Feature by Lizzie Guilfoyle
LONDON, like most cities, has its share of wildlife – it’s just knowing what to look for and where.
There are approximately 300 red deer and 350 fallow deer running wild in Richmond Park, another 325 in Bushy Park and a further 20 or so in Greenwich Park. Beautiful to look at, they seldom bother visitors although it’s a wise man (or woman) who throws caution aside during the rut – a month-long period which begins in Sepember.
It’s during this time that next year’s young are conceived. However, each stag aims to mate with as many females as possible and so gathers together his own private ‘harem’. But life isn’t easy for the ‘amorous’ stag for not only do the young females tend to wander off, other stags try to steal them away. Not surprisingly, the latter causes considerable friction between rivals and leads to a great deal of posturing and bellowing. And although very few fights occur, it’s advisable to stay well clear when ‘emotions’ are running high.
Grey squirrels can be found just about everywhere but for close-up sightings take a walk through any one of London’s beautiful parks – Hyde Park, St James’s Park, even Kew Gardens where I’ve seen one enterprising little fellow take food from a visitor’s hand. However, cute as they undoubtedly are, they’re regarded by many as vermin or, as one of my acquaintances puts it, “rats with tails”.
Grey squirrels were, in fact, introduced to the UK from America as long ago as 1876 and have flourished at the expense of our native red squirrel. Sadly, the closest to London you’ll see the latter is on the Isle of Wight or Brownsea Island in Dorset, two of the five National Trust properties that are working hard to protect this enchanting but endangered species.
Believe it or not, badgers also frequent Kew Gardens, while along the Croydon Tramway where there are established badger trails, special tunnels and badger-proof fences have been built to ensure they don’t fall victim to speeding traffic. Basically nocturnal, they are most likely to be seen at dusk.
London is also home to more exotic creatures, like pelicans and ring-necked parakeets. The pelicans were introduced to St James’s Park during the reign of Charles II as a gift from the Russian ambassador. Currently there are just five (four Eastern Whites and one Louisiana Brown) living near Duck Island where they’re fed by wildlife officers every day at 2.30pm. Their diet is, of course, fish although you may well remember an incident that occured a while ago when an unfortunate pigeon found itself on the menu.
The number of ring-necked parakeets has risen dramatically over the past few years and as a result native birds, in particular the great spotted woodpecker whose nest sites they steal, are under threat which has led to calls for a cull. Nonetheless, with their bright green plumage, red beaks and long tails, they are certainly lovely to look at. As for how they came to be here, nobody really knows, although many believe that some escaped from Shepperton Studios during the making of the iconic film The African Queen. Ideal places to see them are Kew Gardens and Bushy Park.
Meanwhile, in central London, a Harris hawk is flown daily in Trafalgar Square by the company NBC as part of a programme to reduce pigeon numbers. Peregrine falcons, on the other hand, have settled and even bred in the capital – on the tall chimney of Tate Modern, for instance.
Then there are foxes, rats, grey herons, Canada geese and hedgehogs though sadly, these small bristly creatures are now only found in Regent’s Park. Many become victims of litter louts whose discarded ice-cream containers, polystyrene cups and yogurt pots provide tempting titbits but end up getting stuck on snouts and spines.
As you can see, wildlife is as much a part of London as you and I and if cherished will provide hours of enjoyment, not just now in 2008 but also for future generations.