180 bird species in an artificial wetland a few years after its
construction in a megacity is not to be sneezed at. [the three story
bird hide complete with lift is an interesting concept]
Wet and wild
The London Wetland Centre is now one of Britain's most important
breeding sites. On its fifth anniversary, Michael McCarthy finds out
how an urban wasteland has been transformed into a bird-lovers' paradise
30 May 2005
Walking along the willow-lined path, you are surrounded by a continuous
chattering and churring sound: the reed warblers are singing. They are
invisible in the dense reed bed, but they seem to be everywhere, making
a remarkable amount of noise for such a small bird. But then, more than
120 pairs of them are breeding.
They are not alone. Seventeen pairs of sedge warblers, their close
relatives, are also nesting in the reeds here, along with about the
same number of pairs of reed buntings, handsome sparrow-sized birds
with black-and-white heads and a short musical call.
Among the phragmites, or common reeds, bird life is booming.
But this is not the Fens. Nor is it the Norfolk Broads. This is the
edge of central London. The floodlights of Fulham Football Club's
Craven Cottage ground are visible a short distance away in one
direction, while the tower block that is the Charing Cross Hospital
stands out in the other. Just a few hundred yards straight ahead is the
fashionable River Café, the epitome of modish urban living.
The burgeoning life of this reed bed is just one feature of the
astonishing London Wetland Centre, a wildlife wilderness area started
five years ago this month. The 105-acre nature reserve in Barnes,
across the Thames from Fulham, now holds birds, mammals, flowers and
insects, and on a scale you would not expect to see at the heart of a
The centre is the brainchild of the wildfowl painter and naturalist Sir
Peter Scott, who died in 1989. The son of the ill-fated Scott of the
Antarctic, Peter Scott was once one of the leading natural history
figures in Britain. He was also a founder of the World Wildlife Fund
(as it then was) in 1961, and set up Britain's best-known reserve for
his special interest, ducks and geese, at Slimbridge on the Severn
His charity, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), underpinned the
founding of wildfowl reserves all around Britain. Each offers
spectacular bird sights to visitors at different times of the year, but
they are generally - by their nature - in fairly remote locations.
Scott's dream was to establish a wetland reserve in London, yet the
opportunity for such a development only arose 15 years ago when four
huge concrete bowls next to the river became available. The Barn Elms
reservoirs were windswept, ugly and bare, their most frequent visitors,
shivering, trout fishermen. The WWT had the vision to see that the area
could become much more - and the drive to make it happen.
The area was not without interest for bird-watchers, and was noted for
its wintering populations of uncommon ducks. In an imaginative deal,
the WWT joined forces with the site's owner, Thames Water, and a
property developer, Berkeley Homes. Thames sold a fifth of the original
125-acre site to Berkeley for luxury housing and leased the remainder
to the trust at a low rent. Berkeley in return provided £11m to break
up the concrete reservoirs.
Between 1996 and 2000 the bowls were converted into an area of lakes,
islands, lagoons, pools, mud flats, streams, marshes and reed beds.
And, after £16m had been spent adding a visitor centre with enormous
plate-glass windows and hi-tech bird hides (one of them is
three-storeys high and is the only one in the world with a lift), The
London Wetland Centre, Barnes, was was opened for business by Sir David
Attenborough on May 25, 2000.
Even before the first visitors came through the gates, it was clear
that Barnes was going to be an extraordinary haven for wildlife.
Lapwings, the beautiful plovers that are disappearing from our shores
quicker than almost any other bird, were already breeding on the
islands, and other declining wading birds - including redshanks and
little ringed plovers - had made the site their own. Reed warblers and
water rails (among the shyest of our wetland birds) had found the newly
planted reed beds, while great crested grebes could be seen displaying
on the water.
The five years since have simply confirmed the reserve's potential, and
its wildlife populations have grown richer and richer. Last year, more
than 180 bird species were recorded (compared with 134 in 2000),
including many fascinating rarities such as bittern, marsh harrier,
bearded tit and Cetti's warbler. About 35 species are breeding
regularly within the reserve's boundaries. In winter there are big
flocks of wild duck such as teal and wigeon.
But that's only the start. The wetlands centre also harbours a thriving
population of water voles, Britain's most rapidly declining mammal. And
there are now about 360 species of plants and wild flowers, 20 of
Britain's 39 species of dragonfly and damselfly (of which 14 or 15 are
thought to be breeding), 22 species of butterfly and six species of
bat. All this barely a mile and a half from the metropolitan hub of
Chance encounters are often highlights of a visit. Last year, people
were able to watch a water rail - a bird most people never get the
chance to see - feeding its chicks next to a path. Herons blithely
carry on fishing within a few yards of the visitors to whom they have
now become habituated. Once, in the space of half an hour, I saw four
birds of prey - a kestrel, sparrowhawk, hobby and peregrine falcon -
On a tour of the site last week with the resident ecologist, Richard
Bullock, it was clear that wildlife is flourishing here to a quite
astonishing degree. The warbler chatter was incessant. Ragged robin, a
beautiful but declining pink flower of ditches and wet meadows was in
resplendent bloom. Green-veined white, holly blue and brimstone
butterflies fluttered among the flowering hawthorn; a sedge warbler
sang in a willow directly above my head. Sand martins, increasingly
rare relatives of the swallow, swooped into nests in a specially
Lapwings and redshanks were sitting on their nests. Up above, a pair of
the former was engaged in an aerial battle with carrion crows who were
after their eggs, while a pair of the latter was engaged in courtship
display. It was uncanny to hear the redshanks' mournful calls, so
redolent to anyone who knows them from lonely marshes and estuaries,
echoing out in SW14.
"I think the last five years have proved just how successful a wetland
site like this can be in a city," Dr Bullock said. "We've had a lot of
interest internationally, especially from Asia and South America. And
it just keeps on growing - new bird and insect species are coming in
all the time. On the wall of the meeting room we have a painting by
Peter Scott of his vision of the site, which he left unfinished at his
death in 1989.
"It shows a large flock of wigeon flying in, with the London skyline in
the background. In one count last winter we counted more wigeon on the
reserve than there are in the picture, so if he's looking down, I would
think that he would be very pleased."
Further information from www.wwt.org.uk
Birding-Aus is now on the Web at
To unsubscribe from this mailing list, send the message 'unsubscribe
birding-aus' (no quotes, no Subject line)