Brownfield sites: conservation havens

When we think of wildlife we don't tend to consider old demolition sites prime habitats, but maybe we should give them a little more credit.
12 July 2016

Interview with 

Nick Bertrand, Creekside Discovery Centre


Deptford Creek


Clearly we should be encouraging nature in our cities but where's the best Deptford Creekplace for it? Parks, gardens or maybe just an old demolition site? The Creekside Discovery Centre sits on a purpose built brownfield site in South London. The term brownfield site refers to an area that have been previously developed and as the centre's tour guide Nick Bertrand suggested to Connie Orbach, they're a little underappreciated...

Nick - The terrible thing is that what we call green fields in the countryside have mostly been utterly devastated by industrial agriculture and are extremely poor for wildlife. Previously developed land, which then gets abandoned and then goes completely wild, can be some of the most diverse areas we have, but they all got castigated under this evil label.

Connie - On that note, I thought it was best to go see a brownfield site for myself. But I just needed a couple of things first.

Nick - So, you need the same size.

Connie - I've got big feet.

Nick - You've got big feet? What size?

Connie - Yes, size 9.

Nick - Size 9, get you. So there's size 9. Say, size 9 waders for size 9 feet.

Connie - Fantastic! I'll find the men's waders). Yes, that's right, huge thigh-high rubber waders. You may have seen something similar on fishermen.

Okay, I feel like a bit of an idiot.

Nick - That's fine. We've got loads of idiots now.

Connie - All booted up, we were ready to go. Creekside is on a tiny wedge of land on the bank of wildflowers leading down to the river, a rare sight in a part of London that as you may be able to hear, is undergoing huge amounts of redevelopment.

Nick - We have cranes in the left and cranes to the right, so there's cranes ahead of us and we're going into the valley of the creek.

Connie - Great! Let's go.

Nick - As we come over the brow of slope here, we're moving down from dry land into wetland and you can see the white flowers just ahead and they're the flowers of Hemlock Water Dropwort which tell you you are moving into the wetland zone.

Connie - And it gets a bit less pretty down the bottom. You start to see the sludge.

Nick - Yeah, it is a sludge but don't forget where you are now. If you were standing here 6 hours from now, you'd be underwater. So up there where all the white flowers are, that's the shallow water. And then when you're moving into the deeper area where the tide is really going to be covering it by more than a meter or so, the vegetation, there's very few plants that can cope with that.

Connie - We began to wonder into the river itself, a high for biodiversity with fish, frogs, crabs, and well, an awful lot of rubbish really. I couldn't help wondering if the animals might be a bit happier in a river free from shopping trolleys and old mattresses.

Nick - Here now, probably not. I mean, the river itself is clean. Everybody wants to do the creek when they first see it is clean it up and tidy it up, and pull everything out. That can actually be detrimental to the wildlife here. The river is about one-third as wide as it was originally and there are no natural banks. So, the only natural bank, which is artificial, in the creek is our beach down into it which we created. Because a creek is a very specialised environment anyway, there's lots of things the wildlife has to be able to cope with. Actually, some of the rubbish in the creek actually helps it do that. So, Jill Goddard who was running the project to do with the creek in the '90s. She organised a clean-up at the top end of the creek. On one weekend, over 400 shopping trolleys were removed. A couple of weeks after the clean-up, the number of young fish in the creek had halved.

Connie - Wow! Just a couple of weeks after?

Nick - Yes, so that immediately got everybody thinking that the one thing that happened that changed in that period was the removal of the shopping trolleys. Because we've got no natural river banks, these are places young fish go in to hide in amongst when the tide comes in. as you can see, at low tide here, there's no big bad fish. As soon as the tide comes in, so do the big bad fish. So, the little fish need to get out of the way. What they do is they go into the vegetation sites. They can't do that here because there isn't the vegetation. What they have got is shopping trolley. So, shopping trolleys accumulate debris. There's only one side. Anything can get into a shopping trolley, so they're a perfect little refuge. They provide a niche for not just fish but all sorts of other invertebrates and other things too. But we're not trying to encourage people to chuck things into the river. We're just trying to work with what we've got here to make the best of it which is what the wildlife does as well.

Connie - From what I can tell in housing arguments, everyone is saying, "build on the brownfield sites, retain the greenbelt outside, stop up in sprawl" but is that necessarily the best way to go for conservation?

Nick - Well, it's disastrous for everywhere around here. Trouble is, people are using these terms as if they're all meaning - well, all greenbelt is good. Therefore, preserved and all, but it varies enormously. So, some of the greenbelt is of fantastic wildlife value, some of it is not. Why can't we have a rational approach to pieces of land? So, this piece of land is important for farming, historically, for wildlife or whatever. Let's keep it. That piece of land isn't. Unfortunately, the whole development process is completely piecemeal. What really happened in London has been completely ignored actually because of that lack of contextual approach to looking at what's happening to the environment. So, we've lost an awful lot of habitat in London in the 30 years I've been involved.

Connie - People don't want to live by sites like this that much I guess...

Nick - I don't know the answer because comes down to aesthetics. It's easier to train ourselves change our aesthetics than it is to change what wildlife does. I have no idea how you can change what wildlife does, but we can change how we look at things and how we approach things. But unfortunately, really what it all comes down to is money. So, these pieces of land that may be hugely valuable for wildlife are hugely valuable to people too, so they're worth millions of pounds. The trouble with wildlife - let's face it - is they're just bunch free loaders. They don't pay rent, they don't pay taxes.

Connie - They don't give anything back.

Nick - They're absolutely hopeless. They'll never say thank you. So, what can you do for them?

Connie - So it's an ethos.

Nick - It's been impossible to crack. I have no idea. So, the whole system gives the appearance of taking all of these things into account but a lot of it is really green wash. It really is.


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