For years it was a concrete reservoir in Barnes, southwest London. The kind of concrete reservoir that accumulates stolen supermarket trolleys, rusting oil drums, glue sniffers and dead cats.
No longer. After some $20 million and five years of labor, Europe’s largest urban wetland creation project is complete. Its name? Just “The Wetland Centre.”
It is gorgeous. Covering 42 hectares of man-made pools, lagoons, reed beds and lakes, the Wetland Centre is an environmental tour de force.
In addition to created native British marsh and meadow habitat, it has educational displays, a restaurant, an art gallery, beautifully constructed bird hides, exhibitions and organic gardens.
A series of different environments offer the visitor the chance to walk through wetland types ranging from an Australian billabong to the Siberian tundra.
If you like birds you’ll love it. If you find birds dull you’ll still like the place. It’s as wild as London gets, and it’s deliciously peaceful.
The driving force behind the center is the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. Bird lovers will know all about the WWT, but for newcomers to the field, here is a short back-ground of the organisation.
|Coscaroba coscaroba, a South American anatid between ducks and swans|
WWT’s founder was Peter Scott, son to the intrepid, if ill-fated, Arctic explorer. Scott began life, like many a sporting Englishman of his era, with a fondness for taking his spaniel and shotgun into a wetland and blowing holes through fleeing ducks.
Subsequently he turned to painting them instead. He also noticed that water fowl were not as common as they used to be, and were getting rarer as wetland habitat was destroyed. In 1946 Scott established the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. There are now nine WWT centers, each conserving an ecologically important wetland in Britain and Northern Ireland as well as breeding critically endangered species for eventual release into the wild.
Some of the stories behind WWT’s feathered inhabitants are hair-raising. The Laysan duck, once common on some Hawaiian islands, was decimated at the end of the 19th century by Japanese ornamental hat plume traders and introduced rabbits, which ate all the ducks’ grass.
By 1911 there were only seven Laysan ducks left. By 1930 there were just two: one male, one female. Then — quack! poof! — the male vanished. Then came the discovery that the two eggs laid by the female had been punctured by a curlew’s beak. It looked like lights out for the Laysan duck.
|The nene (Branta sandvicensis), a flightless Hawaiian goose, was reduced to 20 surviving birds in 1950 before a captive-breeding program restored its numbers.|
Then a miracle occurred. The female laid a further two, so-called “second chance,” eggs. Every single Laysan duck in the world is descended from this clutch. The Laysan duck is now widespread and thriving in captivity, and the WWT has an energetic breeding program with a total of 130 birds.
The Hawaiian goose, or nene, is Hawaii’s state bird. It is also another species that came close to the edge. Over-hunting and egg-eating mongooses (which are diurnal) introduced in a very poorly researched plan to control rats (which are nocturnal, meaning the two species rarely meet) reduced numbers from 25,000 to a pitiful 20 or so birds by 1949.
The species seemed doomed. Luckily a few birds were live-captured in 1950, three of which were sent to WWT’s breeding facility at Slimbridge. Since then over 2,200 birds have been released back into the wild, some 200 of these from Slimbridge. If you visit Big Island, Hawaii, you will encounter nene waddling on their reinforced, leathery feet across the spiky lava plains of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
|An old reservoir in Barnes, southwest London, has been converted back to a wetland, where the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust works to save endangered waterfowl.|
The beautiful Baikal teal was once widespread, breeding in Russia and wintering in China, Korea and (bad mistake) Japan. The teal migrated in large flocks and followed predictable flight paths. Overhunting led to teal population collapse, then an emergency captive-breeding program at the WWT.
The good news on the Baikal teal is that in January 1999 a flock of 168,000 was observed at the Haenam tidal flats in southwest Korea. The bad news is, there’s talk of a Haenam land-reclamation project, along the lines of Japan’s disastrous Isahaya Bay project.
At the Wetland Centre the teal are breeding well.
There are currently 45 species and subspecies of waterfowl threatened with extinction worldwide. Many are represented at the Wetland Centre.
Supplementing the wildlife is a regular program of activities such as pond dips, barbecues followed by searches for nocturnal creatures, woodcarving courses, bird-ringing demonstrations and articulate lectures.
Any time of year is good for a visit. Birds, like few other creatures, dramatically link the different parts of our planet with their seasonal flights. Definite and obvious evidence that no country, not even Britain, is an island.