London, for all its charms, can be demanding. Consequently, Londoners have
always tried to create quiet green spaces, even if in the past it might only
have been a few pots of sweet scented mignonette perched on a windowsill or ivy
climbing up a shady courtyard.
Nature is appreciated intently by city dwellers.
A painted lady butterfly fluttering
down York Street seems both rare and beautiful against the brickwork; more so
than one seen in the depths of the countryside. Perhaps because of its
proximity to the parks, or because so many Marylebone residents lovingly tend
their plants, the area contains an astonishing amount of wildlife.
falls on a May evening I’ve seen pipistrelle bats flitting between the trees in
Paddington Street Gardens and swooping for insects near Montagu Mansions. The
area is full of birds, from wrens and robins to great tits and
Black birds trill to
passers by in Weymouth Street and few could ignore the peregrine falcons when
they took to nesting on top of the University of Westminster building.
They’ve since moved on to the City, but
a specially designed nest box has been set up in the hope that their offspring
At night, I’ve even
seen a dapper fox trotting across St Mary’s precinct and disappearing into
survival of wildlife in our urban environment is fragile, as illustrated by the
collapse of London house sparrows and the declining numbers of visiting house
martins and swifts.
have lived alongside Londoners for nearly 2,000 years. There is much
speculation about how and why such things happen, but a coordinated approach to
nurturing greater natural diversity in London has begun. It started when
Britain signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992.
The UK Biodiveristy Action Plan
followed in 1994, which outlined plans for protection of species and habitats.
As a result, Westminster City Council published
its Nature Conservation Strategy in 1995, which evolved into The Westminster
Biodiversity Partnership in 1998.
This ensures that a wide variety of wildlife organisations co-ordinate
initiatives to help London become a haven for everything from tawny owls and
hedgehogs to nectar-feeding buttoned snout moths and bumblebees.
might seem a bit far-fetched to the hardened urbanite, but surprisingly,
Marylebone residents can do all sorts of things to help encourage greater
biodiversity. The simple act of adding an extra window box, filled with a range
of scented, single (as opposed to double) flowers, for example, makes a
The right flowers
nurture insects, which are essential to ensure a healthy food supply for birds
and bats. Single flowers have much more nectar than double flowers.
Pale flowers, like night-scented
blossoms, will attract insects at dusk, which is perfect for hungry bats so you
can’t go wrong with pale lemon wallflowers, white stocks or creamy pink sweet
One small pipistrelle
can eat around 3,000 midges, mosquitoes and other small flies in a single
flowers, such as snapdragons, lavender, rosemary and scabiouses will attract
bumblebees, while hoverflies love tagetes and lobelias.
And no small white butterfly can resist
laying its eggs on nasturtium leaves – which I admit can be slightly annoying –
but insecticides, even organic ones, defeat the whole purpose of trying to
encourage more wildlife. You can always get extra help with lady birds and
lacewings as their rather unprepossessing larvae love eating greenfly and
I am as
sceptical as the next Londoner, but I have to admit that as the birdlife has
increased in our miniscule shady garden, encouraged by a year round RSPB bird
feeder, so irritants such as vine weevils and snails have declined.
And the more blue tits, great tits,
robins and blackbirds that chirrup in your ivy and maples, the more other birds
will arrive to check out what’s going on - from wrens to greenfinches.
Add a source of water, don’t bother to
tidy up any leaves on your beds or pots in the autumn, and both insects and
birds will be happy.
extremely lucky in Marylebone in that we live between Regent’s Park and Hyde
Park, two of the city’s great reservoirs of wildlife.
At dusk you can often see waterfowl or a solitary heron
flying across the rooftops between the parks.
If you live near to Regent’s Park, you may even catch the
haunting hoot of a tawny owl.
These are one of the once common London species that Westminster City
Council has targeted to try to reverse their decline.
Stacey Cougill, Westminster’s biodiversity project manager,
suggested that I spoke to Tony Duckett, Regent’s Park wildlife officer, to gain
a greater understanding.
years, the park has had a single breeding pair, in the north west corner but,
Duckett explains, “last
year, we had a second pair breeding and for the first time in nearly 30 years
they were breeding in the centre of the park”.
This is wonderful news in itself, but as the delighted Mr
Duckett goes on to say, “we have also had a pair of little owls breeding for
the last three years”.
He has kept
the location secret and has had to protect them from various human hazards.
Getting a balance between the demands
of nature and the public is not always easy. Owls, like woodpeckers, love trees
riddled with crevices and hollows, which is a dilemma for the park tree
surgeons as hollow branches could potentially fall on a passing visitor.
perfect world, I suspect that Mr Duckett would turn more of the park over to
wild meadows, rich in insects and seeds, as well as plant more reed beds and
native trees such as slow-growing oaks. One glance at Mr Duckett’s blog and you
will understand why.
many walkers, Regent’s Park has everything from kingfishers, willow warblers
and large red damselflies to great spotted woodpeckers, common blue butterflies
His blog’s list and
photos of sightings is enormous, although it doesn’t contain sparrows, another
of Westminster’s targeted species
out that tawny owls are very partial to sparrows, so when the sparrows
disappeared, a major food source went too.
London Zoo still has a couple of small colonies of London
house sparrows, as does a site in Primrose Hill, but at the moment, they show
no sign of expanding out into the park, let alone Marylebone. The current
approach seems to be to try and recreate suitable sites and food sources and
let nature take its course.
Sparrows like lots of native plants, climbers and prickly things like
hawthorn and holly, so if you’re planting, add the odd dogwood, clambering rose
or honeysuckle, while berberis and broom will thrive on a sunny roof terrace.
occurred to me, being of a somewhat dreamy disposition, that perhaps we should
regard Marylebone from a bird’s perspective. After all, rather than see a few
long tailed tits occasionally fluttering over the roofs, I’d love to see them
From an aerial perspective,
we have a few green corridors between the two Royal parks, such as along the
recently planted Harley Street, and some verdant islands such as the garden
squares and Paddington Street Gardens.
Clearly, the more trees we plant, the greater the potential for
wildlife. Time to talk to Julian Maslinski, Chairman of Westminster Tree
never seen so much enthusiasm from residents and businesses for planting more
trees as in the last few years” he says. “They can really change an area.”
Trees improve the air quality, muffle
noise, moderate extreme temperatures and support bird and insect life, but as
Mark Gazaleh discovered after he organized the planting of 40 trees in Hallam
Street, they also discourage anti-social behaviour and calm speeding traffic.
Marylebone tree planting is entering an interesting period as Mr Maslinski
Council has to see more trees planted, but they also have to protect the
of this process they consult with SIRG - the Street Improvement Review Group,
who has recently published draft guidelines that state the tree planting in
Marylebone should be approached with ‘Caution’ as they feel that ‘trees are
generally not appropriate in this townscape area’.
SIRG argue that trees were not originally intended in our
streets and that they would obscure interesting architectural features. “My
response is that in the days of building these great Georgian and Victorian
estates, London was so polluted by coal smoke that no indigenous British trees
would have survived the atmosphere” says Mr Maslinski. “The only trees that
were available to designers were London Plane Trees.
These shed their sooty bark periodically and therefore
wouldn’t die, but as they live up to 250 years and grow to 250 feet, they couldn’t
possibly be planted in relatively narrow streets. Had they had Chanticleer Pear
trees, with their shallow, lateral roots and upright growth, I’m sure they
would have used them.”
Maslinski believes that residents still have considerable influence about where
trees are planted, and that perseverance really does pay.
He recommends that anyone who wants
trees locally, should first contact Paul Akers, WCC’s arboricultural manager,
to see if they’re feasible. Then to be most effective, they should get the
support of other local residents and businesses, contact Westminster Tree Trust
for help and some funding and, if possible, get their local councilors
involved. This is exactly what Mark Gazaleh did for Hallam Street when he set
up the W1W Tree Planting Initiative- firstname.lastname@example.org“The response has been great from
residents associations and local businesses, we raised a third of the money
ourselves,” says Mr Gazaleh.
followed on with tree planting in Great Portland Street and is now trying hard
to get green corridors to link East Marylebone to the High Street via Weymouth
Street, New Cavendish Street and Devonshire Street.
I suspect that he is going to have to embark on some serious
lobbying after SIRG’s draft report, but if there is one thing that draws a
community together, it’s trying to get trees planted.
Cougill, meanwhile, has her work cut out for her.
Trees and green roofs are one thing - Westminster is
actively encouraging green roofs in Marylebone, and the Howard de Walden Estate
already has one at its 4 Bentick Street office development - but bat roosts and
buttoned snout moths are another thing altogether.
Buildings are becoming increasingly less suitable for bats
and she needs people to create bat friendly environments. The Bat Conservation
Trust has lots of useful information on encouraging bats into your area, and
you’re bound to be smitten after accompanying the London Bat Group on one of
their Big Batty Walks.
As to the
endangered buttoned snout moth, well, it needs us to grow hop plants for its
larvae – golden, garden or wild, it doesn’t matter.
I should perhaps add that garden moths, aside from being
beautiful in a quiet way, are also very different from house moths. Their larvae
like munching tender young leaves, not winter knitwear, so no worries about
helping them. There was a time when every London pub had hops growing outside
Perhaps we should revive
such a refreshing tradition?
why’ll you sipping a well-earned beer, hopefully under a shady hop, remember
that there is something else that Stacey Cougill would love you to do, and that
is to record observations of what species you see and where, then submit them
to Greenspace Information for Greater London, as this will help them plan the
long term management of our wildlife.