The Ornithological History of Beddington Farmlands
Beddington Farmlands is one of the best known birdwatching sites in Greater London. With an ornithological history stretching back over a century, the mosaic of habitats, together with various forms of sewage treatment that have taken place on the site, have acted as a magnet for birds and birdwatchers alike.
Large-scale changes in land use over the last hundred years or so have seen bird populations swell and contract, and transformed the site beyond all recognition. Advancing urbanisation and rapid industrialisation of the surrounding area continue to place enourmous pressures on the Farm, but at the same time have increased the site’s importance as a place where, with careful management, biodiversity can continue to thrive and people can visit to connect with nature.
For a more comprehensive history of Beddington Farmlands see The Birds of Beddington Farmlands (2010, Alfrey et al.).
Sewage disposal at Beddington Farmlands began in 1860 in the form of land irrigation and fertilisation. At this time the nearby town of Croydon was a small market town surrounded by fields, and Beddington Farmlands was a patchwork of ploughed and marshy fields. Little is known about the bird life of Beddington Farmlands from this period, but Yellow Wagtail are known to have been breeding in 1900 and records from 1894-1896 show Common Snipe were present in large numbers during the winter.
Corn Bunting was a common breeder between 1900 and 1914 and Red-backed Shrike were reportedly not uncommon in the area and most likely bred on the Farm. Other early records show that Common Redshank was found breeding in 1910, Tree Sparrow bred from 1912, and Corn Crake still bred in 1918.
Ornithological records increase significantly in the 1930s. In 1932 Len Parmenter became he first to keep regular counts of the birds he encountered at the Farm, and the following year Philip Ratcliff and Geoffrey Manser began visiting regularly until the outbreak of the Second World War.
These early pioneers recorded long since vanished breeding species including Turtle Dove that bred in small numbers throughout the 1930s, Grey Partridge, Yellowhammer that bred in 1936 and 1937, and the first regular counts of breeding Northern Lapwing and Common Redshank. Regular counts of breeding Tree Sparrow – the iconic bird of Beddington Farmlands – also started during this period.
Winter visitors documented include scarce but regular winter visitors such as Black Redstart and Hooded Crow, small numbers of Curlew, flocks of wintering Meadow Pipit, and impressive flocks of 1,215 Northern Lapwing in 1932, 400 Brambling in 1935 and 1,000 Greenfinch in 1939. The first records of passage waders also appear at this time, with Ringed Plover, Whimbrel, Greenshank and Green Sandpiper amongst the migrants passing through, along with the first records of Northern Wheatear, Rock Pipit, Tree Pipit and Pied Flycatcher.
At this time Beddington Farmlands comprised a mixture of ploughed fields, hedges, rows of elms, dykes, flooded meadows, lagoons, cattle grazing and crops, but increasing demands for land for the treatment of sewage effluent led to a shift in land use from agriculture to open field sewage treatment.
After the Second World War, more birders began visiting the Farm, including Brad Ashby, Colin Harrison, Brian Milne and Peter Grant. Roy Weller and Peter Chasteauneuf also started watching the birds in this period and still do today.
Regular coverage began to uncover fluctuations in breeding and wintering species as well as the movement of passage migrants. Common Snipe, Common Redshank, Northern Lapwing, Grey Partridge, Yellow Wagtail, Skylark and Meadow Pipit bred, and Barn Owl regularly hunted over the Farm.
In the winter months, hundreds, often thousands, of Common Snipe were present, with an incredible 5,000 present in 1962, and tens of Jack Snipe also wintered, including a count of 64 in 1955! Small numbers of Short-eared Owl wintered most years and flocks of Skylark regularly reached several thousand, and Fieldfare, Redwing and Linnet numbered several hundred each. Up to 250 Chaffinch wintered for four decades from 1960, and the first wintering Corn Bunting was recorded in 1962, for a while a regular feature of Beddington Farmlands in winter.
Whinchat were common on passage, and Little Ringed Plover, Black Tern, Common Redstart, Ring Ouzel and Grasshopper Warbler are amongst the scarce migrants recorded for the first time. In the mid 1950s, the Beddington Ringing Station was founded, developing a pioneering method for trapping swifts, called flicking, and producing a detailed study of the variant population of Yellow Wagtails on the Farm.
The 1950s and 60s also proved to be a purple patch for rarities with 3 Little Bittern (including a suspected breeding pair), Black-winged Stilt, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Bee-eater found, along with the first record of the now ubiquitous Collared Dove. Local vagrants recorded include Whooper Swan, Bean, Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, Goshawk, Stone Curlew, Purple Sandpiper and Ortolan Bunting.
But this ‘golden era’ was not to last. An increasing quantity of sewage effluent was being added to the land, making conditions less favourable for many species, but the opening of a sewage treatment works on part of the Farm in 1969, together with removal of the cattle proved most disastrous for the bird life at Beddington Farm. The meadows dried out and rank vegetation took over.
In just four years breeding Yellow Wagtails crashed from 20 pairs to just four pairs in 1974, and numbers of wintering Common Snipe and Jack Snipe plummeted. Many of the fields had been converted to sludge beds, and Dutch Elm Disease struck and killed off all the mature elms, depriving Barn Owl and Tree Sparrows of nest sites. The Beddington Ringing Station continued to operate, but the number of visiting birders declined.
By the late 1970s the wet meadows were gone, replaced by 130 sludge beds covering about half of the Farm. But all was far from lost. About 100 of these sludge beds were flooded, forming a new wetland habitat.
These beds, along with three large enclosed sludge beds built on 1978, became an important habitat for passage waders with Ruff, Dunlin, Little Stint, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank and Common Sandpiper regularly recorded, particularly large numbers of Green Sandpiper. In 1977 Common Redshank returned as a breeding species after an 11 year gap, but sadly Willow Tit was last recorded in 1979.
Derek Coleman and Garry Messenbird both began birding the Farm during this period. In February 1984 Garry found Beddington’s rarest bird to date – London and Surrey’s first and only Killdeer, amazingly followed in September by another american wader – a Lesser Yellowlegs. More birders began to watch the Farm, which by now had became known as one of London’s top sites for migrant waders.
Major habitat changes during this period began in 1990 with the construction of the North Lake. The first large area of permanent freshwater at Beddington Farmlands, the North Lake brought an influx of wintering wildfowl. The first Glaucous Gull since 1958 appeared in 1996, Red-necked Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Velvet Scoter, Osprey, Great Skua and Little Tern were recorded for the first time, and Scaup, Goldeneye, Smew, Marsh Harrier, Red-breasted Merganser, Arctic Tern, Black Tern, Little Gull, and Kittiwake are amongst the species that became more regular.
The following year the horses were removed, allowing the vegetation on an overgrazed Beddington Farmlands to recover. Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler and Common Whitethroat colonised in large numbers, as well as records of several singing Grasshopper Warblers, and a singing Marsh Warbler in 1994 and 1995.
This period, the ‘second golden era’, also produced a good run of national rarities including Ferruginous Duck, Citrine Wagtail, 2 Tawny Pipits together, a remarkable 3 Red-throated Pipits, Bluethroat, and the famous Rustic and Little Bunting duo of late winter 1993. Local vagrants recorded include Bearded Tit, Golden Oriole, several wintering Long-eared Owls.
In 1993, site owners Thames Water applied to extract gravel and begin landfill operations and Beddington Farmlands was fenced off from the public in preparation. The London Ecology Unit, London Wildlife Trust, local council and the newly formed Beddington Farm Bird Group, opposed the application that was eventually granted despite a public enquiry, and works began in 1998.
The start of gravel extraction and landfill operations changed the landscape of the Farm beyond recognition. Most of the sludge beds were gradually ripped up and Mile Road disappeared forever under the landfill cells, except for the beds at Hundred Acre and in the south-east corner that are protected by a planning condition.
However, a greater area of the Farm was lost to storage of clay, gravel and topsoil than was stipulated in the planning application, so as mitigation for the loss of wetland habitat, a scrape and new lake were created in 2001. On recommendation of the Conservation Science Group, set up to assist with habitat restoration at the Farm, a 344 hole Sand Martin bank was constructed in 2003, with the first birds nesting in 2008.
These changes have brought mixed fortunes to the avifauna of Beddington Farmlands. Yellow Wagtail was lost as a breeding species in 1998, and as the sludge beds were destroyed the numbers of migrant waders such as Ruff, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and Greenshank have dropped enourmously, as well as numbers of wintering Common Teal, Eurasian Wigeon and Northern Shoveler.
Contrastingly, the provision of nest boxes (since 1992) and supplementary feeding allowed the Tree Sparrow population to increase to historical all-time high levels, with 262 boxes used in 2006 producing 959 chicks. Around 1,000 birds were present in 2007.
With the landfill in operation, the number of gulls using the site exploded with estimates of 20,000 birds onsite on any given day during the winter. Caspian, Mediterranean, Iceland, Glaucous Gulls all became regular, and in April 2007 Britain’s first Glaucous-winged Gull was relocated on the tip.
Despite the loss of so much wetland habitat, Beddington Farmlands maintains it’s status as one of the top birding spots in Greater London, with Purple Heron, Pacific Golden Plover, 2 Red-rumped Swallow, Great White Egret, Spoonbill, Wryneck, Ortolan Bunting were amongst the rarities recorded during this period.