Hainault Forest Website

Written, Designed and with Photographs by Brian Ecott

Social History

Mike Dennis 1949 - 2006

Reprinted from The London Naturalist  No. 86, 2007 Journal of The London Natural History Society.

With kind permission of the Editor, Keith Hyatt and the Author, Adrian Dally.


The London Naturalist, No. 86, 2007                                                  185 -


MIKE DENNIS, 1949-2006

Mike Dennis died on 11 August 2006 after a short illness. In so doing, the London Natural History Society has lost a long-serving recorder and officer, and a man of depth and breadth. Mike was born in Romford on 2 November 1949, the elder child of  Cyril, a playwright, and Win. By the age of five he had already demonstrated an abiding interest in natural history, an enthusiasm which was fired initially by his mother. This interest would soon evolve into a passion for ornithology in particular, and one which would sustain him for the rest of his life. It was as a boy that he was introduced to Hainault Forest by his parents, a site that was to become his local birding patch for the next forty years. He visited the site practically every week, and came to know its every nook and cranny. He logged and mapped the fluctuations of every bird species there, the resulting dataset becoming one of the most comprehensive of any site in the London area. A few years later Rainham Marshes became another local patch, Mike logging bird fluctuations there in much the same way as he was doing at Hainault. Points in between, such as the Ingrebourne Valley, also came in for long-term scrutiny,

especially in relation to their breeding birds.

Mike was passionate about the conservation of these sites, and about theconservation of Rainham Marshes in particular. He sat on various local conservation committees in both the statutory and voluntary sectors, and was particularly active in the campaign to conserve Rainham Marshes. Indeed it would be hard to think of any individual who had a greater impact on the eventual successful transfer of the Marshes into the sympathetic management of the RSPB. The current health of wildlife on such sites thus owes much to Mike's efforts.

  In his earlier birding years, Mike did his fair share of rarity hunting,

undertaking many an overnight twitch with fellow London birders, as well ashis time he also did a fair amount of foreign birding, visiting various destinations in North America and the near - Continent. His ornithological interests soon matured, however, into a primary passion for monitoring his local sites, and their breeding birds in particular. He saw this as of far greater consequence and import than a competitive obsession with listing.

     In spite of Mike's unassuming nature, his ornithological abilities soon came  to the attention of those in ornithological office. He joined the LNHS in 1976.He was engaged by the Society initially as an assistant editor for the London Bird Report in 1982, and shortly after became the recorder for the Essex sector. Similar roles soon followed for the Essex Bird watching Society, for whom he was joint county recorder from 1987 until 2001. These roles saw both Societies through a rapid period of modernization, as recording was computerized to cope with the large rise in records submitted. In addition to his recording and sub-editing roles for the LNHS, Mike took on the chairmanship of the Ornithology Research Committee, the body which co-ordinated bird surveying effort, and also continued to serve on the Records Committee. During this period Mike also contributed many authoritative articles to the London Bird Report.

     Bird surveys were a particular passion for Mike. This led to his co-ordinating survey work for what became the Tetrad Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Essex, published in his name in 1996 and covering intensive survey work carried out between 1988 and 1994 by more than a hundred birders whom Mike had persuaded to take part. He carried out parallel work in London, where he served on the Editorial Advisory Group for the publication in 2002 of The Breeding Birds of the London Area, for which he also served on the Data Handling Group.

     Mike participated in our conference 'The Thames Revisited' in October 2000. His presentation, 'The birds of the Inner Thames an avian highway', was published in The London Naturalist 80, 2001.

     Among Mike's recording legacies was the recognition of  'Metropolitan Essex' a phrase he coined as a recording unit. Originally simply a construct for dividing the LNHS recording area, it became a recording unit attracting a remarkable degree of loyalty among local birders, and a unit around which later groups such as the East London Birders' Forum have based their activities.

     There was, however, much more to Mike than just his ornithology. He was a highly cultured man who was deeply rooted in his community. His father had helped to build the Catholic Church of Corpus Christi in Collier Row, a church in which Mike was later to serve as a minister of the Eucharist and a reader for many years. Mike also spent twenty-five of  his thirty-five teaching years in Collier Row at Mawney Junior School, where he was later to become deputy head. There he was also in charge of the choir, leading them to performances at the Music Festivals at the Queen's Theatre. He was deeply committed to the inspiration of schoolchildren, and even involved his pupils in data input for interim maps for the Tetrad Atlas.

     As well as being active in local charitable work, Mike was also active in local amateur dramatics, even managing successfully to take on a string of comic roles. He also had a long interest in local history, and could keenly explain the origin of local place names and the personalities behind them. Mike also took  much pleasure from classical music, and effectively had a thirty-year season ticket at the annual Proms season. The Last Night was a highlight of his calendar, where he could be spotted promenading as enthusiastically as those half his age. By contrast, a perhaps more surprising passion of  his was Star Trek, where he openly admitted his diagnosis as a 'trekkie'. It was a fitting tribute to the breadth and depth of Mike's personality that his funeral mass opened with verses from Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and closed to the theme tune from Star Trek, while the order of service was decorated with a portrait of a swallow.

     Thanks primarily to his recording role, Mike was known to a large number of London naturalists. My first memory of him was from 1984. While on my half-term break from boarding school in the spring of that year, I found two countersinging wood warblers in Wintry Wood, Epping. I didn't know much at the time, but I did know that that was a significant record and therefore that I needed to tell somebody. I therefore took myself to Epping library, the then equivalent of the internet, and was given the name of Mike to contact. I nervously telephoned him and, instead of the brush-off I expected, I found a kind and interested gentleman who set aside an hour of his time to give me much appreciated hints and tips on birding in the local area. The following year when I went up to university I acquired my first bird report, that for 1984, and within it was my record of two wood warblers, complete with accreditation to my name; It would be hard to underestimate the inspiration that gave me to take part in bird recording in a more systematic way in the years ahead.

     But perhaps the most fitting tribute to Mike came from no less than Bill Oddie, who knew Mike through various of his LNHS activities. In his preface to the Tetrad Atlas, he wrote:


'If you asked me who impresses me more: the latest qualifier for

the 400 Club or the bloke who has been censusing Hainault Forest

and Rainham Marshes for thirty odd years .... Well, it is no contest is it?

And I suspect I know who the birds prefer too.'


     The Society's condolences go to Mike's surviving family, and in particular to his sister Shealagh and her children Barney and Molly. Mike had a close and inspirational bond with Barney and Molly, and it was they, with Shealagh, who cared for him during his final illness. Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time.