Many Happy Returns

If you go down to Barnes today you're in for a big surprise. The sterile concrete of a former reservoir has been turned into a world renowned haven for birds and wildlife. Bridget Nicholls wises a happy fifth birthday to the London Wetland Centre

It was the Faust -scribing polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, ‘There are two things children should get from their parents – roots and wings’. My parents took this literally. I first joined the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) at the tender age of seven. I was one of the young volunteers who turned up each weekend at the Arundel centre to plant trees, clean hides, take bird counts, crawl on my belly in mud looking for elephant hawk moths and generally have a wild life.

The kind of kids who were into nature was always a constant surprise. One of the group, who was arguably the best birder around, was a troublesome boy from my school. He eventually got expelled for arson but still religiously turned up to WWT for his nature sessions, often running a ‘book’ on who would see the most birds in a day (invariably himself). He also eagerly attended the most memorable event of my young life – being beamed up to the mother ship in Slimbridge and asked to tea with Sir Peter Scott and his wife Phillipa. The Scotts showed us Swan Lake, not the ballet, but the lake at WWT Slimbridge where they knew what seemed like hundreds of Bewick swans by name – their beaks being thumbprints to their identity. That was also the year I won the booby prize for the birder quiz. It was a signed copy of Peter Scott’s three volume Travel Diaries of a Naturalist, and ‘Every Loser Wins’ – that great Nick Berry/ Eastenders tune – sang out to me back in the 1980s as I was receiving my prize.

Home from home
So, as a rite of passage when I moved to London, I volunteered at the newly opened London Wetland Centre (LWC).

When Thames Water, London’s main public water supplier, built a ring main around the capital it did away with the need for reservoirs like those at Barn Elms in south west London. And so The London Wetland Centre was born – out of the quartered, concrete-lined, disused reservoirs that had supplied Londoners with drinking water since the 1890s. Luckily, the Barn Elms reservoirs were protected by law as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on account of the diving ducks they attracted; and luckily Sir Peter Scott had big ideas for them.

Sir Peter Scott, son of Scott of the Antarctic was, like Goethe, a bit of a polymath. He was a painter, Olympic athlete, writer, war hero and conservationist, who founded The Wildfowl Trust (later the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) on the banks of the River Severn at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire in 1946. He also founded the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Sir Peter had a very clear vision for the WWT – ‘to save wetlands for wildlife and people’. By the late 1980s he had created eight wetland centres around the UK from flooded fens to extensive estuaries. These centres encouraged people to travel and experience wildlife first hand and in doing so created a well-loved UK environmental charity.

Bringing wildlife to the city
But Peter had different ideas for the 43 hectare (105 acre) concrete lined reservoirs in Barnes. He wanted to create an environment that would attract wildlife to the city and its dwellers. In the capital, a wetland centre would be a postcard of sustainability to the rest of the world, a Pied Piper for a new type of conservation experience with power to influence politically and socially… and it would cost £16 million to realise.

To create such a rich ‘wetlands playground’ of grazing marshes, reedbeds, ponds, pools and open water out of reservoirs – WWT entered into partnership with Thames Water. Due to an old enabling Act of Parliament, 20 acres of an adjacent brownfield site were sold to the third member of the triumvirate, property developers Berkley Homes. They then built luxury housing along the Barnes banks, for which the WWT received £11 million and a further £5 million was raised by the three parties. The development of the London Wetland Centre could begin.

The concrete lining was broken up and recycled as a car park, paths and reefs for breeding fish. Having then exposed the underlying clay, 30 different wetland habitats were designed with different species in mind – shingle islands for little-ringed plover and wet grassland for the likes of snipe and redshank. Sluice gates were also put into play so that the water levels could be raised or lowered seasonally for the winter fowl that dabble in the marshes and scrapes. Because of a ‘no soil or spoil’ restriction, 500,000 cubic metres of six different soil types had to be sorted and re-mixed. At one point, after three spoil heap moves, an unexploded World War 2 bomb was unearthed. In total it took 10 years before the London gates were finally opened.

Mission accomplished
So, did all this hard work, money and planning achieve what it set out to do? Did it give back the original city wetlands for wildlife and people?

Malcolm Whitehead, head of learning at WWT, says yes, it has done what it said it would on its recycled label and one only has to wander around the London Wetland Centre to see how much it has accomplished. ‘Bird species have increased from 110 in 1996 to 182 in 2004. This includes the nearest wintering bitterns and breeding lapwings to central London for decades – possibly a century or more,’ says Whitehead.

‘Little-ringed plover and redshank breed alongside the lapwing, while numerous passerines make use of the reed and scrub habitats. In 2004 more than 120 breeding pairs of reed warbler (compared to five pairs in 1997), 17 pairs of sedge warbler, 16 pairs of reed bunting, nine pairs of blackcap and five pairs of whitethroat were recorded – not to mention the blackbirds, robins, starlings, pied wagtails and tits.

‘Dragon- and damselfly species have similarly increased from 12 (seven breeding) in 1996, to 17 (14 breeding) in 2004.

‘There are about 400 species of butterflies and moths, frogs and fish galore and seven bat species (the most recent addition being Leisler’s bat), making the centre among the top five per cent of London bat sites. The threatened water vole – ‘Ratty’ of Wind in the Willows – has been introduced, as have slowworms, and both are thriving.’

In 2001 the LWC won the Tourism for Tomorrow Global Award for sustainable eco-tourism, and more and more visitors enjoy the experience each year. This year 170,000 visitors are expected and, of these, students of Greater London state schools visit free as part of a sponsorship from the Mayor of London.

According to Ramsar (the organisation set up in Iran in 1979 to protect the World Wetlands, and of which the WWT is a founder member), wetlands play a vital role in the water cycle, from purifying water, capturing and holding rainfall and snow melt, to retaining sediment. Yet, in the 20th Century we destroyed 50 per cent of the world’s remaining wetlands. We have physically modified others with dams and canals, which has significantly fragmented and altered water flow in 60 per cent of the world’s largest rivers, often compromising the many valuable ecosystems on which we depend.

Education on a global scale
The London Wetland Centre was the first of its kind and has amazing potential to teach the world how to construct wetlands in an urban environment.

As Miguel de Cervantes said, ‘Truth may be stretched, but cannot be broken, and always gets above falsehood, as does oil above water.’ The quest for oil is far and above the quest to sustain clean water. However, if my dream was realised, those roles would be reversed and the London Wetland Centre, with its truthful prototype, will start making even more headway on the world’s stage – having already directly influenced new wetland centre developments in America, Hong Kong, South Korea and Australia, to name a few.

Back in the days of the Egyptians, who were a knowing bunch, a walk in nature was prescribed as a cure for the mad. It therefore probably comes as no surprise that, as a city dweller, I have often been found wandering among the wildlife at the London Wetland Centre enjoying this over-the-counter remedy. After five years of repeat prescriptions, I can safely say that this treatment has cured me of numerous maladies and permanently tempered my moribund ways. From taking bat walks to meeting perspective young birders to observing grass snake monitoring, there’s always so much more going on in the bushes and among the reedbeds than you could imagine.

This unique urban oasis also gives city parents an opportunity to give their city children those vital ‘roots and wings’. It is on the London Wetland Centre’s fifth birthday year that I pay tribute to its achievements and the tireless efforts of its staff and some 150 strong volunteers. I look forward to the next five years and seeing it grow as an organisation on the world’s stage – a micro drop-in centre for the world’s wetlands.

• Bridget Nicholls is a broadcaster, writer and naturalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2005