When I told friends that I was leaving the Scottish Highlands to set up an organisation celebrating wildlife in London, there were a few raised eyebrows. Goodbye golden eagles and pine martens, hello rats and pigeons?
Don’t be too hasty to judge London, I said. Since moving back to London in January, I have recorded four species of bird which I have never seen before. London is in fact one of the greenest of all capital cities, and the river Thames currently holds the record as the cleanest city river in the world.
London is a city to be proud of and I want to bring that message to London’s residents and visitors by guiding people through the world of London wildlife.
The fascinating thing about London’s wildlife is that it’s really a story of two sides, a place in which country mouse and city mouse rub shoulders with one another, or sometimes are alternative personalities of the same character. Firstly London’s green spaces; the nature reserves and parks provide some high quality natural habitats and support many of the UK’s most beautiful and iconic species; kingfishers, owls, badgers, orchids… I could go on. But then the city streets, office blocks and refuse tips provide homes to surprisingly adaptable species that have seized upon new opportunities.
London’s Peregrine Falcons nest on skyscrapers rather than cliffs. Gulls have learnt to forage on our rubbish, even exotic gull species are attracted to dining delights of a London rubbish tip. Wild flowers like Shepherds Purse and Herb Robert grow in pavement cracks. To truly appreciate the great diversity and survivalist nature of London’s wildlife, we have to open our minds to the fact that wildlife won’t be encased in designated areas; it gets out, and I’ll bet it’s living near you!
A wonderful example of this which is evident at the moment are swifts. The London Wetland Centre is one of my main go to sites for a bit of countryside time; here you can soon forget you are in the city and observe a diversity of birds usually associated with more remote locations including Lapwing, Redshank, Sand Martins, and a variety of warblers. If you visit the site at the moment, you will witness a sky filled with screaming, soaring swifts.
Swifts migrate to the UK in May from tropical Africa for a short three to four month period in which they breed. They adore the wetland centre because they feed upon flying insects, which are numerous over the water of the site. Swifts need nest sites to breed and that’s where a bit of city mouse behaviour comes in. The swifts that can be seen feeding at the wetland centre are nesting throughout London, in cavities and crevices in our buildings, as they have done since Roman times. Pairs are monogamous and site faithful; one pair may use the same urban nest site for over 15 years. Swifts can feed at a high elevation, above the city pollution, hence swifts are found even in central London.
So do get out there and explore the wonderful green sites of London, admire the plethora of wildlife that can be found within them. But also don’t forget the city mouse, and keep your eyes peeled wherever you are in London for signs of opportunistic and adaptable wildlife.
Brenna Boyle is a wildlife guide and founder of Wild Capital: Discover Wildlife in London
( www.wildcapital.co.uk )