Nature Resilient

2nd January 2015

The long running New Naturalist series, seventy years old this year, has just published its 127th volume. It’s up to the standard of its eminent predecessors, says Jack Watkins

In comparison to the founding of the National Health Service, the nationalisation of public utilities, and the embarkation on a massive house building programme, the arrival of a new series of nature books might seem like one of the least epochal events of the immediate post-war period, when everyone was hell-bent on rebuilding a shattered kingdom after the cessation of hostilities. Yet, in a small way, the concept of the New Naturalist volumes, which celebrate their seventieth anniversary in 2015, was an apt metaphor for the green shoots of recovery. And they certainly got it absolutely right in their choice of one of first of the three books to emerge in 1945, London’s Natural History, by Richard Fitter. The imagery of nature resilient and thriving amidst the bomb craters could hardly have been more moving.

It may not simply be a happy coincidence that the latest addition to the series – number 127 in a distinguished line – is David Goode’s Nature in Towns and Cities, the first title to concentrate on urban terrain since Fitter’s tome. Once again, it’s timely. Nature in built-up areas is still doing better than you might expect, and there is immense enthusiasm in certain corners for engaging with wildlife in town. Yet the need to engage the attention of the wider public – to get it to lift an eye from the plethora of digital distractions, or to step out from behind the car steering wheel – is more pressing than ever. We may still be ‘rebuilding the economy’ after all these years, but it’s important that we find space for nature.

This is not a preachy book, however. Mr Goode is an ecologist who has written numerous serious papers on the subject, but here he manages to communicate sheer joy at the diversity of nature to be found in a British metropolis. In a tiny domestic garden in Bath, where he now lives, forty-four species of birds have been counted. In London, peregrine falcons, once a bird of countryside, are now known to roost on the Tate Modern building at Bankside. When the RSPB set up a viewing platform to watch the nesting pair, it attracted an estimated crowd of 40,000 people.

Some people like to get a lot closer to birds than that, though. One of the sweetest sections of the book concerns those kindly souls who make it a regular chore to go and feeds the birds in London’s parks. John Jones, known as ‘JJ’, makes the daily journey by tube from East London to feed the jays, one of our most colourful native birds, in St James’s Park. They wait for him as he enters the gate, and one of the birds has become so bold it will land on his hand to take his favourite almonds. “I don’t know of any other place where jays have become so tame,” writes Goode. At Regent’s Park, meanwhile, it’s the herons who wait to be fed by two ladies who come at different times, to the extent that another lady, who prefers dishing out the goodies to the moorhens and coots, complains that “there are far too many herons.”

Another bird some people think there are too many of is that so-called ‘sky-rat’, the town pigeon, but they are also well-loved, Goode reminds us. It was Richard Fitter in 1945 who pointed out how well adapted the pigeons were to living in the ‘architectural canyons’ of the metropolis. They treat high buildings like cliffs, and make forays down to the streets and park benches to forage, much like wild doves nesting in sea cliffs, who fly out to feed in nearby arable fields. Seventy years on, these are good times to be a town pigeon, muses Goode. “Nowadays, their diet is far more diverse, reflecting the international nature of fast food outlets. With chapattis, paninis, pizzas and tortilla wraps they have never had it so good.”

No matter how great the urban squeeze, then, some wild creatures find a way through. Then there are the newcomers, like the parakeets, unheard of in Fitter’s London, and the delightful little pied wagtails, now a frequent sight in certain town precincts and car parks, endlessly flicking their tails.

What, though, of the old pockets of countryside caught in the enveloping web? London’s woods stopped being managed for timber well before 1945, and as a result their dense tree canopies shut out the light, meaning woodland flora is much reduced. High visitor pressures, as at Highgate Wood, result in soil compaction, placing stress on the older trees. However, since the 1980s there has been a move by the London Wildlife Trust and the London boroughs to manage pockets of woodland, which would otherwise have been swallowed up for development, as nature reserves.

London’s hay meadows have done rather better, again with the London Wildlife Trust doing an excellent job, though you need to travel to Salisbury to see the finest example, where the water meadows overlooked by the cathedral and painted by Constable, have been grazed by sheep since Roman times.

Sheep still roamed the commons of Hampstead Heath as late as the 1940s, which must rank as one of the earliest portions of countryside to be the subject of a national conservation campaign, in the 1860s. Incredibly, as late as the 1920s, there were plans to break it up for housing estates on its northern heights at Kenwood House. The ancient woods at Kenwood now contain many veteran trees providing a home for rare invertebrates, and you can still make out the hedge lines of the old farms on some parts of the Heath, and its extension down the hill at Golders Green. Other precious, preserved London commons and heaths discussed in the book include Wimbledon, Barnes and Putney.

There is also a fascinating chapter showing how Victorian and old industrial sites – cemeteries, canals, railway sidings, and docklands – left derelict as human requirements moved on, have found new value as wildlife havens. And attention is given to the future, with green roofs, living walls, and rain gardens cited as examples of ecological architecture. Anyone keen to get involved with wildlife at a group or individual level, but wondering where to start, should read the chapter Connecting with Nature.

This could so easily have been a dry account, of interest only to ecologists, but it isn’t. It’s a book of hope and delight. One of the greatest nature writers, Edward Thomas, in his book In Pursuit of Spring wrote of wildflowers, the remnants of bygone meadows, poking up through the cracks in London pavements, little pockets of happiness and freedom for Thomas amidst the awful claustrophobia of town life and the daily dirge. That was one hundred years ago. Since then, things have got even tougher for urban Nature, but just as in 1945, you get the feeling it will, somehow, pull though.

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