History of birding at the Welsh Harp

Brent Reservoir has attracted uncommon birds since its construction. More is known about early birding at Brent Reservoir than at any other site in London.

Birding in the Victorian era

During the construction of Brent Reservoir, the site was regularly “birded” by two local ornithologists, Frederick Bond (1811–89) and Kingsbury resident James Edmund Harting (1841–1928). In those days the birders’ motto was “What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery”, and the normal practice was to shoot first and ask questions later.

The exploits of Harding and Bond started an interest in the birds of the Welsh Harp that has continued until today, giving a historical perspective that is unique for London.

The slaughter of birds at Brent Reservoir  continued throughout the 19th century. The birds “collected” in this way were documented by Harting in his 1866 book ‘The Birds of Middlesex’, for which he carried out much of his field work at and around the reservoir.

Among the birds listed in Harting’s book are rare vagrants to the UK such as Little Bittern and Squacco Heron, both shot before 1843, and White-rumped Sandpiper, shot in 1856. Other rarities shot locally include Arctic Skua (1842), Great Snipe (1842, 1856), Black-throated Diver (1843, 1893), Pectoral Sandpiper (1846), Spotted Sandpiper (pre-1852), Dotterel (1856), Cirl Bunting (1859), Crested Tit (1860), Pallas’s Sandgrouse (1863), Hoopoe (1865), Spoonbill (1865), Roseate Tern (1866), Great Northern Diver (1875), White-winged Black Tern (1883), Ferruginous Duck (1883) and Avocet (1897).

Birds recorded in this period but not confirmed as shot include Alpine Swift (1841), Grey Phalarope (1841), Night Heron (pre-1843), Pomarine Skua (pre-1843), Dipper (1862), Spotted Redshank (1865), Snow Bunting (1865), Ortolan Bunting (1867, 1868), Hen Harrier (1869) and Lapland Bunting (1892).

Inter-war years

After Harding and Bond, the next prominent ornithologist was William Glegg, active from the 1920s onwards. Best known for his 1929 book, A History of the Birds of Essex, Glegg also wrote a paper for the London Naturalist in 1930 called “The Birds of Middlesex since 1866” and in 1935 produced a follow-up to Harting’s book, called ‘A History of the Birds of Middlesex’.

Post-war birding

After the Second World War, a new generation of ornithologists took an interest in Brent Reservoir. They included two men called Eric.

Eric H. Warmington (1898–1987) was a professor of classics at the University of London. He produced numerous scholarly work and was internationally known for his Latin translations — particularly his Remains of Old Latin, a four-volume edition of early Latin texts with English translations. He lived three miles north of the reservoir in Flower Lane, Mill Hill, and spent much of his free time studying bird life in north-west London. In 1989 his contribution was recognised in a display panel placed in Scratchwood Country Park by the Mill Hill Historical Society.

Eric Simms (1921–2009) was a decorated wartime pilot who went on to work for the BBC, making more than 7,000 radio broadcasts and hundreds of television appearances. He was a passionate believer in taking natural history to a wider audience and was credited with starting the BBC’s Countryside radio programme in 1952. He was a prolific author, notably of a record four titles in the celebrated Collins New Naturalist Series. He made a point of studying common suburban birds around his home just south of the reservoir in Dollis Hill.

In the late 1950s, the two Erics were joined by Dr Leo Batten, who also went on to become the author or co-author of a number of books about birds. Despite having now migrated to the birding paradise of North Norfolk, Leo still frequently visits the reservoir.

Foundation of the WHCG

In 1972, Simms and Batten were among the movers who set up the Welsh Harp Conservation Group to fight off development of land adjacent to the reservoir. A powerful speech by Simms at the public inquiry made an important contribution to the success of the appeal against the proposed development. Since then, the WHCG has continued its work to protect the area as a nature reserve, including preventing the construction of a golf course and driving range.

© Welsh Harp Conservation Group 2017