Beddington Farmlands Bird Group
The Open Field Sewage Treatment System
At the end of the Second World War there was increasing pressure on the land to be used for sewerage, at the expense of traditional farming practises. As an increasing number of fields were required to treat effluent, the growing of silage crops for winter cattle feed were phased out and it was no longer possible to house winter store cattle in the farm buildings. As the transition from traditional farming to open field sewage treatment was complete a few years later, the first golden era of the Birds of Beddington dawned.
The mosaic of ploughed fields, hedges, dykes, flooded meadows, lagoons, cattle grazing and crops provided immense opportunities for birds. The habitat comprised an almost ideal nostalgic wet meadow environment complete with breeding Snipe, Redshank, Lapwing, Grey Partridge, Barn Owl, Yellow Wagtails, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Black Redstarts bred nearby at Croydon Power Station. During the winter Short Eared Owls hunted over the Snipe laden meadows and winter thrushes were abundant.
Passing migrants utilised the rich food resources available with good numbers of Wheatears, Whinchat and hirundines. Cuckoos and Spotted Flycatchers frequented the summer borders and hedges.
Following the end of the Second World War a few birders began visiting the farm with Brad Ashby and Colin Harrison making notable contributions. Brian Milne first visited the farm in 1947 and in 1953 he was asked by the ornithological section of the London Natural History Society to organise a two year survey of the farm ‘To study the variations in numbers and species of birds at different seasons, with relation to the frequent artificial changes in condition’. The survey team of Brian Austin, Bill Barrett, Geoff Harris, Bob Scott and later a very young Peter Grant were responsible for finding some of Beddington’s great rarities, including Little Bittern in 1954 & 56, Baillon’s/Little Crake in 1955, Black Winged Stilt in 1955, Red Breasted Flycatcher in 1955, Purple Sandpiper in 1956 and Bee-eater in 1958. It was at the end of this period, when the rarest bird ever to breed on the farm was found. A small colony of Spotted Crakes was discovered in wet meadows and probably bred between 1963 and 1965.
The Beddington Ringing Station was founded as a result of the 1954/55 survey. Amongst its early achievements was the development of a new method of trapping swifts (“flicking”) and a study of the variant population of Yellow Wagtails. Annual reports of the Beddington Ringing Station appeared in the London Bird Report between 1958 and 1963. By 1961 many of this very active group had left the area but John Burton, Tony Hutson and Dai Stephens carried on regular observations and ringing activities through the early 1960s.
These birders and ringers began to unravel the dynamic and ephemeral side of Beddington bird life. Falls of Wheatears were recorded, vagrants were found, mass migrations were noted to coincide with harsh winter weather conditions, fluctuating numbers of breeding and passage birds were observed year on year and the response of bird life to new commercial operations was recorded.
Although nostalgically idealistic, this period was not without its problems as the demand on the land for commercial operations began to conflict with the interests of the local avifauna. Brain Milne in 1954/55 noted how mid summer sewage treatment operations, during the breeding season, caused mass mortality of the large breeding population (96% of all nest destroyed). Hedges were over-pruned and another problem of the time related to gangs of youths raiding birds’ nests on the bridges.
The pressure from commercial interests increased as time went on and by the late 1950’s conditions began to deteriorate. As the system became overloaded, the result was insufficient resting time between applications of effluent for fields to be of much use to birds. In 1962 the decision was taken to construct an entirely new plant on a part of the original farm.