• Sim Elliott

Conservation & Canvey Island. Brownfield (Canvey Wick) & Greenfield (West Canvey Marsh). 30.04.22

Updated: May 5


Typically my blog posts record what I have seen on my day nature trips, supplemented with some information on the species seen, and the landscapes visited. This post is more discursive, and considers conservation issues in more details. In this post I have used what I saw as prompts for wider consideration about nature and conservation, particuIarly on brownfield sites and the the role of nature reserves in conservation


When I make journeys to sites that interest me, I am not undertaking a systematic survey of the flora and fauna there, I merely observe what I happen to see on the day. What I see may not necessarily be typical of the abundance and diversity of the area, as what is seen on a particular day is determined by season, weather and other, often random, factors.


I went to Canvey Island on Saturday 30.04.22, specifically to visit Canvey Wick Nature Reserve, in the Thames Gateway area, as I am fascinated by the conservation value of brownfield sites and I had read much about the reserve. I travelled to Canvey Island by public transport; taking the train from Brighton to Benfleet (changing at London Bridge and London Fenchurch Street).


The increasing pressure on our environment from agriculture and development means that many species that depend on early successional habitats have become rare in the wider landscape. Many of these species now almost totally rely on brownfield habitats.

The importance of brownfield habitats is recognised by their listing as Priority Habitat on Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006) under the name “Open Mosaic Habitat on Previously Developed Land”. Despite the recognition of the importance of this habitat within the planning system, development continues to pose the greatest threat to brownfield sites. Over half of the important sites in the Thames Gateway have been lost, partially lost or damaged due to development, and those which remain are under threat. Brownfield | The Wildlife Trusts


This post has three main parts, following the order of my activity across the day (the photos in each section are in chronological order):

  1. Part of the Thames Path, walking west from Benfield Station

  2. Canvey Wick Nature Reserve (RSPB, BugLife & the Land Trust)

  3. West Canvey Marsh Nature Reserve (RSPB)


Canvey Wick was once flat, green grazing marshes, rather like West Canvey marsh, a conventional RSPB reserve up the road. Then humans wrecked the place – and in doing so turned it into something much more marvellous. It was used as a dumping ground for sediment extracted from the Thames, so the meadows were covered with gravel, sand, chalk and fragments of old shells. In the 1970s, the ground was prepared for an oil refinery; 13 circular pads of asphalt are the foundations for huge, cylindrical tanks. But the oil price crash of 1973 meant the refinery was abandoned before it opened.


This history has created a wide variety of soil types and habitats in a small space. It is more like a savannah than a rainforest: hot and sunny, not swamped by dark trees. Ecologists call this “open mosaic habitat”. I put my hand close to the crumbling asphalt; even on a cool day, the surface is warm. Reptiles – such as slowworms and common lizards – thrive in such conditions, as do rare insects. Newly arriving species from the continent enjoy the estuary’s low rainfall, too. Canvey Wick: the Essex ‘rainforest’ that is home to Britain’s rarest insects | Insects | The Guardian


Brownfield Sites are often considered as sites suitable for development (housing, retail outlets etc.), as can be seen in the adverts of lawyers and consultants promoting development on brownfield sites: Redevelopment of brownfield sites is at the core of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy as it not only cleans up environmental health hazards and eyesores, but it encourages community regeneration. Often these sites are a core issue for the community around them and the public like to see them reused, especially if there is affordable housing, community projects, and they create opportunities for employment. ... When embarking on a development project it’s much more likely that you would get permission to redevelop a brownfield site rather than start from scratch on a Greenfield site. What are Greenfield and Brownfield Sites? | Slater + Gordon


But there is a growing awareness that many brownfield sites are biodiverse, and may be more biodiverse than some greenfield sites; and perhaps should be left to nature, with sensitive management, not redeveloped into housing or commercial use (retail, industry etc.). Moreover, brownfield sites can provide opportunities for species recovery, e.g. in the case of Willow Tits: Post-industrial sites that have become wilded by colonizing vegetation ... [became] important habitat refuges for Willow Tits Poecile montanus, which occupy large territories in early-successional wet woodland and scrub. Richard K. Broughton, Wayne Parry & Marta Maziarz (2020). Wilding of a post-industrial site provides a habitat refuge for an endangered woodland songbird, the British Willow Tit Poecile montanus kleinschmidti, Bird Study,67:3,269-278,DOI: 10.1080/00063657.2020.1863333



Benfleet Station, just north of Canvey Island, where I arrived for my day on Canvey Island.



(1) The Thames Path (Benfleet Station to to the A130)


From Benfleet station initially I walked a little way on the Thames Footpath, walking west

Map from TEP_Route4_Web.pdf (thamesestuarypath.co.uk). For more details of the Thames Path, see Thames Estuary Path

I did not walk as far RSPB Bowers Marsh (a nature reserve made up of dry and wet grassland, fresh and saline lagoons, intertidal habitat, saltmarsh and arable areas.) Bowers Marsh Nature Reserve, Basildon, Essex - The RSPB) as I wanted to focus on the Canvey Island Reserves, particularly Canvey Wick. A visit to RSPB Bowers Marsh is for another day!


The Thames Path just west of Benfield Station is a narrow strip of land between the Hadleigh Ray (the river separating Canvey Island to "mainland" Essex) and the rail track (Fenchurch Street/Liverpool Street to Shoeburyness line). The land abutting railway lines in the UK is often colonised by Buddleia, as it is here, and Buddleias are a favourite nectar source for many butterflies, see: Buddleia: The plant that dominates Britain's railways - BBC News. However Buddleias are also problematic, as they are a non-indigenous, invasive species (introduced by Kew in 1893) and disrupt endemic UK wild plants Concern has been growing in the last decade that the plant is spreading and causing problems by invading important wildlife habitats, notably brownfield sites which are important for invertebrates (Shardlow, 2010). It grows vigorously and can form dense stands that eliminate other plants. Butterfly Conservation (butterfly-conservation.org)


This part of the Thames Path is abutted to the south by a ragtag of housing boats with human intervention in the houseboat plots (outbuildings, sheds etc.), and to the north of the path is the railway line, with its industrial nature, and intrusive buddleias. The overspill of ballast, made of crushed granite, holding the railway sleepers, has become vegetated, but it is an non indigenous rock to Essex, so it is not the typical ecosystem of a South Essex field. The Thames Path at this point could perhaps be called a brownfield site, even though it does not have the designation of being a brownfield site.


Under the rail bridge, at the beginning of the path, these Feral Pigeons remind us that there are animals everywhere, not just in the countryside and nature reserves.


Thames Path sign


As this section of the path starts, I looked south to the Hadleigh Ray and saw a Little Egret foraging


and an Oystercatcher. Birds are not only found in RSPB reserves!


A former wooden mooring post on the Canvey Island side of the Hadleigh Ray.

In the early twentieth century Canvey Island was promoted for tourism, and this may be a mooring point for pleasure boating. Hadleigh Ray is still used for pleasure boating, and a few boats passed me on my walk. Further east along the river Benfleet Yacht Club provides moorings for yachts using the Thames and North Sea, see: Benfleet Yacht Club


Crab Apple blossom along the Thames Path

A symbol of fertility and a forager's delight. Crab apple trees are associated with love and marriage and its small, hard fruits make an exquisite, jewel-coloured jelly. Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris) - British Trees - Woodland Trust


The small boats along the Hadleigh Ray seemed mostly disused, but there were a few houseboats still lived in.


White Garden Snail


A quite degraded Peacock Butterfly on the path

Although a familiar visitor to garden buddleias in late summer, the Peacock's strong flight and nomadic instincts lead it to range widely through the countryside, often finding its preferred habitats in the shelter of woodland clearings, rides, and edges. Peacock | Butterfly Conservation (butterfly-conservation.org)


A slightly sinister houseboat


The marshland opposite the path, just south of the Hadleigh Ray; a good habitat for wading birds


Red Dead-Nettle, a favourite wild flower with pollinators, was common along the path

species of long-tongued insects visit the flowers of red dead-nettle, including the red mason bee and bumblebees. The caterpillars of garden tiger, white ermine and angle shades moths feed on the leaves. Red dead-nettle | The Wildlife Trusts


along with Dandelions, another pollinator favourite

Dandelions: the most undervalued wild flower ... Dandelions can supply food to a number of different pollinators including bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies, day flying moths and solitary bees. Dandelions: the most undervalued wild flower – Scottish Wildlife Trust


Garlic Mustard ( aka "Jack-by-the-Hedge")

likes shady places, such as the edges of woods and hedgerows. It can grow to over a metre tall and has small white flowers that appear from April. It is a biennial plant, so takes two years to complete its lifecycle. It grows young leaves in its first season, which it keeps over winter, and then flowers in the spring of its second year. Garlic mustard | The Wildlife Trusts


A Bufftail Bumblebee worker foraging on White Dead Nettle one the path. Bufftails are often the first Bumblebee to emerge in spring, although because of global warming some Bufftails are winter active in the south, see: Winter active bumblebees - Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Lots of different species of long-tongued insects visit the flowers of white dead-nettle, including the red mason bee, white-tailed bumblebee and burnished brass moth. The caterpillars of the garden tiger and angle shades moths feed on the leaves, as do Green tortoise beetles. White dead-nettle | The Wildlife Trusts


Wall Brown butterfly on a Dandelion


A Small White Butterfly on a Dandelion


Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettles are a very important plant for species-rich landscapes; but not necessarily popular with the walking public. Stinging nettles are great wildlife attractors: caterpillars of the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies use them as foodplants; ladybirds feast on the aphids that shelter among them; and seed-eating birds enjoy their autumn spoils. Stinging nettle | The Wildlife Trusts


At Butterfly Conservation, being nice to nettles comes as second nature to us - we love them! Not only are nettles good for butterflies like Red Admiral, Comma and Peacock, they also have so much to offer to other wildlife," says Charlie Rugeroni of England's Butterfly Conservation group. Why you must be nice to nettles (irishtimes.com)


Honeybee on Dandelion


I was pleased that this was one of only two Honeybees I saw. The proliferation of Honeybees (farmed livestock, farmed mostly by hobbyist beekeepers) is causing harm to wild bees (bumblebees and solitary bees) and other wild pollinators (butterflies, moths, hoverflies etc.) High numbers of honeybees can actively harm wild bee populations, because they compete directly for nectar and pollen. That’s not a problem when flowers are plentiful, but in environments where resources are limited, wild bees can be outcompeted. A lack of flowers is one of the main factors behind the decline in bee populations. Initiatives such as urban beekeeping put more pressure on wild bees and worsen the decline. Olivia Norfolk

Lecturer in Conservation Ecology, Anglia Ruskin University. Keeping honeybees doesn't save bees – or the environment (theconversation.com)


Orange-Tip Butterflies

Common and widespread, this medium-sized butterfly can be found in gardens and hedgerows. The males are unmistakable; white butterflies with bright orange wingtips. The females are white with black wingtips. Both have mottled green underwings. The Small White is very similar to the female but lacks the underwing markings. Discover how to identify white butterflies with this handy guide. Orange-tip | Butterfly Conservation (butterfly-conservation.org)

I find Orange-Tip butterflies difficult to photograph as they rarely settle when I see them; so I was very happy with these photos I am very happy to capture and publish "record" shots of fauna not great photos.



Another Honeybee on Crab Apple blossom


Small White Butterfly on Ragwort

There is much controversy over Ragwort. Ragwort has evolved to be toxic to grazing animals as a form of defence, however many insects, such as leaf beetles and micro-moths, depend either on ragwort as a larval foodplant or as a nectar source. The most well-known is the Cinnabar moth. Its caterpillars will strip leaves and flower buds off ragwort plants completely, but after the caterpillars pupate, the plants usually recover and grow new leaves. Ragwort friend or foe? Plantlife :: Ragwort: Friend or Foe?.


At least 30 insect species and 14 fungi species are entirely reliant on ragwort, and about a third of these insects are scarce or rare. The majority are confined to common ragwort or the closely similar hoary ragwort (Senecio erucifolius). Of the 52 species which are highly reliant on ragwort, seven are Nationally Scarce, and three are of Red Data Book status. Most breed in the flowers, seedheads or stems and control by uprooting or flailing can destroy the habitats of these insects. RAGWORT FACT SHEET (eastsussex.gov.uk)


Common ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) is seriously poisonous to some grazing animals, so important to our landscape, recreation, our farmers and our economy. Horses can be particularly vulnerable to ragwort poisoning. Generally they avoid the live plant so it only becomes a problem when the plant is dead in hay or if the pasture is overgrazed and there is nothing else left to eat unless they are supplied with alternative food then horses can consume lethal doses of the plant – usually 5-25% of the body weight. For this reason, it is important to keep ragwort under control in fields where animals are grazing and especially where fodder, such as hay, is being cut.


Yet, is there any need to pull up or spray ragwort where it poses no risk to grazing animals? Unbeknown to many, ragwort also supports a wide range of wildlife, playing a vital role in the ever diminishing biodiversity of our country. At a time when biodiversity indicators are showing continued stress on habitats, it is time to revaluate the role of this infamous plant and ensure that we do not proceed with an unnecessary national eradication plan, which could further damage our already fragile biodiversity. It should also be borne in mind that pulling up ragwort without the landowner’s permission is a crime under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Plantlife :: “Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves...”


The Ragwort (1832)


Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves I love to see thee come & litter gold, What time the summer binds her russet sheaves; Decking rude spots in beauties manifold, That without thee were dreary to behold, Sunburnt and bare-- the meadow bank, the baulk That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields, Rich with the tints that harvest's plenty yields, Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn So bright & glaring that the very light Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn & seems but very shadows in thy sight.

John Clare (1793-1864) Plantlife :: “Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves...”



A goldfinch in a tree opposite Benfleet Station

Goldfinch abundance is in part determined by human activity. Populations of birds like goldfinches and wood pigeons that were rarely seen in gardens 40 years ago are now booming because people are leaving out food for them, according to a new study. As a result they are "reshaping" entire communities, researchers said. "Back in the 1970s goldfinches and wood pigeons were seen eating food in 10 per cent of gardens whereas now they’re in around 90 per cent of gardens which have food out,” lead researcher Kate Plummer from the British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) told The Independent. As a result there is a greater diversity of birds coming into our gardens, including long-tailed tits, siskins, nuthatches and bullfinches. Formerly rare garden birds now booming thanks to food put out for them, report says | The Independent | The Independent


But does garden bird feeding really help abundance and diversity of indigenous birdlife?


Bird feeding is essentially a massive global supplementary feeding experiment, yet few studies have attempted to explore its ecological effects. In this study we use an in situ experimental approach to investigate the impacts of bird feeding on the structure of local bird assemblages. We present vital evidence that bird feeding contributes to the bird community patterns we observe in urban areas. In particular, the study demonstrates that common feeding practices can encourage higher densities of introduced birds, with potential negative consequences for native birds. Galbraith, Josie & Beggs, Jacqueline & Jones, Darryl & Stanley, Margaret. (2015). Supplementary feeding restructures urban bird communities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112. 10.1073/pnas.1501489112. Read at: Supplementary feeding restructures urban bird communities (pnas.org)


Nature conservation is complicated; sometimes harm may be done through the best of intentions.


On Canvey Island


Map from: Google Maps


To get onto Canvey island I walked over the Canvey road bridge (the B1014), which is parallel with the Byfleet flood barrier on the Hadleigh Ray. Once on the island, the main roads are mostly dual carriageways, designed for haulage by lorries and personal travel by car. Most of the dual carriageways have no pavement, so you have to walk on the verges, which is potentially dangerous. Some busses stop at stops where there is no pavement just verge. As usual, the local authority, in which these nature reserves are located, (and national government,) have done little to promote walking and other low-carbon transport to nature reserves.


Benfleet Flood Barrier

... the building of our present sea defences, namely the new seawall built in the late 1970's ... included barriers at East Creek and also at Benfleet. History of Canvey's sea defences | CanveyIsland.org


Nature and humans have interacted over centuries in Essex, the threat of flooding has always been present, especially at Canvey Island


When floods devastated large parts of the East Coast in 1953, Canvey Island in Essex was one of the places that bore the brunt. Fifty-nine people died and 13,000 were evacuated from their homes after floodwater inundated the island on 31 January. Parts of the reclaimed island in the Thames estuary lie below sea level, meaning the town must be ever-vigilant against the threat from the sea. Sixty years on, a large sea wall protects the island but memories of the floods live on.


From street names including Dyke Crescent and Deepwater Road to the King Canute Pub, reminders of Canvey's historical relationship with the sea can be found around every corner. Memories of 1953 flood live on in Canvey Island - BBC News


The brownfield site of Canvey Wick is not a human-formed environment just in terms of its former use for storing dredged spoil and its planned use for storing oil; the whole of Canvey Island is a landscape partly of human construction due to the construction of flood defences.



The history of Canvey Island helps us to understand how the landscape of Canvey Island is is as it is


Canvey Island: A Brief History, adapted from the History of Canvey Island published by Canvey Island Town Council History of Canvey Island (canveyisland-tc.gov.uk)


Canvey Island lies off the South East coast of Essex in the Thames estuary. It is a unique place with an interesting and diverse history much of which can be attributed to its relationship with the changing water levels of the River Thames and the fact that the whole of the Island is below sea level. ...


The Dutch influence: The Island became home to around 200 Dutch immigrants in the early 17th century, ...The Island’s links with the Dutch were strengthened further following an agreement in 1623 between a local landowner and a Dutch water engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, to maintain the sea walls in exchange for a third of his land. Dutch workers also received payment in land. ...


At the start of the 20th century, the population of Canvey numbered about 300 people. At about that time, Canvey was heavily promoted as a holiday destination, primarily for Londoner’s, to escape the smog of the big city. A speculative developer, Frederick Hester, had grand plans for the Island. ... Unfortunately, Hester’s plans were curtailed by a higher than usual spring tide in 1904 which caused partial flooding, a fact that did not impress some potential investors. His plans for a pier and a tramway, which were by that time well underway, floundered and ultimately Hester had to sell up.


By the end of the First World War the population had reached 1,795 and the people still kept coming. A new bus service started up in 1919 and was part of the reason the plots began to sell again. Crossing the creek posed a problem for animals and large vehicles, however, and cows and horses were sometimes swept away and vehicles abandoned to the incoming tide.


In 1931, the Colvin Bridge which crossed from Canvey to South Benfleet was built. ... This was demolished in 1973 and a replacement bridge which is still used today was built alongside. A second road on to the Island was opened in 1972, the A130, which connects the Island at Waterside Farm to Sadlers Farm roundabout and the A13 and includes a bridge across East Haven Creek. ...


Since the 1930’s, the west side of the Island at Hole Haven has been developed for use as oil refineries, and oil and gas storage which has met with a great deal of public opposition. In more recent times, some of the land previously used for this purpose has been ‘reclaimed’ and is currently being developed as a nature reserve.


Thames Gateway and the regeneration of Canvey Island: The population of the Island has grown significantly since the turn of the Century to a little over 40,000 (almost 16,000 homes). The Island is now largely urbanised and residents value highly the remaining green spaces on the Island. [This was not borne out from my experience, there were about 10 people at Canvey Wick, and about 12 at Canvey West Marsh].


In recent times, Canvey has been earmarked for significant regeneration within the proposals for Thames Gateway and many improvements in local amenities, facilities and infrastructure are expected as a result of this.


Proposals for future housing development on the Island, in line with Government guidelines, have been released via the Castle Point Borough Council’s Local Development Framework documents and these have increased some people’s resolve to campaign for a third road access for Canvey.


Flood Defences: The Island lies below sea level and its relationship with the surrounding sea, whilst rich in bounties, has also brought its share of tragedy. The devastating floods of 1953 saw 58 people on the Island lose their lives. The whole Island was evacuated. A memorial to the people who lost their lives that day can be found on Canvey Library. Since then significant investment has been put into raising the height of Canvey’s 14 miles of sea walls both immediately after the floods and again in 1975 when the wall was raised by a further two metres.



The first animal I saw on Canvey Island itself was this Carrion Crow, Carrion Crows are common everywhere in the UK


Retail and business parks dominate the island; Nature Reserves are a very small part of the island's twenty-first century landscape; although their existence shows some concern for conservation.


As I was walking along the verge of a dual carriageway (Roscommon Way), covered in rubbish thrown out of car windows, to see invertebrates in Canvey Wick, a brownfield nature reserve that has focussed on invertebrate conservation, I saw many invertebrates on/around the verges, such as this Large White Butterfly. Road verges are a sort of "brownfield" sights in their own right; they are often free of human footfall, but they are also continuously littered and negatively effected by traffic pollution


A pair of Collared Doves on a caged electricity transformer on a dual carriageway

Collared Doves seem an ever-present part of the UK natural landscape, but they are very recent arrivals: Collared doves can be seen just about anywhere, but often around towns and villages. They're common visitors to gardens. But collared doves only came to the UK in the 1950s, after a rapid spread across Europe from the Middle East. Collared Dove Bird Facts | Streptopelia Decaocto - The RSPB.



And I saw some Swallows flying over wetland next to the dual carriageway. I have seen many at coastal sights over the last few days. These summer migrants typically arrive back from sub-Saharan Africa, Arabia and the Indian sub-continent in April

Swallows are found in areas where there is a ready and accessible supply of small insects. They are particularly fond of open pasture with access to water and quiet farm buildings. . Swallow Bird Facts | Hirundo rustica - The RSPB There is plenty of low-lying water on and around Canvey Island


"Gateway" has a variety of meanings in context of the Thames Estuary. The Thames Gateway is a term applied to an area around the Thames Estuary in the context of discourse around regeneration and further urbanisation. The term was first coined by the UK government Thames Gateway - Wikipedia


DP World London Gateway is a port within the wider Port of London, United Kingdom. Opened in November 2013, the site is a fully integrated logistics facility, comprising a semi-automated, deep-sea container terminal on the same site as the UK's largest land bank for development of warehousing, distribution facilities and ancillary logistics services. London Gateway - Wikipedia


The roundabout on the dual carriageway that leads to Canvey Gateway, next to the London Gateway (a huge container port) and Canvey Wick


Canvey Gateway will be a small patch of parkland. Castle Point Council in partnership with Ground Work South East with funds from Veolia Pitsea Marshes Trust are working hard to change this once unkept piece of land into a parkland. Trees have been planted with bronze, silver and gold leaves to celebrate this summer’s olympic mountain biking event in Hadleigh. Part of the site will be left as meadow, there will be a Sundial sculpture, footpaths and a ditch running through the site. The three surviving stepping stones from the original Benfleet-Canvey crossing have been placed in part of the ditch so that visitors will be able to cross at that point. An information board will be placed on site giving the history of the crossing and bridges. Canvey Gateway | Canvey 2012 | CanveyIsland.org But an unkept piece of land may be more bio-diverse into a parkland. The Thames Gateway has resulted in large-scale degradation of biodiverse Thames estuary marshland.


Veolia states that it is transforming its Pitsea landfill site into a nature reserve, see Pitsea, Essex Landfill Given Facelift from Veolia | Veolia UK: Landfill facelift: the evolution from rubbish heap to nature reserve. Whatever the success, in prompting nature diversity and abundance, of transforming a landfill site into a nature , I can't help thinking that reducing waste, and thus reducing the need for landfill sites, would be better for nature, than having landfills sites that are converted to nature reserves.


The Thames Estuary, of which Canvey Island is part, is an area of great importance to wetland wildlife, and is an area of intense development. It is hard to know whether environmental projects sponsored by those involved in development have genuine conservation value or are examples of greenwashing further development.


Thames Estuary and Marshes Ramsar Site comprises a complex of brackish, floodplain grazing marsh ditches, saline lagoons and intertidal saltmarsh and mudflat along the River Thames between Gravesend and Sheerness in Essex and Kent. The habitats support internationally important numbers of wintering waterfowl, and the saltmarsh and grazing marsh are of international importance for their diverse assemblages of wetland plants and invertebrates. Thames Estuary and Marshes | Ramsar Sites Information Service


N.B The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It is also known as the Convention on Wetlands. It is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where the convention was signed in 1971.



Canvey Wick Nature Reserve - "the UK's first bug reserve" (Land Trust/Buglife/RSPB signage)


Brownfields are often some of our last remaining havens for nature in an increasingly managed landscape - whether urban or the countryside – Jamie Robins, cited in News report: The value of restoring nature to brownfield sites | The Planner


A unique ex-industrial habitat, rich in rare plant and insect species, Canvey Wick also has grassland and scrub habitat and is adjacent to important estuarine habitats. Canvey Wick is fantastically rich in plant, insect and animal species with as many species per square metre as a rainforest. It is one of the most important sites in Britain for endangered invertebrate species. Canvey Wick also includes scrub and small wooded areas, and the nature reserve is adjacent to important estuarine habitats. Canvey Wick Nature Reserve, Canvey Island, Essex - The RSPB


Described as “a little brownfield rainforest” by Natural England officer Dr Chris Gibson, the results of surveys have shown Canvey Wick to have “more biodiversity per square foot than any other site in the UK”. This nature reserve was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on 11 February 2005 – the first brownfield site to be protected specifically for its invertebrates. Canvey Wick - The Land Trust


Nearly 2,000 invertebrate species have been recorded here and more are being discovered every year. There’s the shrill carder bee, one of Britain’s rarest bumblebees, and the declining brown-banded carder bee. Three insects previously thought to be extinct in Britain have been rediscovered here. There are fearsome predators (the bee wolf, a brutal-looking wasp), exploding bombardier beetles and ingenious parasites such as Hedychrum niemalei, a wasp that lays its eggs in the burrow of the rare five-banded weevil wasp, so that its larvae can steal the wasp grubs’ food. ... Canvey Wick: the Essex ‘rainforest’ that is home to Britain’s rarest insects | Insects | The Guardian


This gorgeous 2018 dragonfly sculpture greets visitors to Canvey Wick. The sculpture was commissioned by the Land Trust, who own the reserve, and has been created by Ptolemy Elrington of Hubcap Creatures and has been installed on a mount designed to resemble a leaf by Artfabs. Dragonfly sculpture unveiled at Canvey Wick nature reserve | Leigh Times


A Whitethroat in a tree, next to the sculpture.


The asphalt circular pads (circles on the map) of Canvey Wick were built for a new oil refinery, as the bases for oil storage tanks, but the refinery was never built see: Canvey Wick: the Essex ‘rainforest’ that is home to Britain’s rarest insects | Insects | The Guardian


Open mosaic habitats can be extremely diverse, including such wide ranging sites as railway sidings, quarries, former industrial works, slag heap, bings and brick pits. Brownfields with open mosaic habitats show evidence of previous disturbance, either through soil being removed or severely modified by previous use, or the addition of materials such as industrial spoil, with spatial variation developing across the site. The resultant variation allows for a mosaic of different habitats to be supported in close proximity. This habitat diversity can support rich assemblages of invertebrates, which has led to ‘open mosaic habitats on previously developed land’ being added to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) as a Priority habitat listed on Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERC Act). BugLife Identifying-open-mosaic-habitat.pdf (buglife.org.uk)

Canvey Wick also has grassland and scrub habitat and is adjacent to important estuarine habitats. Canvey Wick also includes scrub and small wooded areas, Canvey Wick Nature Reserve, Canvey Island, Essex - The RSPB


A Speckled Wood in one of the wooded areas of the resreve


Path through the "woods"


Tress, and heathland-like landscape on the dumped deposits from dredging the Thames


Close-up of this cut tree


What will you see?

Remains of dumped dredged sand seem to make a good habitat for mining insects such as some solitary bees and wasps; especially mining bees and digger wasps This is a solitary wasp. It may be a species of the Nysson genus e.g. Nysson spinosus (Forster,1771) | BWARS


There are over 110 species of Digger wasp in Britain. As the name suggests, female Digger wasps burrow into the ground when nesting.


Digger wasps are a type of solitary wasp meaning that females make a nest for her own young. This nesting behaviour is different to social wasps ..


Digger wasps resemble social wasps in appearance with their yellow and black patterns although they can be distinguished from social wasps as the wings are not folded lengthwise when at rest.


The general life pattern of a female Digger wasp involves preparing a nest, provisioning it with prey as food for her offspring, laying her eggs and then sealing up the nest. When preparing a nest a female will dig a burrow using spiny brushes on her legs. This burrow may be up to 30cm deep or more depending on the species. The tunnel usually branches at the end and each branch will have a separate egg laid in it. The energetic cost to the female burrowing so deep is repaid as an advantage to her offspring. The surface of bare ground has a desert-like microclimatic condition. By day the bare ground gets very hot in the sun and at night the surface can cool very fast. By digging a deep tunnel the changes in temperature are less severe and this helps the eggs develop.


Brownfield sites provide important habitat for Digger wasps as the lack of management at these sites often creates an open mosaic of habitats including areas of bare ground, species rich grassland and early successional communities. This mosaic of habitats allows Digger wasps to complete their life cycle at the same site as both bare ground that provides nesting site and species rich grassland that provides a valuable source of nectar for the adults wasps are present. Digger wasps - Bug Directory - Buglife


Another Speckled Wood Butterfly


Looking toward the oil pipe - The Occidental Jetty


The Occidental Jetty is a Canvey Island landmark that we quite admire. It was built with the intention of pumping oil from ships into the semi-complete Occidental Oil Refinery, abandoned due to the 1973 Oil Crisis’ legacy. You can see the pipes alongside it today. Two industrial containers rot on top to this very day – one labelled ‘toilet’ and one labelled ‘toilet next door’. The Occidental Jetty - Beyond the Point


Another Whitethroat in the shrubs near the Occidental Jetty


The whitethroat is a medium-sized warbler, about the size of a great tit. It has quite a long tail which it flicks and cocks as it darts rapidly in and out of cover. The male has a grey head, a white throat and a brown back, and is buff underneath. It is a summer visitor and passage migrant, with birds breeding widely, although it avoids urban and mountainous areas. It winters in Africa, south of the Sahara. Whitethroat Bird Facts | Sylvia Communis - The RSPB


A few days after visiting Canvey Wick, I visited Tide Mills in East Sussex, a site next to the industrial Newhaven Dock, and saw many Whitethroats. Whilst Whitethroats don't like urban areas, they appear to like brownfield sites on the coast in the UK. They may be on passage when seen at coastal sites; foraging after arriving from Sub-Saharan Africa, before moving on.


Pink Sorrel


Bluebells on the sands of the dredging spoil. Bluebells are associated in the popular imagination with beautiful rural woods, but they are happy to grow in less typically beautiful brownfield sites


The abandoned oil storage containers of the former Occidental Oil Refinery


Birds in front of the oil storage tanks in Holehaven Creek - mostly Black Headed Gulls, although I heard but couldn't see Oystercatchers and Curlew.

Holehaven Creek is a 272.9 hectare biological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) between Canvey Island and Corringham in Essex. The SSSI consists of Holehaven Creek itself and part of the adjoining East Haven Creek and Vange Creek. It is part of the Thames Estuary, and drains the surrounding marshes into the river. It has been designated an SSSI because its intertidal marshes and mudflats support nationally important (and sometimes internationally) numbers of wintering black-tailed godwits. Curlews and dunlins are also sometimes present in nationally significant numbers. Holehaven Creek - Wikipedia



Crab Apple Blossom in the "woods" opposite Holehaven Creek and the abandoned oil storage tanks


A Peacock Butterfly on a path through the "wood"

near the asphalt rings built to hold oil containers that were never built; grass growing through:


Impressions of an Orange-Tipped Butterfly. These not-great record shots record an ever-moving Orange-Tipped Butterfly at Canvas Wick; I like to think that I took them deliberately blurry to reference the style of Impressionism! But that would not be true


A concrete block's appearance transformed by lichen, probably a species of the Xanthoria genus


Green-veined White Butterflies on crab apple in the reserve woods


Beautiful colours of a succulent; possible a Saxifrage species.


A Latticed Heath Moth just outside the boundary fence of the reserve; boundary fences are not of interest to invertebrates!

The wings usually have a netted, or ‘latticed’, appearance, created by dark cross lines and veins on the paler ground colour on the upper and underside of the wings. Rarely, a melanic form can occur. Similar to the Common Heath and Netted Mountain Moth, but the resting posture of the former, with the wings held flat, should help to distinguish the Latticed Heath from that species. The markings of the Latticed Heath are also generally more defined than either of the other species.


The adults fly in sunshine and are also readily disturbed from vegetation. They also fly after dark. Very occasionally found in large numbers. The caterpillars can be found June to July and mid-August to September before overwintering as pupae. Latticed Heath | Butterfly Conservation (butterfly-conservation.org)



West Canvey Marsh Nature Reserve


West Canvey Marsh could be described as a typical "greenfield" nature reserve; it is just a little way north of Canvey Wick, but can only be access on foot along a dual carriageway verge!


Whilst West Canvey Marsh is a more "traditional" greenfield nature reserve, that does not mean it is a "wild" habitat (whatever wild means). The marshes of Canvey are the product as much of human intervention (see the history of Canvey above) as natural forces. Most wetland nature reserves around the UK coasts are human-nature interactions involving coast management and flood prevention, and as anthropogenic global warming raises sea levels, the management of coastal areas will become a very important concern for environmental agencies who will have to balance the needs of humans and non-human species for places to live.


Coastal environments naturally adapt to sea level rise by retreating landwards. Mudflats, wetlands, beaches and sand dunes provide natural protection against flooding, whilst also being some of Britain’s most important natural habitats. But on much of our shoreline, the coast’s natural protective mechanisms are being squeezed between rising sea levels and human development. We must re-emphasise the value of these environments and ensure that they play a larger part in our adaptation plans for the future. Managing the coast in a changing climate Committee on Climate Change October 2018. Managing-the-coast-in-a-changing-climate-October-2018.pdf (theccc.org.uk)


Carder (probably Common) Bumblebee on vetch


A bird which from its structure may be a Dartford Warbler,

The Dartford warbler's population crashed to a few pairs in the 1960s, since when it has gradually recovered, increasing in both numbers and range. It is still regarded as an Amber List species. It will perch on top of a gorse stem to sing, but is often seen as a small flying shape bobbing between bushes. Dartford Warbler Bird Facts | Sylvia Undata - The RSPB


I rarely see Dartford Warblers, I heard some at RSPB Arne (part of the Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve, see About the NNR - Purbeck Heaths) earlier in April, but didn't see any there


A Shelduck flying over the reserve


Shelducks dabbling from Twelve Acers viewpoint

and a Great Created Grebe

and some more Shelducks

and Tufted Ducks

and a Herring Gull


Looking north toward Benfleet, on a , in the background; the masts of boats on the Hadleigh Lay in the midground; "neither land nor sea"


Benfleet is not only the start of the downland approaches to Leigh and Southend, but also provides a bridge to Canvey Island. From here on it is ‘neither land nor sea’. At high tide water flows in, around, behind, and sometimes all over the shoreline and its myriad tributaries and creeks. Islands, outcrops of saltmarsh, grazing land, all appear and disappear in the space of a couple of hours. Hence the swirling clouds of waders in the sky, as their feeding grounds disappear beneath the waves, and they are forced to move further inland. This particular walk was memorable for so many of these fast-drifting swarms of dunlin, curlew and Brent Geese, the former shoaling in the air, wave after wave. The mud shines iridescent before it succumbs to the incoming tide. There is a lot of bird piping, particularly from redshanks, oystercatchers and curlew. Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole, February 2018 Neither land nor sea | The New English Landscape (wordpress.com)


Looking toward the Thames Gateway, the container ship port that can accommodate the world's largest container ships UK debut on the Thames for world's biggest container ship (pla.co.uk)


Looking down on the ground, at the same point that the above photo was taken, there was everyday "common" beauty.


Common Vetch

A delicate climbing legume, the flowers of the Common Vetch resemble tiny violet-coloured butterflies. This annual wildflower has spread into the wild having been grown for centuries as livestock fodder. It is also used as green manure due to its ability to grow quickly and produce its own nitrates, making it a useful fertiliser. Also known as the Garden Vetch and Winter Tares. Local names include Twaddgers (Yorkshire), Gipsy Peas (Ireland), Wild Fitch (Cumbria). https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/discover-wild-plants-nature/plant-fungi-species/common-vetch?


This is a solitary bee on a Dandelion head

Probably a Nomada species solitary bee. There are 100s of species of the Nomada genus. 30.04.22. Nomada are kleptoparasitic, they enter the nests of a host and lay eggs there, thus stealing the food resources that the host has collected. About The Nomad Bee - Species, Life Cycles And Hosts (buzzaboutbees.net). Looking at Steven Falk's excellent Flickr identification resource may eventually help me identify this bee: Collection: Nomada (nomad bees) (flickr.com) Steven Falk is One of Britain's leading natural historians "Steven Falk - Entomologist/ecologist and pollinator advisor - Help our Bees http://www.stevenfalk.co.uk/help-our-bees | LinkedIn


A Black-Headed Gull. From my experience the most common gull seen at coastal bird reserves; common but always a pleasure to see and hear, with their very characteristic squawking; although an over abundance of Black-Headed Gulls can pose problems for nesting Terns; hear their squawk at: Black-headed Gull Sounds, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology


And a pochard seen from Kesterman's view point - there was very little to be seen form Ketsreman's view point today; this Pochard (and the Mallard below) were it!


Woodpigeons.


Woodpigeon are so common birders rarely attend to them. The UK's largest and commonest pigeon, the woodpigeon is largely grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches, clearly visible in flight. Although shy in the countryside it can be tame and approachable in towns and cities. Its cooing call is a familiar sound in woodlands as is the loud clatter of its wings when it flies away. UK breeding:5,400,000 pairs Wood Pigeon Bird Facts | Columba Palumbus - The RSPB


My butcher grandfather used to shoot Woodpigeons, and my grandmother turned them into Pigeon Pie. I no longer eat meat but if I did I would eat Wood Pigeon because it is sustainable; eating wood pigeon does not damage the environment in the way that eating birds from the intensive farming of commercial poultry does. Why wood pigeon is good for you | Food | The Guardian


The pool form Kesterman's Viewpoint


Kesterman's Viewpoint


and there was a Mallard!


and on the way out of the reserve I saw this Pied Wagtail



Back in Benfleet


From Canvey West Marsh I walked back mostly along the verges of dual carriageways to Benfleet station. I saw these Great Tits stopping where stopping is prohibited, just beyond the Canvey road bridge.


Hadleigh Ray, opposite the station, at low tide late afternoon


House boats and pleasure boats on the Ray


The first birds I saw when I arrived at Benfield were a Little Egret and an Oystercatcher, and they were the last birds I saw again (probably not the same individuals) before I boarded the train back to Brighton


This Little Egret spent some time working out how to swallow this fish


Oystercatcher



Some thoughts on conservation provoked by my trip to Benfleet and Canvey Island


Along the part of the Thames Path I walked on Saturday, I saw an equivalent degree of insect abundance and diversity to that which I later saw in the Canvey Wick Nature Reserve. However, I was not doing a systematic survey; Canvey Wick is probably typically more diverse and abundant than the part of the Thames path I walked along. But they are not entirely dissimilar habitat; and many paths through brownfield areas of towns offer opportunities to see and conserved invertebrates


In the highly urbanised and populated South East of the UK, is any site rich with nature entirely "greenfield"? Much land in the south east is interstitial; it is part "greenfield", part "brownfield" and never "wild". And this is the nature of the Anthropocene geological epoch in which we live; nothing can be truly "wild", in the sense that no landscape is free from human intervention. This provoked thoughts of whether "rewilding", the now most fashionable topic in conservation, is desirable or possible; but this is a huge topic that I will not discuss here


I don't think I saw more diversity at Canvey Wick, or on the Thames Path, than I may see in any mosaic brownfield site, designated a nature reserve or not. On 03.05.21 I visited the brownfield scrub next to Tide Mills (formerly called Newhaven Port Nature Reserve), and it was rich with birds, insects and wild flowers. However, there is great value in the research that can be undertaken in a formally recognised brownfield reserve. The importance of Canvey Wick is not Canvey Wick per se but the value in knowing, through researching that reserve, what brownfield sites elsewhere may be able to conserve.


We need to have a public conversation of the value of brownfield sites for the conservation of diversity and abundance of species, as well as seeing them as suitable sites for new housing or other development. We do need more affordable housing, as the lack of availability of affordable housing, is a major social ill in the UK that leads to many negative outcomes. Perhaps building on some monocultural arable land, which had already stifled biodiversity, might be a better option for new housing than building on more biologically rich brownfield sites. This would not only conserve biodiversity, but could also provide brownfield reserves, islands of nature in urbanised landscapes, that are easily accessible to town dwellers (and thus do not use much carbon to visit), that could promote wellbeing


But are brownfield reserves used by people as islands of nature in urbanised landscapes? Canvey Wick was used by some people when I visited on Saturday, but not by many local people, and the use if the sight was mostly to walk dogs; I saw few people (expect one local mother pointing out butterflies to her two children that I chatted to) focussing on the biodiversity of the site. But this is true of greenfield nature reserves too; many are used mostly for exercise (not that there is anything wrong with that) and dog walking (which is a problem How a billion dogs, including our pets, are laying waste to wildlife | New Scientist.) But I think this may be a problem caused by the lack of public information about the biological value of brownfield and/or urban diversity; and that it might be meaningful and enjoyable to look for nature on brownfield sites and/or in urban environments


My visit to Canvey Wick made me see the value of conserving brownfield sites; although the conservation of brownfield sites does perhaps not require all brownfield sites to become formal nature reserves.


It could be argued that the existence of nature reserves - greenfield and brownfield - is tokenistic in the face of the wholesale destruction of habitats in the UK, which has led to a degradation of diversity and abundance of species across the UK; they give the impression that we are doing what is necessary and that is sufficient. Moreover we need to consider what effect does the government's, and many NGO's, focus on conserving particular species in particular locations, i.e. nature reserves, has on non-focus species and non-focus habitats There are sometimes unintended negative consequences of conservation policies see: Study reveals unintended impact of conservation policies (phys.org) .


But I believe nature reserves do have a value in conserving nature, and an important role in developing public interest in nature, which may lead to greater pro-environmental beahviour amongst the general public; although I think the focus for conservation for wildlife now needs to be landscape-level restoration of habitats. Future Terrains defines landscape restoration as: the improvement of degraded land on a large scale that rebuilds ecological integrity and enhances people’s lives. What is Landscape Restoration? | Future Terrains


It could also be argued that nature reserves have an unintended negative impact on carbon consumption; in that that they de facto encourage people to travel to them, rather than visit their local areas, and most people use private transport to do this. Perhaps we need to publicise local nature more, especially those on brownfield sites, and value all nature, not just nature in "beautiful" environments, like meadows, mountains, woods, rivers, and coasts. Rather than over focus on the value of designated nature reserves, perhaps we need to encourage people to get out and find nature, and support diversity and abundance, wherever it is, wherever it is in towns, fields, parks, countryside, verges, waste land, reserves, national parks, and enjoy and appreciate what is on their doorstep; and conserve what is on our doorstep. The Wildlife Trusts states that over 60% of the population live within a 3 mile walk of a Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Protecting and restoring nature is more essential than ever | The Wildlife Trusts; but nature is going on closer than than that, as there is nature, in terms of non-domesticated flora and fauna, everywhere; there are wild plants growing in the gaps of pavements; there are masonry bees living in the walls of our houses.


The Wildlife Trusts are promoting very local nature sites as a way of engaging people in nature - Local Wildlife Sites; this seems a very progressive way engaging local people in nature


From mystical ancient woodlands to quiet churchyards and bustling flower-rich roadsides; and from field-bordering hedgerows to tiny copses the UK enjoys special, often unnoticed wild places where nature thrives. Whether they are in the depths of the countryside or nestled in busy towns and cities, these Local Wildlife Sites (LWS) are exceptional areas of land. They are identified and selected locally, by partnerships of local authorities, nature conservation charities, statutory agencies, ecologists and local nature experts, using robust, scientifically-determined criteria and detailed ecological surveys. Their selection is based on the most important, distinctive and threatened species and habitats within a national, regional and local context. This makes them some of our most valuable wildlife areas.


There is a general misconception that all the best nature conservation sites are nationally designated and legally protected. This is not the case. While Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are crucially important, they represent only a small sample of our most important habitats and species. Many places are not designated as SSSIs, and have no legal protection despite being of equal or greater value for wildlife. By contrast, for Local Wildlife Sites, all sites which meet the given criteria are selected, some of which are of SSSI quality. Consequently, in some counties Local Wildlife Sites are where most of our special wildlife can be found. LocalWildlifeSites _ShortGuide.pdf (wildlifetrusts.org)


Whist Local Wildlife Sites are a progressive way forward for local people; the much larger landscape-level conservation that is needed for survival of UK species, requires structural action at central and local government levels; but local voluntary action in Local Wildlife Sites may spur local people to engage in the political action that is needed to get the structural governmental change that we need for landscape-level conservation


In the rhetoric of conservation, and well-being, nature if often conflated with beautiful environments e.g. “Nature has this calming and enchanting effect. Walking in the woods, smelling the fresh forest air, or sitting on a rock watching the ocean waves and sea birds hunting for fish. Magical” Thriving With Nature | Mental Health Foundation. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that beautiful places are good for our wellbeing; natural abundance and diversity is not confined to beautiful places. One of the values of a brownfield nature reserves such as Canvey Wick, is that it focuses our attention on the fact that there is much nature in places that are not stunningly pretty. Most of the population of the UK do not live in pretty countryside; most people in live urban environments; 82.9% according to the UK government (Trend Deck 2021: Urbanisation - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)); and if people can find, value and conserve nature in urban and semi-urban environments, not only will we better conserve brownfield biodiversity, people may experience higher wellbeing in the urban places that they live in; and may engage in the political action that could lead to landscape level conservation which could improve the beauty of the whole country.



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