Dockland nature reserves under threat of closure: Urban conservation pioneer fears grant loss will deal blow to wildlife sanctuaries

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A GROUP that pioneered the greening of cities in Britain may be forced to close this week, threatening the survival of several long-established urban nature reserves.

The Trust for Urban Ecology, launched by Max Nicholson, a former director-general of the Nature Conservancy, created the first 'ecological park' a few yards from Tower Bridge in London in 1977. Since then, its projects have included the re-creation of wildflower meadows and wetlands in cities, an urban windmill, a butterfly sanctuary and Britain's first 'fungi garden'.

However, last month the trust lost its pounds 50,000 grant from Southwark Council, roughly half its income, and will be forced to close tomorrow unless other funds can be found. Five full-time jobs and 13 government-sponsored conservation traineeships will be lost.

If the trust closes, its nature sites, which include Stave Hill in London's docklands, one of the largest ecological parks in Britain, will revert to waste. Without management, the trust has warned, they will be subject to vandalism, fire, fly- tipping and contamination.

Mr Nicholson, now 89, said yesterday: 'I think it is terribly sad. When we started, a lot of people were talking about environmental education and I felt it was time somebody demonstrated that urban ecology could be a very important resource.

'Nature can reassert itself in the most unpromising urban environments, with all sorts of spin-offs in terms of education and the neighbourhood. The support needed is tiny compared with the arts, for instance. I'm afraid it shows that the degree of public spirit and practical competence in our cities are at a very low ebb.'

The first ecological park, named after the 18th-century botanist William Curtis, was established for pounds 2,000 on a two- acre lorry park in the Bermondsey docks; the work took volunteers five weekends. It opened in May 1977 but, in 1985, after receiving nearly 100,000 visitors, including 25,000 schoolchildren, was closed to make way for offices: these have not yet been built.

However, thousands of visitors, many of them children, use the trust's other sites, which include Lavender Pond, designed around a redundant timber dock and pumping house in 1980, and Stave Hill, created out of wasteland alongside a 60ft man-made hill, which is the highest land in the reclaimed Surrey docks.

Stave Hill, leased to the trust by the London Docklands Dev elopment Corporation, contains a mosaic of wildlife habitats - from meadow, cornfield and woodland to marsh and wetland. Each autumn the corn is harvested, with the stooks left out for birds and small mammals. Among the projects unlikely to survive closure are the installation of a windmill, which is to pump up ground- water to create a flood meadow, a type of habitat that is vanishing in the countryside.

(Photograph omitted)