20 May 2012

The Reality of Urban Wildlife

Yesterday The Guardian (I live in Didsbury, of course I read The Guardian!) published a little supplement called ‘A Spotter’s Guide to Urban Wildlife’, when however I’d finished reading it I wasn’t sure why they had produced it. The Introduction declared,

“we aim to prove that wildlife doesn’t simply survive in urban areas, it thrives.”

The author Stephen Moss explained how Britain’s population became predominantly urban with the industrial revolution, claiming our agricultural labouring ancestors, ‘ certainly had little time for the appreciation of nature we take for granted today’, but now the farming landscape is ‘a green desert’ and cities contain many species of wildlife ‘we and the wildlife are together again.’

Then an artist told us insects are all around us, even if we live in the city. We were also encouraged to look for grass snakes, Atlantic salmon, otters and stag beetles.

Two articles did stand out for me as engaging with the realities of urban nature. The ‘urban birder’ David Lindo works in cities and has made a study of the birds on Wormwood Scrubs. His advice is to simply look up – even while watching football at Old Trafford he has seen cormorants fly over. Chris Baines made a good point, I thought, in that the richest part of an ecosystem is ‘on the edge’, and that suburban gardens are by definition ‘edges’ of hedges, fences and boundary trees.

I am uncertain about this supplement because it seems to be an exercise in naming animals (note there is no mention of plants – weeds not interesting enough?) and a little light self-congratulation in that ‘we now care more about our natural neighbours than at any other time in our history’. Is the existence of foxes and parakeets in city centres really proof of a thriving wildlife population?

To seriously examine urban wildlife the first step would surely be to define ‘urban’. The word covers Georgian/Victorian city centres including retail and business centres, twentieth century suburban housing sprawl, industrial brownfield sites, canals, railways, parks, and according to this supplement, the river estuaries where commercial shipping still happens. These are all different habitats in which different animals can exist. It is a more complex issue than simply urban versus countryside.

A genuinely useful guide to spotting wildlife in these environments would then consider where people would be likely to come across animals. My dad used to work in a grain mill; he saw giant rats and hundreds of pigeons. I’m sure my mum saw her fair share of silverfish in the stockrooms of the shops she worked in, and I’ve never seen spiders as giant as those living in the heat behind computers.

And here I’m finally getting to my point: the day to day reality for the majority of people when considering wildlife is not hedgehogs at the bottom of the garden or newts in the pond, it’s mallard ducks on the park pond, mice in the cornflakes, slugs on the garden path, and dead moths in their light fittings.

I would like to see a publication that explains these creatures to me. Many environmentalists, including the saintly David Attenborough, say they started their interest in the natural world by looking at the small things in their immediate surroundings. Perhaps this would be a better place to start if the younger generation, and us more advanced in years, are to be encouraged to care about ‘our natural neighbours’.

Trouble is, it’s not something I’d want to read over my Saturday morning cappuccino and Marks and Spencer chocolate biscuit.