Countryside Live: It’s Not That Wild!

By Celia.

In 2012, following more than a year of local opposition, the “temporary” Olympic Basketball Training Facility, stood, fenced and controlled by security guards, like an open prison.  It was rumoured to have cost in the region of £5m but was barely used.   Save Leyton Marsh  which became  Save Lea Marshes, has continued the campaign that opposed the building being erected, turning its attention to restoring Leyton Marsh, as near as possible to its previous condition.  We wanted the site re-seeded.  Instead, imported soil from Rainham Marshes and turf – which was supposed to have been based on a variety of seeds present on the marshes, but was simply a football pitch-like monoculture – was laid on top of a plastic membrane.

Leyton Marsh post Olympic development

After the so called “remedial” works had been completed, locals walked the area – if our eyes did not deceive us in being able to pick out the land that had been “Olympified”, our feet were certainly able to discern the area the monstrosity had occupied.  The turf simply felt different underfoot.  There was predominance of rye grass where a mixed range of grasses were meant to be, and some of it rotted when rain lay on top of the compacted soil leaving puddles and bare patches.  It was devastating to see how badly the land was being treated.

So, imagine our dismay when, in 2014, the fences were back, laid in an almost identical pattern as the Basketball Training Facility.  Fences, heavy vehicles and stalls were brought to Leyton Marsh by the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA), as part of its annual Countryside Live event.  Psychologically it stirred bad memories but to add insult to injury, the land suffered even more.

I raised the issue of the state of the land and the number of holes, not of animal origin, after Countryside live event but did not get any response from the LVRPA, so I continued to monitor the land and have taken  “before, during and after the event” photographs every year since 2014.

After the 2017, event, I wrote to the LVRPA’s Green Spaces Manager, copied to the councillors from Hackney and Waltham Forest who represent the boroughs on the LVRPA, with photographs to demonstrate my points concerning damage to the land and the litter left behind after the event.  I received a prompt reply from the Green Spaces Manager, which stressed that the LVRPA believe   “this is a highly worthwhile event that is both educational and enjoyable for the family audience and is in keeping with the open space”.  The letter went on to say: “I accept the site suffers minor damage to the short grass areas, however this is of a temporary nature as the turf quickly grows back” and “small holes created during Countryside Live are the result of wooden stakes erected for signage and to create an otter pen.  These were filled in after the event.  Smaller holes for tents, pegs, fencing and the blacksmith’s metal rods all close up quickly after being removed.  Other holes often appear on Leyton Marsh as a result of wild and domestic animals digging up the soil, which are small, shallow and have not generally presented us with any great concern and are regularly filled.  It is not possible to tell from your photos which of these holes they are however we feel these are likely to be of animal origin.”

I would dispute this analysis.  Animals do not dig square holes.  The shapes of the holes and indentations can be matched to the shape of concrete posts and pole structures.  These are evident after events and the attempts to “fill in the holes”, e.g. covering over straw, left from the animal enclosures over the holes.

My overriding concern is that an organisation that should be protecting the land and the wild life that depends on it , should not be engaging in an activity which damages the land  and  un-does much of the work carried out by its own rangers and others to keep the land in good condition.

When Occupy camped on Leyton Marsh during the 2012, protests, they were criticised for leaving, flattened grass, where their tents had been and for burning local wood.  However, there was no long- term damage visible from this encampment – the protesters were environmentalists and knew how to live on the land.  This is in sharp contrast to the level of impact, caused by heavy vehicles, stands and fencing on the land.  You can walk around after Countryside Live and spot exactly where the toilets; the sheep and cattle pens and the biggest vehicles were placed.

Litter left behind after the Countryside Live event

No-one is arguing that educating children and families about the countryside is not a good thing but what sort of “countryside” does an event like Countryside Live promote?  In the urban areas of Hackney and Waltham Forest, with development increasing all around, the land that is Leyton Marsh is all the more precious to wildlife and people.  The LVRPA describes ‘dancing sheep’ as “light-hearted” but as also presenting “a lot of information about breeds of sheep across the country and highlights the challenges faced by sheep farmers.” Is this really a relevant matter to educate children about? Surely of greater relevance is the plight of small mammals and local birds struggling to adapt to an inner city environment?

Leyton Marsh has, historically, had a dual role as an open space and a recreation ground.  Today it is appreciated by many people in different ways.  SLM has long asserted that too much of it is mowed to short amenity grassland and that more bio-diversity should be encouraged.  Its location next to Walthamstow Marshes, a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI), and the two could easily be managed in a similar way.

We are heartened to learn from the LVRPA’s South Ranger, that the LVRPA will be making some changes to the mowing regime and that this year’s Countryside Live, will be restricted to days for school children only.  However, it remains to be seen whether there will be any less infrastructure or be less intrusive and disruptive to the open space?

SLM made an Freedom of Information (FOI), request to the LVRPA about the income and expenditure linked to organising and running Countryside Live has revealed that the 2017, the event achieved a deficit of £45,815.30.  This is a staggering amount and does not even include the costs of clearing up or repairing damage which was carried out by in-house staff working on a 10 hour day.  With such a long working day, it is hardly surprising that items such as plastic ties (that could be dangerous to wildlife), were left behind and holes were not properly filled in.

 

SLM really does not want to be wholly negative of the work that the LVRPA does in maintaining its statutory duties in running the Lee Valley.  We understand the political, economic and environmental pressures that the Authority faces and its need to communicate and fulfil its community role, but seriously Countryside Live is not the best way of engaging with local people, maintaining the land or earning a profit.  The Countryside itself has become something of a battle ground itself with divergent interests amongst agri-businesses, lobbyists for now illegal hunting practices to be revived (relevant here as this event was previously sponsored by The Countryside Alliance) and those that would like more ecological approaches to managing land.  Let’s at least try to protect and improve one relatively small green space in East London together.

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