Hackney's secret garden: East and West Bank Nature Reserve
Did you know that Hackney harbours a magnificent secret garden? Tucked away in Stamford Hill is a little-known green gem that is punching above its weight biodiversity-wise.
The East and West Bank Nature Reserve, between Dunsmure Road and Stamford Hill, flanks just 2,000m of the Liverpool Street to Enfield train line, but its modest size belies its significance. The railway cutting, of which Network Rail owns the slopes and Hackney Council the tops, is home to around 40 species of birds, including city-rare tawny owls, peregrine falcons, nightingales and greater spotted woodpeckers, as well as 70 species of plants and flowers.
Incredibly, between 5 and 10 per cent of the borough’s mature trees grows along this tiny, nature-rich strip, and in parts Good King Henry – once a common vegetable like asparagus but now a rare species – can be seen poking up through the undergrowth.
The reserve, which is not open to the public, has been designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation since 2002, making it more significant, in terms of nature, than any Hackney park, and second only to the Lea Valley and the New River Reservoirs.“The site is part of a green corridor that links through to Abney Park Cemetery,” said John Yeudall, co-founder of the East and West Bank User Group. “It is a valuable green lung for the local community and a bird nature reserve of exceptional importance.”It is an incredible achievement for what was, little over a decade ago, John says, an abandoned piece of land that was “badly littered” and which supported limited plant, bird, insect and animal life.
The amazing turnaround is thanks to the doggedness of the user group who in 2002 offered to help the Council and Network Rail manage the site.
They are a hard-core of six, who have toiled, planted and championed the land - literally rooting out the problems of what was essentially a dumping ground. “We turned a rubbish dump into a bird reserve,” said member Kate Griffin of West Bank. “Residents now have a soundtrack to their lives, sometimes so loud you can hardly believe it’s real birds and not a high-volume recording.”
The group, helped by around 50 residents on their mailing list, continues to play guardian to the land, planting native trees and shrubs, and bidding for funding, including a recently-won a grant from the Council.
Owl, bird and bat boxes have also been fitted in the reserve by the group, as has a stag beetle “hotel”, whilst a hedgehog box awaits installation.
“We run monthly activity days for all residents, usually on the first Sunday of the month,” said John, from East Bank. “We organise annual tree and bird walks, led by experts, and these normally attract a big crowd. We also put together an annual newsletter and deliver it to local households.”
Sadly, littering and dumping remain a problem, though "much less so” than before.
“The main obstacle we face is human beings,” said Kate, a potter. “We can’t seem to stop them littering and dumping. A few years ago we set up an agreement with Hackney which has worked very well: we remove rubbish from the reserve and the Council picks it up and disposes of it.”
Despite deterrent notices, a recent incursion has included a cargo of 50 giant tyres. This is on top of regular infestations of broken white goods and miniature alcohol bottles - although there are occasionally, says Kate, more interesting finds at the site.
“We found an enormous bra the other day, and a wallet, which we reunited with its owner - in Parson’s Green!”
The group has done fantastic work in creating one of the borough’s best and most biodiversity-rich wildlife locations.
The Council has supported them by providing resources to back its anti-litter campaigns and to print newsletters to promote the site and volunteering opportunities. This is successful partnership working between the community and the Council at its best.
The group is always looking for more volunteers to help plant, water, erect owl, hedgehog and insect homes, put up notices and, outside bird-nesting season (October to March), to clear rubbish.
“Volunteers would get immense satisfaction at seeing their work help nature to regenerate itself and pleasure from the birdsong especially,” said John. “They would learn about native plant and animal life and they would make new friends.”
To offer their services, volunteers can call John on: 020 8800 8209, or email the group at: firstname.lastname@example.org