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Wildlife casualties and habitat destruction

AllotmentsAllotments near Bully Point Nature Reserve Information in this section is sourced from a report by environmental consultant Annie Chipchase, and a statement by Anne Woollett, Chair of the Hackney Marsh User Group, made in Febrary 2005, unless stated.

The location of the proposed Olympic precinct could not be worse in terms of the environment in the Lower Lea Valley (LLV). The River Lea system is designated a Site of Metropolitan Importance[1] for nature conservation, and is an important passage and migration route for birds. The area also contains Sites of Borough Importance: the Eastway Cycle Circuit and Bully Point Nature Reserve, and the Greenway and Old Ford Nature Reserve. These, with the Carpenters Road Nature Area, Arena Fields and East Marsh, will be destroyed by the development of the Olympic precinct. East Marsh, Arena Field and White Hart Field are Common Land and supposedly protected by legislation.

While the LDA, London 2012 and the Mayor's office, backed up by a chorus of press commentary, have portrayed the environment of the Lower Lea and Bow Back Rivers as largely contaminated and polluted ("Remediation will be a massive challenge. There are considerable amounts of contamination", said Gareth Blacker, director of Olympic Games development at the LDA [Romanowicz, 2006], while the Environmental Statement produced by EDAW as part of the planning application, described the waterways as "corridors of dereliction"), locals celebrate the fascinating flora and fauna among its reedbed, scrub and grassland habitats, and birdlife nesting in the very many mature trees. Insect conservation organisation Buglife, warns of the extinction of vital pollinating species as a result of intensive farming practices and brownfield site development in UK cities (Land, 2006) and calls former industrial sites "the last wild habitats" in some areas. Ecologist Annie Chipchase describes the Olympic proposals as "a kick in the teeth for the thousands of volunteers", who, for the last 25 years, have contributed much time and labour to improving habitat.

Species protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), threatened by the Olympic developments, include bats, the common lizard, the kingfisher and the nationally-scarce black redstart, which frequent the brownfield wastelands. Disuse and neglect has benefited wildlife considerably. Waterways and associated wetlands, former industrial sites and left over parcels of land are all important habitats; extensive areas of sparsely-vegetated or open ground are especially valuable for rare and uncommon invertebrates (English Nature). More common bird species frequently sighted coot, moorhen, mallard, mute swan, green woodpecker, grey wagtail, great-crested and little grebes, dunnock, tits, sand martins and kestrel have protection only in the nesting season.

The Olympic proposals will destroy all the existing habitat, and thus the associated wildlife. Proposals to provide mitigation in terms of translocating species, and providing alternative habitat, are unlikely to be successful. Only legally-protected species will be the focus of such work. The waterways of the Lower Lea provide a unique place for wildlife and people in a dense urban area. Destruction of these habitats for an elite sporting event should not be contemplated.
Annie Chipchase, environmental consultant

Construction will destroy all the trees in the Olympic precinct and many of the mature trees in Eastway Sports Centre (for the Velodrome). The land bridge to East Marsh, and coach and car park on East Marsh (too far away from the precinct area to aid disabled drivers, despite this designation on the plans), will destroy a fine row of 25 ash trees and many mature trees on East Marsh, including pear trees, willows, many varieties of ash, and black poplar trees, including several 110 year old rare native black poplar trees along the New Spitalfields Market edge of East Marsh (for road and parking). East Marsh is a feeding ground for gulls, starlings, green woodpeckers, thrushes and fieldfare. Arena Field, close to Wick Village and the Trowbridge Estate, will be lost permanently in 2006 to a loop road, a concrete batching plant, three sports facilities, one of which will remain after the Games. Grassland and scrub around Eastway Cycle Circuit is an important wildlife habitat. This, with the Bully Point Nature Reserve and allotments, will be flattened for a concrete pathway taking people from car and coach parks to the Olympic precinct, although the hockey pitches originally sited here have been moved. White Hart Field is a buffer zone and wildlife corridor between Hackney Marshes, Eastway circuit and Bully Point, and home to over 204 species of invertebrate including six Red Data Book and 17 nationally scarce invertebrates as well as the spectacular Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata), its much smaller relative Trichius zonatus, and the UK BAP species, the Brown banded Carder Bee. White Hart Field will be lost under a land bridge. Environmental impact assessment undertaken as part of the initial planning applications, published in January 2004, only covered the area to the south of the Hackney Marshes.

The Olympic proposals will involve the complete re-landscaping of the precinct area, and include lowering towpaths and the creation of land bridges (pedestrian flow controlled to enhance retail profits). The effect of the number and size of the bridges will be to virtually culvert the waterways. The shading effect of bridges means that nothing grows below them either on land or in the water. Effectively, the network of waterways will be fragmented and their 'habitat corridor' (ie. continuity) lost. Proposals to landscape the bridges are not only problematic, but do not replace the river environment. The bridges will destroy also the attractiveness of the towpaths for walking and cycling. Many of the bridges will remain when the Olympic circus has gone. The Olympic stadia themselves will rise to 50 metres and the shading effect on the surrounding land and waterways will be significant. Henniker's Dyke (or more officially, Channelsea River northern section) which flows through Eastway Cycle Circuit and around Bully Point Nature Reserve, will also be dammed up for construction. Katy Andrews of the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee had obtained a verbal promise from a representative of consultancy EDAW that the dyke would only be partly covered and then restored after the Games (email from Katy Andrews, February 1, 2006).

Our open space would be taken in 2007 for the loop road, land bridge and Olympics construction. It would be lost to local people for five years before a single Olympic competitor arrives on site. Post Olympics, access will be prohibited for a further eight years. Any open space created from the hard surfaces of the Olympic precinct would take even longer to return to anything approaching its current wildlife value. Any recompense for open space lost in 2007 would become available in about 2020. The timescale is vast. Local people will be without their open space for a full 13 years. That is a whole human generation. And how many generations of kingfisher, tufted duck, painted lady butterflies, and rose chafer?
Anne Woollett, Chair, Hackney Marsh User Group

Construction of the Olympic developments will disrupt complex flood relief systems, increasing the threat of major flooding in (other) vulnerable areas, and ministers are now charged to take remedial action to prevent sewage overflows contaminating the Olympic site itself (one of the reasons behind the Prescott Sluices proposal, below). A study by the Thames Tideway Strategy Group, with representatives from three government departments, the Interim Olympic Delivery Authority, the Environment Agency and Ofwat, found that even a moderate summer storm would overflow the drains and send sewage up the River Lea on the tide. In November 2005, the tideway group announced that there was "a 100% chance" of sewage overflows in the Olympic area between May and October. A storm in August 2004 prompted billions of gallons of sewage to be pumped in to the Thames, killing thousands of fish (M. Weaver, The Guardian, January 21, 2006).

Discussion at the House of Commons Transport Select Committee highlighted official interest in utilising the River Thames and Bow Back Rivers for the transport of construction materials and waste to and from the Olympic precinct -- amounts calculated by Sea and Water (a national body sponsored by the UK water freight industry and the Department for Transport) as "around [one] million cubic metres of spoil, and between 3,000 and 6,000 tonnes of aggregate each day (possibly more at peak times). In addition, steel and other cargoes, and large preformed structures will need to be shipped to the Olympic site". Sea and Water estimate that these volumes are equal to 150 lorries with a 20 tonne capacity per day. Currently, the Bow Back Rivers are tidal, and this inhibits barge movement at low tides. Sea and Water argue that this limitation can be overcome by "impounding" the Bow Back Rivers -- at a cost of between £10-13 million -- by the construction of a double lock at the southern end of the Prescott Channel. The industry lobby told the select committee:

This would maintain the water levels in the river and allow laden barges to be moved around the Olympic site on
a 24 hour basis. It would also allow more material to be delivered to the site at peak times [...] [This] would create a visually attractive waterway running through the heart of the Olympic site. Otherwise, at most states of tide, the river would not be a pleasant feature. Impounding would also create a waterway capable of being used for freight and leisure purposes as the legacy phase of the Olympic Games develops over the next 10-15 years (House of Commons Transport Select Committee, December 16, 2003).

A source close to the LDA suggested that plans for Prescott Channel are for property development aesthetics only not water transport. However, the prospect of increased freight transport raises serious questions of disruption to birdlife populations resident on the Bow Back Rivers, and pollution of water. In a strange twist of logic, the select committee report supports water transport (with rail) as a means to limit environmental damage ("It is imperative that the vast amount of construction material and waste which will be generated in creating the main Olympic site and Stratford City is transported in a way which creates the least damage to the fragile environment of London" [ibid]), and presents decision-making as "a test of [the Government's] leadership and commitment to the longer term transport legacy of Olympic projects" [ibid]. As this issue looks set to run, it is worth noting that Sea and Water also state that "If the river is not impounded, or while the lock is being built, smaller freight barges could still serve the site from terminals on the River Thames using Bow Locks, the River Lea and the existing waterways. This would be sufficient to allow a proportion of the materials required to be supplied".

One threat to the delivery timetable is the prominence of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) within the 312-hectare development area. Weed control companies warned Horticultural Week that it could take three years to bring these rampant species under control. Japanese knotweed is one of the world's 100 most invasive species, and new growth can force through asphalt and breeze blocks even after land is cleared. Giant hogweed, sprouting to more than 6m can cause burns, severe blistering and purplish or blackened scars. Alisdair Mason of Languard Vegetation Management in Leicestershire told the magazine that "From what I have seen, all the invasive weeds they have would fill all the landfill in the south of England" (The Guardian, July 27, 2006).

Temporary seating for 6,000 spectators will be erected in Regent's Park for Olympic cycling and paralympic events. Earlier plans to build basketball and softball stadia in the park were scrapped in July 2005 after the IOC voted to delete these games from the Olympic repertoire. London 2012 spokesperson Mike Lee told the BBC that Regent's Park could still be used to stage 'cultural' events during the Games (BBC SPORT, 2005). There are also plans to use London's parks as Olympic campsites.

[1]Sites of Metropolitan Importance for nature conservation are those sites which contain the best examples of London's habitats, sites which contain rare species, rare assemblages of species or which are of particular significance within large areas of an otherwise heavily built up area. They have the highest priority for protection. The identification and protection of metropolitan sites is necessary not only to support a significant amount of London's wildlife, but also to provide opportunities for people to have contact with the natural environment. Sites of Borough Importance are significant to a local authority area; damage to these sites represents a significant loss to the area.

This essay is part of the Games Monitor briefing papers available for download from our Media Centre page.

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