Posted on Jun 28, 2016

Hampstead Heath Ponds Project – fishing for the unexpected

Working in the aquatic environment for the last 11 years, I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong. Last year my team and I undertook a fish rescue at Hampstead Heath for their Ponds Project. Working as an aquatic ecologist, you have to expect to come across slightly sinister objects whilst wading through our rivers and sifting through fish, which I can safely say I’ve done more than my fair share of. Sanitary products and condoms are particular nasties that spring to mind and evil cotton buds which don’t degrade and pollute our important waterways. I still can’t understand why people insist on flushing these objects down the toilet.

The Hampstead Heath Ponds Project involves work to several of the ponds to prevent dam failure during future significant storm events. We relocated over 1,400 fish from the model boating pond by capturing them during a gradual drain down, and safely moving them to the section of the pond unaffected by the works.

Risky business

The team at Thomson Ecology are experienced at undertaking fish relocations, which usually occur when part or a whole of a waterbody is sectioned off and the water is completely or partially drained. As part of our risk assessments, we have to include the risk of unexploded World War II bombs, which can set your heart racing if you knock into something metal beneath the water line. This was always going to be a potential risk working at Hampstead as Hampstead Town suffered extensive bombing with 67 high explosive bombs and 1 parachute mine from October 1940 to June 1941 ( I am happy to report our team did not encounter any on this project.


During the first stages of the drain down, the model boating pond’s banks exposed a treasure trove of old fashioned glass bottles, which are sought-after collectables. The Thomson team assisted with translocation of our beautiful native swan mussels from the pond banks, where we also found a lot of discarded penknives, from the keen anglers no doubt.

The Hampstead constabulary were keen to investigate the recovery of a silver eagle statue from the site. Whisperings of it being of Nazi heritage were soon on everybody’s lips. However, this turned out to be just a rumour and it was more likely to have been dumped into the pond after a local robbery.

Secrets and rumours

The most astonishing find during the dewatering was that of an old Mark III Ford Cortina.

Being from London myself, I couldn’t help but get swept up in the excitement of asking the question why and how was there a car in the middle of the model boating pond. Locals are familiar with rumours surrounding Hampstead Heath being the burial ground for Queen Boadicea, but what were the circumstances around the car being there? News spread like wildfire and scores of people came to view the shell of the car which had been found at the bottom of the pond.

It even attracted media attention, with papers like the Evening Standard publishing headlines such as ‘Ford Cortina pulled from bottom of drained Hampstead Heath pond’ and the Camden New Journal with ‘Mystery silver eagle and vintage Ford Cortina found in Hampstead Heath pond’. I was asked countless times if anything was found inside the car, body or otherwise, and again, I am much relived (and I speak for the team) when I categorically say no. It was thought that the car had been there since the 1970s with rumours connecting it to pop stars, the Kray twins and most recently (and more realistically), the scorned wife of an angler who was having an affair.

Day job

Despite the excitement surrounding the drain down, the Thomson team successfully and safely relocated over 1,400 fish. Working on a high profile site, we welcome questions from the public and it is a good opportunity to teach people about the ecology right on their doorstep, which in London is sometimes right under your nose.

Sarah Hussey is the Fisheries and Freshwater Business Manager for Thomson Ecology.

You can check the progress of the dam construction by viewing a live feed which can be found on the City of London website. The works to the ponds are scheduled to be completed by late 2016.


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