Canary Wharf harbours vision of turning itself into a wildlife haven

Property group claims that its plan to create fish 'lagoons' and nesting sites for birds in the heart of London's Docklands is more than just 'greenwashing'. Severin Carrell gets out his binoculars

Sunday 08 August 2004 00:00 BST

It's not the first place you would expect to find Britain's latest nature reserve, but Canary Wharf, the rapidly expanding office complex in London's Docklands, is going green.

It's not the first place you would expect to find Britain's latest nature reserve, but Canary Wharf, the rapidly expanding office complex in London's Docklands, is going green.

The owners of Canary Wharf, the purpose-built, high-rise home to some of the world's most powerful banks and legal firms, plans to turn its docks and buildings into an unlikely haven for English wildlife.

Helped in part by the Environment Agency's success in cleaning up the Thames, Canary Wharf's network of docks are already being slowly reclaimed by native fish stocks such as bream, carp, eel and trout.

In turn, this has attracted water birds such as cormorants, tufted ducks, moorhens, occasional herons and, more recently, a family of mute swans, as well as dozens of local amateur anglers and a lone seal.

Now, Canary Wharf Manage-ment (CWM), which has just been sold to a consortium led by the US bank Morgan Stanley, is to embark on a programme to make itself more wildlife friendly. Under the scheme, new nesting and breeding sites will be constructed across the 86-acre estate.

Over the next few months, specially designed floating nest sites will be installed on the docks for water birds, and shallow "lagoons" will be created to allow people to see the fish teeming under the surface. A test site in neighbouring Millwall dock is already tempting an array of wildlife.

Several years ago, when a dock was drained to begin a new phase of construction, about 1.5 tons of fish were rescued. Among the 20,000 fish, nine species were identified, including sea bass, grey mullet, plaice, roach and smelt.

Nesting boxes for a dozen swifts have already been installed 655 feet up under the pyramid-shaped roof of Canary Wharf's distinctive main tower, 1 Canada Square. Elsewhere, two sand martin nesting boxes have been put up on docksides.

Eventually, the estate hopes to attract one of London's rarest birds - a tiny sparrow-sized species called the black redstart - to start nesting permanently on the site. First discovered in the 1930s, the bird flourished on blitzed bombsites after the Second World War.

An experimental "green roof" - in effect, a self-contained wildlife reserve for birds and bugs, formed from a mat of plants - has been constructed on Chevron Texaco's building. Another is under way on the Northern Trust block, specifically to attract black redstarts.

Tony Partington, CWM's managing director, said: "Going forward we will maintain the good practices we have adopted in terms of the ecology of the area. Before development, Canary Wharf had little or no ecological value but now we do, and we are working towards an ecological haven to complement a business haven."

CWM's plans will be greeted with cynicism by some naturalists. The Wharf now draws in thousands of cars each day, including taxis and chauffeur-driven vehicles for the financiers and legal executives who work there. Many shoppers also drive to one of east London's largest shopping centres.

Several of the Wharf's most famous tenants, such as HSBC and the oil giant Texaco, are targeted by ecologists, who complain about major corporations "greenwashing" their activities with small payouts to support environmental initiatives.

However, Dusty Gedge, an ornithologist and green roofs specialist who is closely involved with CWM's plans, said the company had shown "imagination and tenacity".

He added: "Some might say this is 'greenwashing', but from a conservation point of view, what they are doing is exemplary. Instead of just saying, 'We're an urban business', they're saying, 'OK, here's what we can do within the constraints of our business'."

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