Although it is real easy to assume that it’s the little people who look after all the lovely spaces we’ve been writing about in Nature-ist, the truth is of course somewhat more prosaic. Each borough in London has its own ecology officer, responsible for colouring in all the green bits everyday, polishing leaves, hugging trees, training ducks. Oh alright, so now we’re just being silly: but although Mother Nature is a pretty good gardener, she does need a helping hand sometimes. We caught up with Jon Best, ecology officer for Southwark Council, to get his take on nature in London.
How did you get into this as a career?
I got into this through volunteering. I was a chef for over 10 years but started to spend my holidays on week long residential conservation projects with the National Trust. The realisation that there was an other world outside the kitchen and it was a more long term and gentle world made me change my career.
What do you actually do?
Where do I start? I manage the boroughs ecology in over 130 parks and green spaces. We have 60 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation that require specific management and many ecology issues relating to the built environment. I lead volunteer conservation work days, organise and review management of ecology areas. Chair the Southwark Biodiversity Partnership. Review and comment on planning applications, deal with public and council enquires and offer advice, undertake projects to promote and enhance native habitat and species. I could go on........
How green is London compared with other cities?
I think it is very green. London is the only city in Britain that has a statutory duty to protect biodiversity. London also has some great areas of natural habitat with everything from chalk grassland, wetlands, ancient woodland to heathland. London’s habitat is very well connected with the gardens and street trees linking the matrix together. Some people say there is more nature in the city than there is in the countryside excluding some of the large mammals and farmland birds that may be true.
What’s your favourite bit of natural London?
And its best kept natural secret?
Countisbury House Lawns, Crescent Wood Road in Sydenham Hill. This is one of the few places in London where corky fruited water dropwort grows. Visit in June and the plant of the umbelliferae family is sporting a pretty white flower. For years the lawns were on a standard 2 weekly mowing regime but we changed the mowing and now it can bee seen in its full glory from shoot to seed.
What’s the biggest hazard facing Nature in London?
Neatness. I think some people are unaware of what’s in their local patch, be it their garden or the local green space. Many gardens, housing estates, and small parks are intensively managed. I have seen good wildlife habitat ripped out in the name of neatness or safety, with wildflowers mown to death because that’s how a lawn should look or bird nests disturbed through clean ups. We can have both managed and natural habitat with natural habitat being managed at the edges so people know it’s meant to be there.
What about endangered species? Are there any flowers or animals in London that we need to worry about?There are quite a lot of species that could do with our help in London.
Bats are one and so are house sparrows, stag beetles, and house martins. If people have gardens there are 4 things you can do to really make a difference: create a compost heap, build a pond, and plant native honeysuckle. Lastly leaving dead wood in your garden will help the nationally threatened stag beetle. If you have a house martin nest in your eves please do not remove it the birds are endangered and if left alone they will return to the same nest year after year.
Tell us something really funny that has happened in the course of your job.
I have had people claim to have seen all sorts of animals in Southwark. One person said they had seen budgerigars, cockatoos, and parrots in their local park and they regularly came down and fed off their hand!
How can Londoners get more involved with nature at a *grass roots* level?
Ask their local council to make space for nature, be it in the local park or in the public realm. Join Friends of parks groups and get involved in volunteering.
Is the future green?
Yes I think that changing attitudes and climate change will be driving factors in the future. It is simple really, if we build spaces for nature, nature will come.