Inner city sanctuary
THE unearthly giggling of marsh frogs echoes across the reed-fringed mere.
Through the early morning mist lapwings loop and plummet, dive-bombing a crow intent on nest plundering.
Squadrons of bees are already hard at work mining pollen from the pink and purple mosaic of wetland flowers.
But it is the ground-jolting roar of an inbound passenger jet lurching only a few hundred metres overhead that signals you are in one of the most extraordinary nature reserves in the world.
The London Wetland Centre (LWC) sits just a handful of miles from the incessant clamour of the heart of the capital, but this entirely man-made site has become one of the country’s most important wildlife refuges.
Despite being encroached on all sides by the city, this Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve has been awarded Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status.
Considering its location, it attracts a huge amount of rare wildlife – slow worms, water voles, several species of bats and the elusive bittern can all be
The reserve, woven together from four uninspiring and unused Thames Water reservoirs, is currently celebrating its 10th birthday.
In the past decade the LWC has gone from strength to strength, boasting an ever-increasing list of species while enabling more and more people to get to grips with the natural world in the most unlikely of settings.
One of WWT founder Peter Scott’s last great projects, the LWC was intended to recreate some of the typical habitats that fringe the Thames – but to place them slap bang in the centre of the city.
A walk around the site reveals grazing meadows, wet pasture, reed-beds, pools and even a wader scrape.
The success of the LWC is that visitors are immersed in an authentically wild place, while everywhere around them the city seethes and bustles.
The centre even manages to bestow a sense of beauty on the cityscape: the harsh contours of Canary Wharf, the London Eye and other looming landmarks are somehow softened when viewed from behind a prism of reeds.
A colossal amount of hard work was necessary for the LWC to become what it is today.
Built upon the old reservoir site of Barn Elms, some 500,000 cubic metres of soil had to be sorted and remixed as work got under way in 1995.
More than 300,000 water plants and 27,000 trees were planted and 600m of boardwalk and 3.4 km of pathway laid in preparation for the centre’s opening.
Several obstacles were overcome on the way, including the discovery of an unexploded Second World War bomb and the decision by a pair of little ringed plovers to nest on the main bulldozer track.
But despite the varied and colourful setbacks, Sir David Attenborough opened the London Wetland Centre on May 26, 2000.
Sir David said he was in no doubt that the centre would be a success.
He explained: “The centre has certainly lived up to all expectations. In a way those working on it were probably more informed and critical than I was. I had my view that it was bound to be sensational.”
The other WWT centres dotted around the UK were set up in established wild environments. To create the LWC in one of the world’s busiest and largest cities while still making it beneficial for wildlife was at the time an unheard of idea.
Sir David added: “It was a logical extension of what he (Scott) had been doing since 1945; you can view it as the climax of his work.”
LWC has gone on to achieve some memorable wildlife success stories since its opening.
Six bitterns, among the UK’s rarest birds, chose to overwinter at the centre this year: other scarce visitors keeping the twitchers busy include a stone curlew, white-spotted bluethroat and night heron, representing just a fragment of the 222 bird species recorded at the centre.
The UK’s most endangered mammal – the water vole – thrives at the centre.
Sir David Attenborough.