Barn Elms by Sir Peter Scott; finishing touches by Keith Shackleton, September 1989

Fly Away Home

5th November 2010

The last painting by Sir Peter Scott – naturalist, artist and founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) – was of waterfowl flying over reed beds of the Thames at Barnes, the towers of Hammersmith a not very distant backdrop. It was an imagined view of how the area, occupied at the time by four reservoirs, could look if converted into a sanctuary for wetland wildlife.

In 1989, the year he died, Scott approached Thames Water to explain his vision. The bulldozers moved in six years later, the four concrete-edged reservoirs were broken up, and the land resculpted into around thirty wetland habitats stretching over 105 acres. Now one of nine such sites owned by the WWT around Britain, the London Wetland Centre officially opened in 2000. Visiting it today, with the pathways verged by dense vegetation, it’s easy to overlook the extent of the transformation.

“A lot of people think the place always looked like this, and that the Trust just moved in when Thames Water moved out,” says Catherine Starling, the Centre’s manager of press and marketing. “There are some 27,000 trees here, and over 300,000 plants, and it looks beautifully mature now. But it has all been planted. When the area was just reservoirs, it did attract wintering gadwall and shoveler ducks, but there was nothing like this extent of reeds beds and wading marshes, and nothing like the bird numbers.”
The feeling you get when entering the Reserve is broadly akin to that you experience in visiting Kew Gardens, a little west up river. Moments before, I was walking along Rocks Lane which, while close to the tranquil, and still rural-seeming, Barnes Common, is standard urban London. A few minutes on, crossing the bridge, you’re in Hammersmith. But at the Wetland Centre, as at Kew, it feels as if you’ve entered a mini-Eden, even if the attractions are not majestic trees or monstrous tropical plants, but birds free to come and go as they please.

And come they certainly do. In the last decade, 222 species have been recorded on the mix of mudflats, marshes and grazing meadows, with 180 recorded in 2004 alone, and 47 species now staying on to breed. Standing in one of the observatory towers with reserve manager Adam Salmon, we look out across the main lake as a grey wagtail flits past a group of Shovelers. The males among the latter occasionally obscure their beautiful green and chestnut plumage by tipping their bodies forwards like upended boats, to search for food beneath the water. On a raised ‘island’ are some lapwings, their weirdly adenoidal cries occasionally heard above the raucous chatter of the ducks. Lapwings are birds much associated with farmland, and the colony here is the first to have bred so near to the centre of London for perhaps a century or more.

The elusive Bittern © James Lees

I’ve timed my visit for late October and already the first bittern – one of the Centre’s proudest calling cards – has arrived, two weeks early, leading some people to ponder whether it heralds a cold winter. “It is odd,” agrees Adam. “We’ve had easterly winds for some time now. We believe the bitterns overwintering here fly in from the Netherlands. We’ve also seen white-fronted geese flying over as a result of the easterlies, and the winter thrushes – fieldfares and redwing – have already been coming in.”

Bitterns are a sanctified creature in bird conservation terms. Confined almost entirely to the reedbeds of East Anglia by the 1980s, thanks to past persecution and ‘efficient’ agricultural drainage of wet areas, they’ve made a slight comeback from those dark days when they were down to barely 30 breeding pairs in Britain. However, their reclusiveness means that they still draw big crowds of enthusiasts, just to watch them sitting motionless in the reed beds that fringe the lake. Last year, one male was heard issuing its ‘booming’ call, a strange noise which, although not loud, is immensely far-carrying. “We thought it might be a prelude to breeding, but probably the reed beds here are not quite large enough,” says Adam, adding that the best time to see them is early in the day or at the end of it, when the birds fly between their roosts and lakeside feeding places.

Birds that live on or near water in general have a tough time of it, and a lot of care is put into seeing that the habitats here meet the precise requirements of individual species. Explains Adam: “The main lake is no more than nine metres deep, otherwise it would not be suitable for the shovelers and gadwalls. Redshank and godwits won’t bother visiting if we don’t have enough mud. Snipe need tall vegetation before they feel confident enough to feed, but widgeon – who’ve only got little legs – wouldn’t want the sward growing higher than 10cm in the grazing meadows. In summer, little ringed plovers need shingle to lay their eggs.”

Of course, if your bird identification skills aren’t that hot, many of these finer points will glide over your head. To enable you to get full value from a visit, it’s worth joining one of the free tours (no need to book in advance) that run twice daily, around 11 am and 2pm. I caught up with one headed by the entertainingly anecdotal Mike Springate, as he led a small party around the World Wetlands area, which has mini examples of water bird habitats from around the world, from Asian swamps to North American lakes. There are Eurasian cranes, and Egyptian and nene geese – the latter a special Peter Scott favourite – and eider ducks. But most ravishing of all is the male Carolina duck – an absolute stunner. ”All the birds in this part of the Reserve are bred in this country, so they are used to our temperatures,” says Mike, “although they do get a bit puzzled when there is ice hanging off the roofs.”

There’s even a water vole trail here. “You certainly don’t want to come back in the next life as a water vole,” Mike quips. “They have an 86% mortality rate, they don’t like the cold, and everything likes them for breakfast.” In fact, they are the UK’s most endangered mammal, but they have been reintroduced in healthy enough numbers here at Barnes, and many other forms of wildlife – dragonflies, and various forms of reptiles and amphibians – are thriving too.

Perhaps the only drawback, again as at Kew, is the intermittent drone of passenger aircraft heading in and out of Heathrow. The birds seem to take no notice. In fact, as Sir David Attenborough, who launched the tenth anniversary celebrations, once said of the place, it is “the ideal model for how humankind and the natural world can live side by side in the 21st century.”

Details: www.wwt.org.uk/london

Telephone: 020 8409 4400

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