London, to many, is the never ending rumble and roar of planes, trains and road traffic. To me, these are the bass notes that underscore the chattering high notes of sparrows, the caw-caw of rooks and magpies; the rat-a-tats of woodepeckers and the chirping of robins. At home the symphony has the added coughing of squirrels punctuated at night by the rare bark of a fox.
All sorts of critters share London's dynamic spaces with us humans, and now we have an idea of just how much wildlife visits our gardens; thanks to the hundreds who took part in this spring's Make your Nature Count survey. It was designed to give us some information on what's commonly outside our back doors. The full and detailed results are out this week.
At first glance, there's nothing surprising. I can reveal that pigeons are our most common London bird and we have lots of cats, foxes, squirrels, frogs and toads. Interestingly, Croydon is London's favourite hang-out for badgers, while hedgehogs fancy Harrow. The survey is also the RSPB's first to cover a period when we have summer migrants, so it's given us a snapshot of swifts in the UK. They were recently "amber listed" as a species of conservation concern.
Statistics are always tricky things and can be interpreted in different ways. It's tempting to be drawn in to assumptions based on the data, but this is just the first year and we're hoping it will eventually reveal long-term trends that reflect how birds and other wildlife are getting on. Every species has good years or bad, but if you look at data over a decade... or five, it will flag-up patterns that could show species moving to find better conditions elsewhere or an increase or decrease in numbers that may be cause for concern.
As a conservation charity we're constantly being asked, "what difference will it make to me if such and such a spider or bird goes extinct?" The answer is not always easy and occassionally the honest response is.. "we don't know." Having said that, history has shown that when one strand of nature's web snaps, the rest goes out of balance, often with disastrous consequences. China is a case in point. It's leaders decided sparows were eating too much of their seed crops. They sent people out to scare the birds in to the air and to keep them flying until they dropped dead from exhaustion. It worked and the sparrows were decimated. The following year, the locust population exploded as it hadn't been kept in check by the hungry locust eating sparrows and crops were stripped bare, resulting in serious food shortages and mass starvation.
Survey data shows us that London's sparrows, starlings and swifts are all declining in number. As are bees, many butterflies and a dozen or so plants. We need public support to continue to monitor it all. We need public support to do things that help wildlife, and we need financial support to achieve all of that. We are a needy charity. Wildlife, particularly birds, are the first to feel the impact of environmental change. People are usually the last to feel its impact. Investing time, effort and cash in the environment is an investment in a better future.
Actually not all the leaves are brown, but they're not far off it. My garden birds don't seem too perturbed so I'm taking their lack of interest in my seed feeders as evidence that they don't yet think the tim'e right to fatten up ready for the cold, dark winter. I'm putting the leaf-fall down to the drier than average summer rather than an early autumn.
I've done all those annual maintenance jobs, like cleaning out the nest boxes, so I'm feeling smug. What's just immedaitely added to this feeling of smugness is the sight of a jay gliding in to view. It's now calling from it's perch on a hawthorn bush next door. I saw a pair of them in Islington just the other week behind Highbury and Islington tube station in Laycock Street. Our Make Your Nature Count results show jays are surprisingly common in Greater London. They were recorded in 15% of gardens surveyed, putting them in 18th place.
What disapointed me was the small number of hedgehog sightings. I was hoping these prickly little fella's might be more common. I'd love to have one visit my garden, if only to help keep slugs down. Instead, I'll have to rely on thrushes and blackbirds. Only 6% of London gardens can boast hedgehogs, compared with a UK average of 25%. There are simple things you can do to attract more wildlife to your garden, visit our Homes for Wildlife pages for FREE advice.
Feed the Birds is our next big mission. Running over the weekend of 24 and 25 October we're looking for public support to grow more food for birds. Topping up feeders really helps, but fresh food plucked from the vine, bush, tree or ground is better. We've five top tips that will help on our Feed the Birds webpages.
With some apprehension I'm sitting waiting to have a trapped nerve resolved by an Osteopath and, looking from the clinic window I spot two peregrines.The pair I've just spotted are plastic decoys on a roof in Hackney's Broadway Market. Presumably put there to scare off pigeons. I seem to come across peregrines wherever I go. On my hols my children, partner and me marvelled at a pair of peregrines at Cheddar Gorge and at least one more in Dorset near Lyme Regis. I'm sure I saw one near Penzance too. If you want to see the real thing, our Date at the Tate (Modern) Peregrine Watch ends this coming Sunday (13th September).Running since July, it's been a roller coaster of an event. Our brilliant volunteers and staff have braved strong winds, driving rain, lecherous drunks and much more to show-off these magnificent kings of speed.There are a known dozen breeding pairs of peregrines in the Capital. All are closely monitored and none were introduced, they simply arrived and settled down.With London's slightly warmer urban climate, a surfeit of ledges to sit on and more feral pigeons to eat than you can imagine, these peregrines probably think they've died and gone to heaven. They still need our help though. Come and visit us by the Millennium Bridge and sign our Bird of Prey pledge to help save peregrines for the next generation to enjoy.
Wellies, pop-up tents, skaggy jeans and portaloos are not not really my thing, but I've just enjoyed a weekend of festivals.
Saturday, I journeyed far to the east of London. Well, just near Ipswich. It was for Harvest at Jimmy's. It's not hardcore festival, more a music and food funtime for families. Badly Drawn Boy was angrily performing on stage and I really enjoyed Jon Allen, he just needs a big hug. Cookery demonstrations by celeb chef Gino D'Acampo were announced with a frenzied build-up tape that ended with his name called out like a footbal commentator naming this month's favoured goal scorer.. the final "O" extending for several seconds.
Chatting with Peter Sugar, who's creating Darwin's Garden at Jimmy's, I learnt how a vast flock of rooks and jackdaws haunt the farm and its fields. Apparently they're mega fans of pig feed. Sampling Jimmy's ware at the hog-roast I had to agree that anything this tasty must be given good quality nosh. Sure enough the cloud of rooks and jackdaws were clearly visible and weren't put off by the noise or crowds.
Interestingly though, Peter tells me they have no magpies, no barn owls and house sparrows are rare sightings. All three should favour farms. House sparrows were also lacking on Sunday. I was working at the Thames Festival, inviting people to join our December 5 March with the Stop Climate Chaos coalition. It will be a symbolic ocean wave of opinion, crashing against the obstinate rocks of Westminster, dashing away the complacency that prevents action on climate change. To boost the watery theme we're asking people to wear blue and to join-in a co-ordinated wave (a peaceful wave of the arms) towards Parliament at 3pm; do join us.
Anyway, Sunday. At our stand near Tower Bridge, I saw cormorants, gulls, starlings, magpies, rooks, collared doves and more, but no house sparrows. I even managed to see a peregrine further upstream. It was sadly on the back panel of the Tate Modern's chimney, hidden from our telecopes set-up on the very busy Southbank. It was a blustery day so it was probably more sheltered at the back of the Tate.
As a teenager, I took wildlife for granted. I'm now worried my children will not see half the creatures I did growing-up. The very busy natural world of my youth has diminished, and that's why I'll be waving my hands towards Westminster come December 5.