Well, I didn’t know there were jellyfish in Exeter, never mind Sheffield. But neither, come to think of it, did I know that there were two splendid butterflies – the marbled white, which normally lives on chalk downland; and the silver-washed fritillary, an inhabitant of deep oak woods – to be found in the inner London borough of Haringey.
Or that there is a diminutive garden of a house in Bath in which 44 different species of birds have been observed. Or, for that matter, that there is a garden in Leicester in which the owner has recorded 2,673 species of all kinds of plants and creatures.
But then, there is an awful lot about urban wildlife that I was unaware of, until I spent last week reading the most stunning new account of it, Nature in Towns and Cities, by David Goode. Published before Christmas, this is the latest volume in the lauded and long-running Collins New Naturalist series – it’s No 127 – and I have to say it has opened my eyes to a part of the natural world I have generally disregarded.
Wildlife in the urban setting I suppose I have always considered, well, second-class. Dullsville. Because where do we start from, what’s most typical? The feral pigeon. That sky-rat, as people used to say, which infested Trafalgar Square, until the first elected Mayor, Ken Livingstone, sent it packing more than 10 years ago (the story of Red Ken’s pigeon pogrom is told in detail in the book).
Yet central London doesn’t just contain pigeons, if – as Goode says more than once – you have eyes to see. It holds black redstarts, among our rarest and most charismatic songbirds, and peregrine falcons, the most dashing of all our birds of prey. Look up in Westminster and you may well see them. And even the bleedin’ sky-rats have more to them than you might suspect. Did you know that pigeons use the Tube, the London Underground, like commuters? Oh yes. They hop on at one station, and get off at another – on the District and Circle lines, in particular. Honest, guv.
National Geographic photography contest 2014
National Geographic photography contest 2014
1/17 Nature Winner
Jump of the wildebeest at the Mara River. Photo Location: North Serengeti, Tanzania
Photo and caption by Nicole Cambré
2/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
On a windy day right after a Cyclone passed the far northern Great Barrier Reef I took some friends out to the reef. Never before I saw that many glass fish on this particular coral 'bommie'. Just when i setup my camera, this Napoleon Wrasse swam right through the school of fish building a living frame. Photo Location: Cairns, Great Barrier Reef, Flynn Reef, Australia
Photo and caption by Christian Miller
3/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
Honorable Mention: Stag Deer Bellowing in Richmond Park. Photo Location: Richmond Park, London, UK
Photo and caption by Prashant Meswani
4/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
A wild short eared owl completes a shoulder check in case something was missed. Northern harriers were also hunting in the field and these raptors will often steal a kill from the owls. Photo Location: Boundary Bay, BC, Canada.
Photo and caption by Henrik Nilsson
5/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
This playful fight amongst two young sub adult Tigers was indeed a brilliant life time opportunity, that lasted exactly 4-5 seconds. The cubs were sitting in the grass as dusk approached when suddenly one of them sneaked up behind the other and what happened next is captured in this image. This playful fight amongst the siblings is what prepares them for their survival in the wild. The sheer power of the Tiger is beautifully captured in this image and portrays the sheer muscle power that these magnificent cats possess. Photo Location: Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Photo and caption by Archna Singh
6/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, is the world's largest inactive volcanic caldera. It is a collapsed volcano that harbours a range of African wildlife that live in relatively close proximity and competition of each other. Zebras are amongst the most common animals in the crater along with wildebeest, gazelles, hyenas, and lions. On a clear day, a 360º view of the crater rim can be seen whilst being inside. Photo Location: Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Photo and caption by Zik Teo
7/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
Ice art on the window. Photo Location: Estonia Tabasalu
Photo and caption by Maie Kirnmann
8/17 Grand-Prize Winner and People Winner
In the last ten years, mobile data, smartphones and social networks have forever changed our existence. Although this woman stood at the center of a jam-packed train, the warm glow from her phone told the strangers around her that she wasn't really there. She managed to slip away from "here" for a short moment; she's a node flickering on the social web, roaming the Earth, free as a butterfly. Our existence is no longer stuck to the physical here; we're free to run away, and run we will. Photo Location: Hong Kong
Photo and caption by Brian Yen
9/17 People - Honorable Mention
Disabled children living in Syria war. Photo Location: Syria - Termanin
Photo and caption by Abdullah Alghajar
10/17 People - Honorable Mention
Our road trip down to Miami traversed this outlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We rested on this ridge overlooking the mountains. Though we argued consistently throughout the journey, here we were reminded of our brotherhood. Photo Location: Blue Ridge Parkway
Photo and caption by Tyler G
11/17 People - Honorable Mention
The chef of Ramnami people in Chhattisgarh,India. Ramnami tattoo the name of the lord “Ram” on their body. Their entire focus is on the name of Ram, the name of God that is most dear to them. The Ramnami Samaj is a sect of harijan (Untouchable) Ram. Formed in the 1890s, the sect has become a dominant force in the religious life of the area. The tattoo is the result of their devotion and also, a gift and an acknowledgement from Ram. Photo Location: India, Chhattisgarh
12/17 People - Honorable Mention
Seekers of eternal youth coat themselves in mineral-rich mud, at the Dead Sea in Israel. Photo Location: Dead Sea, Israel
13/17 People - Honorable Mention
He was waiting on the bed, lost in thoughts, while his wife was preparing the bread to be blessed for the orthodox Eucharist. Photo Location: Village of Sarbi, Maramure, Romania
14/17 Places Winner
The thermal spas in Budapest [are] one of the favorite activities of Hungarians, especially in winter. We were fortunate to gain special access to shoot in the thermal spa thanks to our tour guide, Gabor. I love the mist, caused by the great difference in temperature between the hot spa water and the atmosphere. It makes the entire spa experience more surreal and mystical. Photo Location: Budapest, Hungary
Photo and caption by Triston Yeo
15/17 Places - Honorable Mention
During I was taking photo with my nephew, the storm came and I caught this beautiful moment. Photo Location: Kocaeli, Turkey
Photo and caption by Aytül AKBAŞ
16/17 Places - Honorable Mention
Birds fly over the destroyed houses in Khalidiya district in Homs, Syria. In the vast stillness of the destroyed city center of Homs, there are large areas where nothing moves. Then, suddenly, wind blows a ripped awning, or birds fly overhead. Photo Location: Homs, Syria.
Photo and caption by Sergey Ponomarev
17/17 Places - Honorable Mention
I was up at an ungodly hour to make it to the Tsukiji Fish Market, in Tokyo. With so many amazing things to see in the city, I had hardly slept, and managed to get off at the wrong station. Wave after wave of people kept coming through the station passageway. I spied a coffee shop with a vantage point and managed to snap a free shots, camera resting on the ledge. After the caffeine kicked in, i was ready to brave the river of people... Photo Location: Shinagawa Station, Tokyo, Japan
Photo and caption by Peter Franc
For London, like the majority of our towns and cities, is really a treasure house of wildlife, Goode insists, instancing, for example, a survey of the plants growing on the pavements and buildings of Mayfair and Soho, which turned up 157 species. He should know. He was London’s first official ecologist, employed by the old Greater London Council in 1982, and later, for more than a decade, head of the celebrated London Ecology Unit, which helped the 32 London boroughs discover their riches of nature and learn how to look after it all – which now they do in a way that was once unimaginable.
His book comes in two halves. Firstly, it is an absorbing portrayal of the wildlife habitats and species to be found in Britain’s urban areas, told with the vividness of a David Attenborough documentary – for example, he gives an unforgettable account of the Victorian cemeteries which in many cities have become overgrown and are now jungle-like sanctuaries for all sorts of creatures. And he also spins memorable narratives of the once-rural colonisers which are still moving in to many built-up areas, from foxes and badgers to magpies, sparrowhawks and ring-necked parakeets.
Secondly, Nature in Towns and Cities is a powerful account of how thinking changed, largely in the 1970s and 1980s, from seeing urban wildlife as insignificant and not worth bothering about, to regarding it as an enormously valuable social resource, which is how we see it today. The key shift was to understand that it didn’t have to be scientifically important – it just had to be important to local people, and then it had real value, and could make a substantial difference to their lives.
Goode’s achievement is to convey the fascination of it, even the wonder at it. He details its resilience and its opportunistic nature, as well as the surprising extent of it, most notably of all in Jennifer Owen’s Leicester garden, where over the course of 30 years she recorded those 2,673 plants, invertebrates, animals and birds. All in a city.
And the jellyfish? Goode remarks casually: “Sowerby’s freshwater jellyfish, Craspedacusta sowerbyi, a native of tropical Central and South America which was first found in the wild in Britain in 1928 … has spread significantly since the 1990s and is now known from a number of urban canals from Exeter to Sheffield.”
I didn’t know that. I bet you didn’t, either. This is a magnificent book which has opened my eyes, and it will open your eyes too.
Nature in Towns and Cities; Collins, Paperback, £23.49, Hardback, £55Reuse content