A dust-up with the Scrubbers

Councils may cast a greedy eye on London scrublands, but they are havens for animals and humans alike.
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We could not believe it was a lesser whitethroat. Not that the bird is that uncommon in southern England during the summer, just that it is an unexpected visitor to an urban space such as Wormwood Scrubs. A few days later, the arrival of the paparazzi of ornithology, all hung with long-lens cameras and binoculars, confirmed our identification: true twitchers usually don't turn out for anything that can't be put in the record book.

Of course, it wasn't such a surprise to those of us who daily walk our dogs on the Scrubs - the many other users, of whom more later, are generally immersed in the kind of activities that preclude noticing anything less extraordinary than a stray ostrich. I have seen long-tailed tits, chiffchaffs and willow warblers, whole charms of finches; great spotted woodpeckers and yaffles (the green ones). I once met a lesser David Attenborough - no less essential to the diversity of his particular species for his drabber plumage - waiting in a copse to film a bullfinch. He was there for hours, but his patience was rewarded.

You don't have to be any kind of a bird-watcher to appreciate the wilderness of the Scrubs. This superficially unprepossessing heath in west London, bordered by main road, hospital-prison complex, and Eurostar terminus, is home to wild flowers galore: meadow crane's-bill, trefoils, ox-eye daisies, goat's beard, lady's bedstraw, knapweed, to name a few. Nineteen species of butterflies have been recorded, including the speckled wood, common and holly blues, the comma, three skippers, orangetips and brimstones. It boasts the most centrally located colony of the small heath butterfly in London. Seasonally, it is possible to pick elderflowers for cordial, blackberries for pies, and enough blackthorn fruit to keep the House of Lords in sloe gin. You will not find such diversity in any manicured and manipulated municipal park.

It is a rare spot, especially in the west of the city. East, south-east and south-west can easily out-habitat the central western suburbs. All the more reason, you'd have thought, to preserve its status quo. But like many another brownfield, wasteland, derelict sites - call them what you will - the Scrubs' status is "under review". Why? The quick answer seems to be that it's underused. Yet every weekend, Beckhams, Owens, Wrights and Yorkes play twinkle-toes on the half-dozen football pitches. Almost every day, a lone golfer practises his long shot. Runners run. Windy conditions bring out the kite-fliers, calm ones wannabe pilots of radio-controlled biplanes and helicopters. London's entire American expatriate community seems to converge for junior softball league matches in the early summer, leaving nary a trace of their games or their picnics. And every day the dog-walking sorority (it is largely female), come rain or more rain, plod round revelling in barely changing seasons. Underused? Only by the unimaginative.

There's room enough for all, and each minds his own. And yet the wise elders of Hammersmith and Fulham Council have engaged the services of a firm of architects to draw up an "improvement plan". Although we members of the Friends of the Scrubs (aka the Scrubbers - it is also largely female) are not yet privy to the contents of the draft "development strategy", and, although the architect assured us that his plans take into account the wild areas, we fear for our untamed playground. We fear that "improvements" inevitably mean tidying, prettification, parkification. And that means loss of the habitats - unmanaged grassland, scrub, copses - that support birds, red-bummed bees and butterflies.

London's remaining nature sites are beleaguered in the extreme, with few friends in high places. The black redstarts of Deptford Creek are threatened by the millennial "regeneration" of the Greenwich area, an irony swallowed up by millennium fever. On Erith Marshes, a regionally important colony of water voles, one of our most endangered mammals, faces a far greater enemy than Wind in the Willows' weasels. What kind of tunnel- visioned, bloodless eejit do you have to be to consider swapping Ratty for a supermarket distribution point?

But, thanks to the London Wildlife Trust, the London Ecology Unit, local campaigners and others, there are bright spots: Honor Oak Reservoir, where the wild cowslips grow, has been granted Nature Conservation status by Lewisham Council; opposite Erith, Rainham Marshes has had a stay of execution (aided by English Nature's extra clout); Kingston has yielded to local pressure and designated the open water and scrub of Seething Wells as Metropolitan Open Land.

But these are exceptions. To most councils, it seems, a bit of "countryside" is a sore, to be treated with an overdose of building Blisteze. Wormwood Scrubs, which in the last decade has lost a great tract of wood to Eurostar, is just a small, unprotected part of the patchwork - though the lesser whitethroat might not agree - since the needs of the dead at nearby Kensal Green Cemetery have forced it and other songbirds to find new breeding grounds.

Surely, as we gear up to celebrate 2,000 years of - of what, precisely? Western civilisation? Christianity? That we haven't yet blown ourselves to kingdom come? - surely it is time to take stock of what we've destroyed, and to preserve what's left for the future. When the only creatures sharing our environment are rattus rattus, we'll all miss Ratty something rotten.

Duff Hart-Davis is away