By Solen Le Net
Wildlife is going increasingly urban worldwide; London’s remarkable natural and cultural heritage has earned its reputation as a pioneering green capital. Nature reserves and parks scattered across the city have given a home to a thriving wildlife, offering enough green space to lure species of all kinds into one of the busiest cities in the world.
Some animals come to seek refuge in Richmond, London’s largest Royal Park, that comprises grasslands and variegated patches of forest. Over the past 700 years its landscapes have been sculpted by the erosion that offer an environment predominantly suited to the needs of thriving game and deer. Nevertheless, the wildlife in London isn’t limited to large parks but is embedded deeper within the concrete jungle, where green parakeets perch on the cities trees and pigeons have evolved to become our quasi-companions.
Many of us have had the experience of wandering down the street at dusk to notice a pair of piercing eyes gleaming from a neighbour’s bushes, just when you thought no one was watching. Foxes began making their home in London in 1930s. They were primarily found lurking in grasslands and forests that surround the city but as London’s suburbs stretched out into the countryside during the years between the two world wars, engulfing villages and farms with its expansion, they began to venture deeper into the city. They quickly adapted to the streets and their urban population has grown to an astonishing 33,000. The cunning, adaptable, fast breeders aren’t fussy about what they eat; their adaptability combined with a genius for staying away from humans has made them a perfect urban adapter. They have established a prolific range of habitats enabling them to reside in all corners of the city, from neighbourhood gardens to towering skyscrapers.
Yet foxes aren’t shy of catching the attention of passers-by; one opportunist was spotted boarding an escalator on a Saturday night in Walthamstow central, most probably on its way home to a reasonable curfew. Tristan Donovan, author of Feral Cities: Adventures with the animals in the urban jungle believes that although humans have more recently adopted a benign attitude towards foxes, an element of tension still lingers between us: “People often presume ‘why is the fox here? It must have got lost and come from the countryside’ when actually it’s born here, it grew up here, and it’s only ever really known the city”.
Even though the mammals rarely interact with humans, cases such as the fox stealing a baby from its cot in South London and leaving it short of one finger are quick to trigger concern over our shared proximity with the animals. These elements have manifested into an overall hostile relationship towards the vulpine species. “I think there is a slow dawning over having all these foxes in London; you have to slowly start thinking about things that maybe people in more rural areas would have had to think about 10 or twenty years ago,” adds Donovan.
In 2011 a fox nicknamed Romeo was discovered living in the top floor of the Shard while it was under construction. It was suggested the fox would have had to climb a staggering 71 floors through the building’s main stairwell and an old-fashioned ladder before reaching the top floor, where it was found enjoying scraps of food left behind by builders, and a view worth millions.
In all their shrewdness, red foxes opt for the crisp hours of dawn to prey, avoiding the distraction of humans. Thereafter they retreat to their lodging, having feasted on the neighbourhood’s binned leftovers. London’s biggest resident population, however, remains that of the rat. Luckily the rodents have made a home of our drainage systems and not our houses, but studies suggest they are always within a six-foot distance from us. It should be acknowledged that the city rat is in fact far cleaner than the country rat which is known to transmit an assortment of gruesome diseases.
It’s the plumbing network that acts as a gateway for the rats beneath our city to our homes, providing them with access to our kitchens. This proved problematic in France during the 20th century, when many noticed the pests could climb towering walls and fit through tiny holes to infiltrate their homes. The problem became so severe that the government sent teams of rat-catchers down into the sewers; they eventually resurfaced with thousands of rats at a time. In London, the rodents nest in all corners of the city and continuously contend with new architecture. Rats have a raging libido, and remain pregnant for a mere 21-day period, they are able to produce a total offspring of 20,000 within their lifespan.
Many who travel by tube are oblivious to the fact that the mosquito species preys on commuters.
Another worrying fact that caught my attention whilst reading Donovan’s book, are the “fat monsters” that have evolved in the inner city sewers. These 50 tonne globule masses have formed as a result of all the fat being discarded down the drains in London and have provided a stable platform for the rats to run along the water with the greatest of ease!
When asked which was the most fascinating species he’d encountered in London, Tristan Donovan admits it is his admiration for a species often referred to as rats with wings; the pigeon, that wins the vote. “I know it’s probably not the most interesting species in the eyes of many; you tend to see them all the time. But they are actually fascinating creatures, they’re like Frankenstein’s monsters.”
Donovan argues that pigeons are no longer the natural birds that once used to dart across the country’s skylines; the city pigeon has evolved to live in proximity to humans. “Species like the pigeons are perfect urban adapters and they do best in the city than they do out in the countryside”, adds Donovan. When approached, they will escape but they generally lack fear of humans, they have developed a natural approach towards humans that allows us to live within very close proximity to each other. “If you go to the train station, you’ll find them there just milling around the station quite happily undisturbed by the thousands of commuters rushing around them, they’re fascinating in that way” points out Donovan. They have really adapted well to living within the architecture of London. “They’re amazing in terms of their adaption and that’s what fascinating; we partly created the city pigeon.”
The oriental parakeets that adorn London’s grey skies with bursts of brilliant green come to the surprise of most locals who are used to the sight of pigeons. Many theories arose to explain how the Asian parrot came to make its home in suburbia. One suggests they escaped from the film set of African Queen in Shepperton Studios in 1951. Others prefer to believe it was Jimi Hendrix who freed his pet parakeet from his girlfriend’s London at in 1968, an action emblematic of “peace”. These oriental birds wheel from park to garden, scavenging for seeds. Many have been spotted preening their oriental plumage on the moss-bearded skyline of South London, in particular Peckham, Lewisham and Blackheath.
Foxes quickly adapted to the streets and their urban population has grown to an astonishing 33,000
Esher rugby club is home to London’s biggest parakeet roost. Here, over 3,000 of the birds huddle in the trees surrounding the pitch overnight. At dawn the scene explodes as the birds lift and head South, either alone or in groups. The local desire for their presence has encouraged them to collect seeds from bird feeders in all corners of the city. Although some concerns have arisen regarding the potential threat that parakeets pose to native British wildlife, studies show their populations are increasing by 30 per cent per year, says an Oxford university research project. “We’ll end up treating them like pigeons, they’ll become part of our everyday landscape that we’ll start to think of them as normal” comments Donovan.
Deep in the London underground, stagnant pools of lukewarm water form idyllic conditions for mosquitoes to hatch their eggs. Many who travel by tube are oblivious to the fact that the mosquito species, Culex pipiens molestus, with its lament-thin legs, preys on commuters. The Tube network is in fact where it was rst discovered and where it is still mostly found.
Mosquitoes living above the surface, live within a seasonal context. They feed on bird’s blood to enable their eggs to grow and in a subterranean environment they turn to human and rats for blood. The constant warmth in the subway enables this species to breed all year-round. “Few remember how adaptable some of these species actually are,” shares Donovan. They’ve evolved to become dependent on the unique subterranean living conditions, and remain the only species to have done so worldwide. The mosquito became notorious during the 1939-45 war when they preyed on Londoners seeking refuge from the Blitz in Tube stations. They are still known to bother workers who carry out daily maintenance in the tunnels, while commuters remain oblivious to their presence: “People usually think that the city is a human territory and so therefore any animal that intrudes on them is somehow violating that space” shares Donovan.
Known for their potentially deadly sting, some scorpions have also been found lurking in the London underground. Hanging off the bag of a commuter in the underground during rush hour, a species identied as Centruroides was thought to have travelled into the country through luggage from the Caribbean. The arachnid hitchhikers travel through luggage from tropical destinations abroad. There is a colony known to habitat the northern Coast of Kent.
The Yellow-tailed scorpion was also found in a London home, when a BBC 6 music presenter found one in the room of his 16-year-old daughter. Over a thousand yellow-tailed scorpions have been found in London alone, the vast majority are found on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent, mounting up to a total population of 13,000. They originate from North-West Africa and Southern Europe and could potentially have made their way to England through ships.
Also native to the tropics, yet more threatening, the small edible turtle is recognisable due to the distinct lozenge-patterned shell. Primarily regarded as a friendly creature, it soon came to the attention of ecologists that terrapins posed potential threat to London’s wildlife due to the diseases they were spreading. The turtle originally lived in North American swamps and was brought over to Europe after the demand for pet terrapin spiralled due to a craze over the 80s-90s show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As pets, terrapins were small enough to live within the confined space of a domestic fish bowl, however, once they grew too big, they were released into the wild and thrived in ponds throughout the capital. It soon became apparent that the terrapin was a threat to humans and domestic pets. They were deemed dangerous by ecologists who ordered their removal from London parks in 2014, due to their voracious eating habits, and the fact they were carriers of salmonella.
It is interesting to consider which wildlife will adapt to urban cities going forward as a result of climate change and the introduction of more green park zones. Badgers and wild boar (which are nearly as common in Berlin as foxes are in London) will be among the new arrivals according to Donovan: “Wild boar have just been reintro- duced into the British countryside; it won’t be surpris- ing to see them moving into the city as they have done in Germany”. The insect population will also probably change as the climate gets hotter, we’ll probably start seeing more insects associated with Spain or the south of France, they’ll start moving into cities generally in the south of England.”
Perhaps the most remarkable species to have been sighted in the UK so far is the most dangerous shark in the world, The Great White. Ecologists are surprised there are not more around as the conditions in this country are ideal. It may just be a matter of time before they nd their way down the river Thames in central London, as did a confused northern bottlenose whale in 2006. It is likely that the future will see more wildlife live within human dominated ecosystems, “Slowly but surely we’ll probably get more used to sharing the urban environment with animals,” hopes Donovan.
Illustrations by Jae Wilkinson