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Disused Playing Fields of Essex

Introduction

Playing fields were often reclaimed from pasture or meadowland which had never been ploughed or sprayed with chemical fertilisers (unimproved). Regular mowing to allow sports such as cricket and football to be played eradicated much of their botanical interest by preventing flowering of plants. However, increasingly, the disuse of playing fields as football and cricket clubs fold has meant that the grassland has been allowed to grow tall and species of unimproved grassland (e.g. Grass Vetchling) have returned. These disused playing fields are often superb habitats for insects, in particular butterflies (Small Heath) and grasshoppers (Roesel's Bush-crickets). The presence of Yellow Meadow Ants on undisturbed playing fields may indicate that the original fauna of the unimproved grassland is returning following cessation of mowing.

Threats

Disused playing fields however face many threats to their persistence not least the misunderstanding of their true value as unimproved or semi-improved grassland. The desire to return playing fields to their former use could lead to grassland of value being regularly mown once more. Selling off of playing fields for housing developments represents another serious threat to many disused pitches. There is an urgent need to document any disused playing fields in the county so that the grassland flora and fauna can be highlighted and an eye kept on important sites. The following inventory will document the most important disused playing fields and will be updated as further information becomes available.

Surveys of the biodiversity of playing fields

It is hoped to continue to add to the inventory of disused playing fields in Essex and enhance the wildlife of those currently used pitches. If you know of any disused playing fields not listed below please contact Tim Gardiner on timgardiner134@btinternet.com. I am also interested in enhancing the wildlife value of currently used playing fields and can undertake a survey of the flora and fauna of sports pitches and their surroundings. Again, please get in contact via the email above to discuss this. A small fee may be needed to commission a survey with a short report detailing recommendations for increasing the biodiversity of the playing field in question.

Further reading about grassland of amenity areas including playing fields

Gardiner, T. (2009) Ants in the plants! Essex Field Club Newsletter 59: 13.

Gardiner, T. (2010) More runs, fewer crickets! Bulletin of the Amateur Entomologists’ Society 69: 146-153.

Gardiner, T. (2010) Precipitation and habitat degradation influence the occurrence of the common green grasshopper Omocestus viridulus in southeastern England. Journal of Orthoptera Research 19: 315-326.

Gardiner, T. (2011) Garden Grasses. Country-Side 33 (3): 4-5.

Gardiner, T. (2012) Essex Orthoptera update for 2011 including an assessment of the current status of the Great Green Bush-cricket on the east coast. Essex Naturalist (New Series) 29: 57-65.

ESSEX INVENTORY OF DISUSED PLAYING FIELDS

Langdon Hills Recreation Ground (Local Wildlife Site Ba15, 2.4 ha)

This disused playing field (TQ 673875) has perhaps the best flora of any recreation ground in the county. On a visit to the ground in late June 2013, the author was amazed at the diversity of the grassland, yellow with buttercups and Yellow Rattle. Looking at the flora, this kind of flower-rich grassland must have been a familiar sight in the 1930s and 1940s, to see it these days while cricket is played nearby is one of the joys of summer. 

Primarily used as a recreation ground, the grassland is floristically rich and of particular note for one of the largest populations of Green-winged Orchid in Essex alongside multitudes of Common-spotted Orchids. Other species of note include Quaking Grass, Field Wood-rush, Adder’s-tongue Fern and Twayblade Orchid. The survival of this species-rich turf is dependent upon a sympathetic mowing regime. At certain times of year the sward is mown for amenity purposes, but the management is sympathetic to the orchid population. The nearby flower-rich Langdon Meadows have been named as one of the Coronation Meadows to mark 60 years since the Queen’s coronation in 1953. The project is led by Plantlife and is a direct result of their Our Vanishing Flora report (Plantlife 2012). The recreation ground is a worthy inclusion to the Coronation Meadow and a visit in June is a must for botanists.

Canvey Island Football Pitch (1.2 ha)

A disused football pitch (TQ 773834) is located in West Canvey to the west of Charfleets Industrial Estate and close to the Morrisons Supermarket and Canvey Wick SSSI. The football pitch has semi-improved grassland containing Grass Vetchling, Meadow Vetchling, Narrow-leaved Bird's-foot Trefoil and grasses such as Crested Dog's-tail. The playing field is also an excellent habitat for insects such as the Common Blue butterfly and the scarce bumblebee Bombus humilis has been seen foraging on Red Clover in the long grass. There are numerous hills of the Yellow Meadow Ant, a good indicator of the recovering grassland. There is plenty of disturbed ground in the goal mouths providing interruption in the sward cover, excellent habitat for basking and burrowing insects. The playing field is also directly connected by green corridors such as the banks of Sluice Farm Dyke allowing dispersal of bees in particular from the Roscommon Way roadside verges and sea wall near the Jetty. The site is also adjacent to the Canvey Wick SSSI, notified for its brownfield flora and fauna. Therefore, it should be considered for designation as a Local Wildlife Site to give it protection from development in the future. 

St. Peter's College Playing Field (3.7 ha)

A 3.7 ha area of a former playing field at St. Peter’s College (formerly Rainsford High School, TL 693080) in Chelmsford has been left unmown for many years due to a decline in the number of students at the College negating a need for the recreational usage of the field. The grassland has grown long and tussocky, with a range of grasses (more than 10 species) such as False Oat-grass, Yorkshire Fog and significant areas dominated by fine-leaved grasses such as Creeping Bent. There are plentiful patches of Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Black Knapweed, both species that can indicate neutral grasslands of some antiquity. Both plants are important nectar sources for grassland butterflies such as the abundant Meadow Brown and Large Skipper found on site. Bees such as the Red-tailed Bumblebee and Common Carder Bee are frequently found foraging on wildflowers in the grassland.  Ant hills of Lasius niger are also frequently found in the grassland and may be associated with former sand pits used for athletics (e.g. long jump).

The disused playing field is probably best noted for the extremely large population of grasshoppers consisting of Common Green (found in areas of damper grassland with Yorkshire Fog), Field (particularly associated with ant hills and sand pits), Lesser Marsh, and Meadow Grasshoppers. The Common Green Grasshopper is an Essex Red Data List species and has declined by 50% in Essex since 1997. Its presence also indicates that the playing field is a remnant of unimproved grassland, which probably existed before the College was built. Indeed, historical maps and photos show the playing field to have been part of a farm with the wooded boundary along the southern edge being present on maps pre-dating 1900 suggesting that the hedgerow is probably ancient in origin. The hedgerow has thick bramble scrub at its base and has Oak and Field Maple with patches of Elder. Dark Bush-crickets predominate in the scrubby base of the hedgerow.

On the basis of the presence of remnant unimproved neutral grassland, presumably mown short as a playing field for several decades and the probable ancient hedgerow along the southern boundary, the site should be considered for designation as a Local Wildlife Site (LoWS). In this urban setting unimproved habitat is very rare and this patch of grassland may be the largest in the Melbourne area. Given the closure of the College in August 2011 and the possibility of redevelopment of the site for housing it is important that the grassland and hedgerow habitats receive some form of recognition in the planning process by designation of the site as a LoWS. 

Pleshey Cricket Pitch (1 ha)

The playing field at Pleshey (TL 664142) has been used for cricket for over a century. It is a pleasant ground overlooked by the 12th century moated castle mound. However, Pleshey CC has recently folded and the outfield is now grazed by horses, with tall grassland in evidence in one fenced paddock near the pavilion. Surveys in previous years have recorded an interesting flora outside of the cut pitch area, including Bee Orchids, Cowslips and Burnet Saxifrage. These areas of botanical interest are now more regularly mown which is a concern. Given the horse grazing, the grassland could be overgrazed leading to a loss of botanical and invertebrate interest. However, the long grass in one paddock is certainly an improvement over the regularly cut cricket pitch so monitoring of how the flora and fauna develops should be interesting. The hedgerows surrounding Pleshey cricket ground are good for bush-crickets (such as the Oak Bush-cricket), earwigs, and butterflies. Indeed, the hedgerows around Pleshey cricket ground could be as old as 400 years, an age determined by them having 4 tree and shrub species/30m using Hooper’s rule of hedgerow dating. Old hedgerows are particularly important for the Oak Bush-cricket in Essex; this insect could be considered a good indicator of ancient, species-rich hedgerows in the county. 

Writtle College Rugby Pitches (both pitches 1.2 ha combined)

The rugby club at Writtle College makes use of two large pitches (TL 683069), which are part of a large playing field still used for midweek cricket games (Writtle College Old Boys) and archery. The mowing regimes have been relaxed, leading to the development of semi-improved grassland on the former rugby pitches over summer, which is relatively species-poor with Red Fescue and large quantities of White Clover, with occasional Black Knapweed. It appears that a wildflower mixture has been sown around the playing field area, which provides a colourful forage resource for bumblebees and long grassland for a large population of Roesel's Bush-cricket. In this grassland, Bird's-foot Trefoil, Black Knapweed, Ragged Robin, Salad Burnet and Yellow Rattle. Sowing of margins with wildflower mixtures is a useful way to establish flower-rich grassland and important forage plants for bees.

Basildon Rugby Club (0.8 ha of rough grassland left)

This site is a classic example of how bringing old grassland into use for sports can have a devastating impact. An area of unimproved grassland (grid reference TQ 718905) in Basildon (Essex) was surveyed in 1997 by Neil Harvey of Essex Wildlife Trust before the construction of a cricket and rugby ground. The area to be turned into the cricket and rugby ground was old meadowland, grazed by horses, where 9 species of Orthoptera were recorded as part of the pre-development surveys. This meadowland was reminiscent of the cricket ground outfields of the 1930s and 1940s and could be considered a key site for Orthoptera in Essex. The old meadows contained the Common Green Grasshopper, a locally rare insect in Essex included in the Essex Red Data List, and Slender Groundhopper. The meadows were to be lost to the new rugby and cricket ground, although a small area to remain undeveloped was designated as a LWS.

A visit to the site in July 2010 revealed that 7 species of Orthopera still remained, despite the majority of the sports pitches (which cover 16.4 ha in total) being necessarily mown short for recreational activities (including cricket). It seems that the Common Green Grasshopper has disappeared from the area as the intensive mowing regimes do not leave much tall grass habitat for Orthoptera (approximately 0.8 ha remains unmown each summer, only 5% of playing field area). The probable loss of the grasshopper comes despite the presence of a fenced 8 m wide grass strip along a mature hedgerow, presumably to allow grassland to remain unmown throughout the summer for wildlife. This strip contained grasses of unimproved grassland such as Crested Dog’s-tail and Sweet Vernal. Despite the apparent absence of the Common Green Grasshopper, the unmown grass strip did contain populations of the Field Grasshopper and Roesel’s Bush-cricket, which suggests that some insect diversity has been retained on site, despite the construction of the pitches. A narrow linear strip (1 m wide) of unmown grassland remained along a fence dividing two rugby pitches; this surprisingly contained the Meadow Grasshopper and Field Grasshopper. An attractive patch of Tufted Vetch was left unmown around the base of one of the rugby goal posts, but did not support any grasshoppers! Most of the mature hedgerows appear to have been retained as borders between the pitches and these still harboured Oak Bush-cricket and Speckled Bush-cricket.

The tale of Basildon Rugby Club serves as a warning about the vulnerability of important grassland to damaging recreational activities, and how many species may not survive the transition (e.g. Common Green Grasshopper) even when conservation measures are implemented. The site is included as a small area remains unmown and retains some botanical and insect diversity which would otherwise have been lost during development. The site could therefore be said to have disused playing field habitat. 

Matching Green (4.9 ha)

Matching Green (grid reference TL 536110) is a village green near Harlow in Essex. It was formerly regularly throughout the summer as an amenity with the cuttings left in situ to rot and was a poor habitat for flora and fauna. The Green has been managed by Epping Forest Countrycare since 1999 with a hay cut taken in recent years and the cuttings removed to preserve botanical diversity. Due to its recovering wildlife value, the Matching Green cricket ground and surrounding unimproved grassland have been designated as a Local Wildlife Site (LWS), covering 4.9 ha, of which the cricket ground (outfield and pitch which are mown regularly in summer) covers approximately 0.8 ha. The Green has a cricket ground and the surrounds of the outfield have very long grass and unimproved grassland plant species such as Heath Bedstraw Galium saxatile, Lady’s Bedstraw Galium verum, Quaking Grass, Sheep’s Sorrel Rumex acetosella and Common-spotted Orchid. Sadly due to regular gang mowing in the 1980s and 1990s, Cowslips and Sulphur Clover have yet to return despite the more favourable mowing in recent years. The Green is the sixth largest area of flower-rich unimproved grassland in the Epping Forest District (Countrycare 2013). The hay meadow also contains an abundance of grasshoppers and butterflies such as Common Blue and Small Heath. The surrounding ponds are frequented by dragonflies such as the Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum. At Matching Green, cricket takes place in harmony with the flora and fauna, and the experience of the cricketer is immeasurably enhanced by it.