Call of the wild

Living in 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.  


As dusk 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 greenfinches.   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 will return.   At night, I’ve even seen a dapper fox trotting across St Mary’s precinct and disappearing into Bryanston Square.


Yet the 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.   Such creatures 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.


This 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 difference.   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 Williams.   One small pipistrelle can eat around 3,000 midges, mosquitoes and other small flies in a single night.  


Other 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 blackfly.


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.  


We are 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.


For years, the park has had a single breeding pair, in the north west corner but, as Mr   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.  


In a 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.   Unnoticed by many walkers, Regent’s Park has everything from kingfishers, willow warblers and large red damselflies to great spotted woodpeckers, common blue butterflies and hedgehogs.   His blog’s list and photos of sightings is enormous, although it doesn’t contain sparrows, another of Westminster’s targeted species


It turns 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.


It 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 everyday.   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 Trust.  


“I’ve 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.


However, Marylebone tree planting is entering an interesting period as Mr Maslinski explains.   “Westminster City Council has to see more trees planted, but they also have to protect the architectural heritage.”   As part 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.”


Mr 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-    “The response has been great from residents associations and local businesses, we raised a third of the money ourselves,” says Mr Gazaleh.   He 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.


Stacey 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 its door.   Perhaps we should revive such a refreshing tradition?


And 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.  



Information on encouraging insects


Tony Duckett’s blog

Westminster Tree Trust


W1W Tree Planting Initiative

Bat Conservation Trust


London Bat Group


Greenspace Information for Greater London


This article first appeared in the Marylebone Journal, May 2010.
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