco-oddbods met to try and mount a beetle translocation. Finger-tip searching in the scratchy concrete-impregnated root-thatch of the donor site eventually yielded 61 specimens of B. sclopeta. They were identified, counted, checked, photographed, lovingly handled, then duly released, like Elsa the lion, back into the wild. It made headline news. I wrote a short piece for London Wildlife Trust’s Wild London (scroll down to page 13).

The mound remains today, though looking rather sad behind its cluttered fence and in the mounting shadow of the building developments all around. It will need the occasional cut to prevent the herbage getting too dank and dense. And, amazingly, the beetle was still there in May 2010 when I shinned over the chainlink to have a quick look. I was relieved to dismiss the cynic in me, which sometimes wondered if our ‘translocation’ had really been an ‘eradication’.

Now move on to 9 January 2012 and I am back again, to see what is going on. Because things are happening to Brachinus sclopeta. It has been found at another site. Just across the A1020 North Woolwich Road, the similarly derelict Silvertown Quays are to be developed. And, guess what, the streaked bombardier is living in another mound of bulldozed rubble less than 250 metres from where I found it 7 years ago.

It looks like the right sort of rubble heap.

So translocation is in everyone’s mind again. Perhaps some mounds of bulldozed spoil can be sculpted into a series of rough tumuli, or maybe longbarrows. They will have to be out of public view and out of reach, they are …<hushed tones>…contaminated, with heavy metals. I’m sure the beetle doesn’t mind.

Arguably, Brachinus sclopeta, may not yet qualify as Britain’s rarest beetle. It has, after all, been actually found recently. There are plenty of others that are still missing for years, presumed extinct. But, though I ripped my finger-tips raw in the sharp brick dust and crushed concrete, on both sides of the A1020 yesterday, I could not find it. I worry we don’t have much time. Work is due to start on the site in a few weeks. This population of streaked bombardiers may yet be eradicated. Watch this space.