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City gone wild

by C.W. Nicol

In June this year I took a group of Japanese friends and members of our Afan Woodland Trust up here in the Nagano hills on a trip to Britain. We went on an All Nippon Airways tour designed for people with an interest in ecology and nature restoration, and we visited our “twin” forest, the Afan Argoed Forest Park, in South Wales.

Then we went to see various river and wetland projects in the Thames Valley area of southern England. At the risk of offending some people, I should state now that when I go to Britain these days, which is at least once a year, I avoid the increasing city pressures of London as much as possible. However, on this trip I was keen to show my Japanese friends what could be done for nature restoration, even in a big city environment.

One of our trust’s board members is Alastair Driver, the National Conservation Manager of the U.K.’s Environment Agency. Alastair is also an old family friend, and I had persuaded him to show us some of the projects he has been involved in — one of which is the London Wetland Centre in Richmond, a suburban town in southwest London.

The Wetland Centre is located on a bend of the Thames that used to be occupied by a few old, small reservoirs. When these reservoirs fell into disuse and silted up — and were replaced by larger, more modern water facilities elsewhere — many speculators rubbed their hands with glee and imagined the profits that could be made by filling in the old holes and covering them with money-making buildings.

But the conservationists — with Alastair a leading voice in their midst — had other ideas.

Thus was the first urban wetland project of its kind conceived in Britain.

Instead of filling in the reservoirs, water channels, lagoons, canals and small lakes would be built, bordered by reedbeds, water-loving willows and water meadows, with shingle shores and mudflats to encourage birds that like to wade.

The Wetland Centre was opened in May 2000, and was soon officially designated as a U.K. Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Now, the center’s wetlands and facilities occupy an area of some 43 hectares and are either visited or used as breeding grounds by 150 species of birds, 20 species of dragonflies and damselfies, six species of bats, 300 species of butterflies and moths and four species of amphibians.

As you go into the site you enter a building with a huge plate-glass window looking out onto an urban avian paradise. There is a pleasant restaurant and shop attached. Once in the center you can walk around to visit various “hides” for bird-watching, including a watchtower, which gives a superb view.

I don’t want to poach on my fellow Nature Page columnist Mark Brazil’s territory, but you really can see a lot of birds at the center, which I stress again is right there in London, not somewhere way out in the countryside.

There are ducks of many kinds, grebes, coots, moorhens, herons, kingfishers, plovers, bitterns, lapwings, sandpipers and sparrowhawks. If you are quiet and lucky you might even spot a water vole. In season there are tadpoles and frogs galore as well!

If you just want a quiet time walking around and watching wildlife, it is a great place to go; the strolling is easy so you can wear ordinary town shoes or sneakers. If you’re dragging kids around, there’s a place for them to play. But the center is also a very easy place to strike up a conversation. People who like birds and nature tend to be shy (Why is this, one wonders?), but they become very friendly if you ask them a question or make a comment about the birds or plants before you.

I was surprised to see some hairy, long-horned Scottish Highland cattle, one of the most ancient and picturesque of the bovines, quietly enjoying a pasture full of ox-eye daisies. Alastair told us that they were there to graze and control some of the plants, as they are very hardy creatures and can survive on pretty poor pastures.

As Thames River water moves through various ponds, canals and the extensive watery beds of reeds, rushes, sedges and so on, it is filtered and oxygenated, removing many pollutants and improving its quality — which of course is good for the “Old Man River” as a whole.

However, another effect of having such a vibrant wildlife area in the middle of a city has been to greatly raise the value of the property surrounding it. Those lucky enough to overlook the place have a wide, wonderful view and far better air quality too. The center is also used for the kind of field education that would be very difficult for the offspring of most big-city dwellers to experience otherwise.

In addition, people who have spent a day walking around the center tend to work up a thirst, so the local pubs get plenty of customers. We visited the pub closest to the Wetland Centre’s entrance on a reconnaissance trip in February, and had a really fine lunch and excellent beer. I also relished a wild-boar sausage — a treat for me. Wild boar vanished from Britain a few hundred years ago, but as the quality and area of the country’s mixed woodland improves, there are regions where wild boar have been reintroduced, and the sausage I savored was one of the bonuses of these efforts. When we went in June, this pub was chockerblock full, so I was unable even to sneak in and snaffle a quick pint of best bitter.

What impressed the Japanese in our group was that such projects as the Wetland Centre are not only ecologically and educationally sound, but they make economic sense too.

The quality of surrounding life rises, and with it property prices. Each time I visit Britain I am impressed and happy to see the efforts being made there — and the resources being put in — to improve the environment. I dare say that through the efforts of people like Alastair, and the support of a public far more aware of environmental issues than Japan’s, the British countryside is now even more beautiful than it was when I was a boy.

I wish I could say the same thing about Japan — but sadly, I can’t.

Salmon now swim up the River Thames, and many other formerly polluted British rivers. While our group was in the Afan Argoed Forest Park, the U.K. Forestry Agency official who came to talk with us said that it was the official policy of the British government not only to increase the nation’s forested areas, but also to gradually convert monoculture conifer plantations to mixed woodlands of deciduous and coniferous trees that are far more friendly to wildlife.

Wild boar and venison, once the meat of British royalty, aristocrats, the very rich or courageous poachers like Robin Hood, are now quite common on the menus of country pubs and restaurants — another benefit of this change in forestry policies, and the encouragement of intelligent wildlife use and management.

When, and if, Japan wakes up to the fact that preserving and restoring nature makes really good long-term economic sense, we could do wonderful things in this country. With sea ice in the north, coral seas in the south, high mountains, swiftly rushing streams and lots of forested areas, Japan could lead the world in safe, sound eco-tourism. After all, not everybody wants to come here to just trek around old shrines and temples in Kyoto or gawp at tame deer in Nara.

You don’t have to instruct our neighbor’s cat about the benefits of having clean, well-oxygenated water in the neighborhood. Just take a look at the accompanying shot that Keiko Tamura, our woodland trust’s Girl Friday took of this feline returning home from a local trout farm along the road that runs just in front of our office. This particular cat, which has just had kittens, makes the trip at least once a day, every day.

That’s country life for you!

The C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust offices are just below Old Nic’s private dojo and study, which is beside the Torii River in Shinanomachi, Nagano Prefecture. The local station is named after the mountain that overlooks it: Kurohime, the “Black Princess.”