London as a Wildlife Destination

Part One. Top three wildlife sites

2 FEBRUARY 2017,
View of London with City © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
View of London with City © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

London is surprisingly rich for wildlife and provides a network of fantastic nature reserves with superb visitor infrastructure for birders and wildlife photographers. In November 2016, I delivered the talk at the AGM of the London Bird Club (of which I am presently the Chair) on the theme of branding London as a wildlife destination and developing commercial wildlife tourism with a London focus in much the same way as ‘foreign’ destinations are promoted. I will expand on this in the final part of this four part series of articles. The purpose of the first three parts of this series of articles is to provide a convenient guide to visitors to London who are interested in wildlife. I want to make the point that even a business visitor who has half a day to spare may be able to spend some rewarding time in a nature reserve. Visitors with more time to spare will find that they can spend a few days in London combining its other attractions with daylight hours spent on productive birding and or wildlife photography. In fact, it surprises me that none of the larger tour operators, offer London as a wildlife destination combined with its arts and culture.

About 45% of London is green space or open water. In the heart of Central London, participants in nature walks organised by the London Natural History Society (LNHS) look for Tawny Owls and Green Woodpeckers. The LNHS, London Wildlife Trust (LWT) and other London-centric nature organisations have something on almost every week. They welcome non-members at their indoor events (talks, workshops, etc.) and nature walks and coach trips. It is worth checking their programmes on their websites. Visiting photographers may find some of the day trips by coach especially useful. These will take you out of London, usually within a 3-hour drive radius. They make it very time-efficient to reach some of Britain’s top nature reserves in Southern Britain in the company of experts. The LNHS, Marylebone Birdwatching Society and the RSPB Central London Members Group operate coach trips.

In the Greater London area there are dozens of nature reserves of various sizes. The LWT alone manages over 40 nature reserves. Many of the formal parks are also increasingly managed to have small wild areas to encourage native wildlife. The LNHS, LWT and various local authorities have nature events in these reserves. It is worth signing up to social media if you are visiting London. I have provided details at the end.

These notes, especially on access are written with visitors in mind. Although I especially have foreign visitors in mind, those living in mainland Britain who are not very familiar with London may find this series of articles equally useful. In fact, many Londoners are not aware of how rich London and its environs are for wildlife.

The problem visitors to London face is not the lack of nature reserves and activities but which ones they should focus on, for the combination of wildlife and visitor facilities. I have therefore focussed on just a few, which are selected on the basis of the following criteria.

• Very good for a mix of wildlife
• Easy to reach with public transport
• Very good visitor facilities
• Oriented to photographers and bird watchers

Top three wildlife sites

My top three sites are based on the criteria listed above. This is a personal selection and others who live in London will have their own favourites. It is advisable to check online for up-to-date details. The details provided below are correct at the time of writing, but can change and should only be used as a guideline.

London Wetland Centre

Being a Londoner, I admit I may be biased. Nevertheless, I am inclined to think that in a temperate country, the London Wetland Centre is hard to beat for its combination of visitor facilities, matrix of habitats and bird hides. The Tower Hide is heated and has a glass front which is three storeys high. The café is never more than 10 minutes away. Even in cold, wet weather, the excellent visitor facilities make being out here a good experience. In good weather it is just magic. In winter, good numbers of migratory waterfowl are present. In Spring the breeding birds are in full song and flowers are coming out. In Summer, butterflies, dragonflies, birds and plants in flower make a visit here very rewarding. Even reptiles put in an appearance and Common Lizards can be seen basking. A number of nature walks run throughout the year. In summer, special bat walks using bat detectors are run in the evenings.

Entry: Admission charge for non WWT members. Summer opening time - from 1 March until October 31. 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. (last admission 4.30 p.m.). Winter opening time - from 1 November until February 28 (or 29 when relevant).9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. (last admission 3.30 p.m.).

Visitor Facilities: Car parking and toilets. A big indoor café with a choice of food. Hot meals, sandwiches and a selection of hot and cold drinks. In summer an additional outdoor café is opened. The visitor centre has a big shop with souvenirs and books. There is also a separate retail outlet of ‘in focus’ who specialise in optics. The visitor centre is best in class as far as nature reserves go.

Getting there: District and Piccadilly lines on the London Underground run frequently to Hammersmith. From the bus station (sign posted at the tube station) take a 33, 72 or 209 and alight at the Red Lion bus stop, approximately 150 metres walk from the wetland centre. These buses are frequent and you should get a bus within 10 minutes.

The 485 takes you directly to the centre but is infrequent and does not operate on Sundays and public holidays.

Walking from Hammersmith: From the Hammersmith tube station you can walk to the south bank of the River Thames across Hammersmith bridge (about 10 minutes plus) and walk along the Thames Tow Path to the centre. On a nice day, this may be something for visitors to attempt, although it would help to have a map or a smartphone map. The walk will take about 30 minutes plus. If you have a lot of gear, it may be more comfortable to wait for a bus.

Continues on the 17th of February...