Wet and wild

The London Wetland Centre is now one of Britain's most important breeding sites. On its fifth anniversary, Michael McCarthy finds out how an urban wasteland has been transformed into a bird-lovers' paradise
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The Independent Online

Walking along the willow-lined path, you are surrounded by a continuous chattering and churring sound: the reed warblers are singing. They are invisible in the dense reed bed, but they seem to be everywhere, making a remarkable amount of noise for such a small bird. But then, more than 120 pairs of them are breeding.

Walking along the willow-lined path, you are surrounded by a continuous chattering and churring sound: the reed warblers are singing. They are invisible in the dense reed bed, but they seem to be everywhere, making a remarkable amount of noise for such a small bird. But then, more than 120 pairs of them are breeding.

They are not alone. Seventeen pairs of sedge warblers, their close relatives, are also nesting in the reeds here, along with about the same number of pairs of reed buntings, handsome sparrow-sized birds with black-and-white heads and a short musical call.

Among the phragmites, or common reeds, bird life is booming.

But this is not the Fens. Nor is it the Norfolk Broads. This is the edge of central London. The floodlights of Fulham Football Club's Craven Cottage ground are visible a short distance away in one direction, while the tower block that is the Charing Cross Hospital stands out in the other. Just a few hundred yards straight ahead is the fashionable River Café, the epitome of modish urban living.

The burgeoning life of this reed bed is just one feature of the astonishing London Wetland Centre, a wildlife wilderness area started five years ago this month. The 105-acre nature reserve in Barnes, across the Thames from Fulham, now holds birds, mammals, flowers and insects, and on a scale you would not expect to see at the heart of a large city.

The centre is the brainchild of the wildfowl painter and naturalist Sir Peter Scott, who died in 1989. The son of the ill-fated Scott of the Antarctic, Peter Scott was once one of the leading natural history figures in Britain. He was also a founder of the World Wildlife Fund (as it then was) in 1961, and set up Britain's best-known reserve for his special interest, ducks and geese, at Slimbridge on the Severn estuary.

His charity, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), underpinned the founding of wildfowl reserves all around Britain. Each offers spectacular bird sights to visitors at different times of the year, but they are generally - by their nature - in fairly remote locations.

Scott's dream was to establish a wetland reserve in London, yet the opportunity for such a development only arose 15 years ago when four huge concrete bowls next to the river became available. The Barn Elms reservoirs were windswept, ugly and bare, their most frequent visitors, shivering, trout fishermen. The WWT had the vision to see that the area could become much more - and the drive to make it happen.

The area was not without interest for bird-watchers, and was noted for its wintering populations of uncommon ducks. In an imaginative deal, the WWT joined forces with the site's owner, Thames Water, and a property developer, Berkeley Homes. Thames sold a fifth of the original 125-acre site to Berkeley for luxury housing and leased the remainder to the trust at a low rent. Berkeley in return provided £11m to break up the concrete reservoirs.

Between 1996 and 2000 the bowls were converted into an area of lakes, islands, lagoons, pools, mud flats, streams, marshes and reed beds. And, after £16m had been spent adding a visitor centre with enormous plate-glass windows and hi-tech bird hides (one of them is three-storeys high and is the only one in the world with a lift), The London Wetland Centre, Barnes, was was opened for business by Sir David Attenborough on May 25, 2000.

Even before the first visitors came through the gates, it was clear that Barnes was going to be an extraordinary haven for wildlife. Lapwings, the beautiful plovers that are disappearing from our shores quicker than almost any other bird, were already breeding on the islands, and other declining wading birds - including redshanks and little ringed plovers - had made the site their own. Reed warblers and water rails (among the shyest of our wetland birds) had found the newly planted reed beds, while great crested grebes could be seen displaying on the water.

The five years since have simply confirmed the reserve's potential, and its wildlife populations have grown richer and richer. Last year, more than 180 bird species were recorded (compared with 134 in 2000), including many fascinating rarities such as bittern, marsh harrier, bearded tit and Cetti's warbler. About 35 species are breeding regularly within the reserve's boundaries. In winter there are big flocks of wild duck such as teal and wigeon.

But that's only the start. The wetlands centre also harbours a thriving population of water voles, Britain's most rapidly declining mammal. And there are now about 360 species of plants and wild flowers, 20 of Britain's 39 species of dragonfly and damselfly (of which 14 or 15 are thought to be breeding), 22 species of butterfly and six species of bat. All this barely a mile and a half from the metropolitan hub of Notting Hill.

Chance encounters are often highlights of a visit. Last year, people were able to watch a water rail - a bird most people never get the chance to see - feeding its chicks next to a path. Herons blithely carry on fishing within a few yards of the visitors to whom they have now become habituated. Once, in the space of half an hour, I saw four birds of prey - a kestrel, sparrowhawk, hobby and peregrine falcon - fly overhead.

On a tour of the site last week with the resident ecologist, Richard Bullock, it was clear that wildlife is flourishing here to a quite astonishing degree. The warbler chatter was incessant. Ragged robin, a beautiful but declining pink flower of ditches and wet meadows was in resplendent bloom. Green-veined white, holly blue and brimstone butterflies fluttered among the flowering hawthorn; a sedge warbler sang in a willow directly above my head. Sand martins, increasingly rare relatives of the swallow, swooped into nests in a specially constructed sandbank.

Lapwings and redshanks were sitting on their nests. Up above, a pair of the former was engaged in an aerial battle with carrion crows who were after their eggs, while a pair of the latter was engaged in courtship display. It was uncanny to hear the redshanks' mournful calls, so redolent to anyone who knows them from lonely marshes and estuaries, echoing out in SW14.

"I think the last five years have proved just how successful a wetland site like this can be in a city," Dr Bullock said. "We've had a lot of interest internationally, especially from Asia and South America. And it just keeps on growing - new bird and insect species are coming in all the time. On the wall of the meeting room we have a painting by Peter Scott of his vision of the site, which he left unfinished at his death in 1989.

"It shows a large flock of wigeon flying in, with the London skyline in the background. In one count last winter we counted more wigeon on the reserve than there are in the picture, so if he's looking down, I would think that he would be very pleased."

Further information from www.wwt.org.uk