Conserving Nature in London

David Bevan.

Presidential Address delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the London Natural History Society, in December 1992.

Originally published in "The London Naturalist", No. 72, pages 9-14. 1993.
London Natural History Society and the author.

Figure 1

Buddleia on the Parkland Walk in north London, once a railway line, now the Capital's longest Local Nature Reserve

The present high level of interest in urban nature conservation is of comparatively recent origin, but the involvement of the London Natural History Society (LNHS) can be traced back at least 50 years to the early years of the last Great War. In 1942 the then Ministry of Town and Country Planning had approached the London Natural History Society with a request for a list of potential nature reserves in the London area (Anon,1943). These were to be considered for incorporation into a Greater London Plan which was to address the post-war development of London. Thus was formed the Society's Nature Reserves Sub-Committee which was later to evolve into our long-standing Nature Conservation Committee. They duly prepared a list of proposed sites and these are included, complete with a map, as an Appendix to a paper by C.P. Castell (1946) in The London Naturalist entitled "Nature Conservation in the London Area". The Greater London Plan 1944 (Abercrombie, 1945) was something of a disappointment in so far as it gave no consideration to the general problems of nature conservation. It did, however, devote a short paragraph to nature reserves, quoted in Castell (1946):

"There are few nature reserves in the London Region; they might well be increased in number. The difficulty in a populous region is to fence them off or to enclose them inconspicuously. Human intrusion may be quite unwitting, but there is also the natural curiosity to penetrate into what appears to be set apart. On the other hand people should be encouraged to rejoice that some few places are left free for wildlife: the plantations within Richmond Park are examples of the attraction of forbidden ground: they should not tempt to invasion".

As can be seen, the emphasis at that time was very much on fencing nature off and keeping people out! The "few nature reserves" mentioned were drawn from those originally identified by the Society and were largely confined to the newly designated Green Belt. Many were later to be notified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest under the provisions of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. By that time, the L.N.H.S. "recognising that nature conservation would become an increasingly important feature of the Society's activities" (Castell, 1946), had set up its permanent "Nature Conservation Committee". For many years this was to remain the only body in London specifically concerned with nature conservation. Its annual reports published in the London Naturalist from 1950 chart the progress made and the setbacks encountered over a period of more than thirty years. They make fascinating and instructive reading, but in this short address I can but pick out a few examples of the committee's many and varied activities. In the 1950's under the chairmanship of Cynthia Longfield, the Committee was continuing its work identifying sites (Longfield and Castell, 1952). By this time representatives from the various vice-counties in our area were sending in their own reports. In 1952, for example, Eric Groves, then representing our Surrey area, compiled a sixty page report giving details of 33 recommended sites. This was presented to the Nature Conservancy and gave ample evidence for the need to schedule further areas. (It would be fair to say that the great majority of existing Sites of Special Scientific Interest (S S S I) in London were originally identified by members of our Committee. A useful list of those notified in Greater London up to 1983 was included by Keith Betton (1984) in his Presidential Address. A few more have been added subsequently).

In addition to identifying important conservation sites the Committee acted in an advisory capacity. In 1952, for example Stanley Cramp, then the Middlesex representative, was instrumental in encouraging the L.C.C. Parks Department to set up a bird sanctuary in Holland Park - the last remnant of semi-natural woodland in central London.

From 1954 to 1960 the London Naturalist (Nos 33-39) carried a series of reports entitled "Nature Conservation in the London Area". They were written by officers of the Nature Conservancy and describe the various threats to S S S Is within our area at that time. They also record the agonisingly slow progress towards statutory Local Nature Reserve status of the site now known as the Ruislip Lido. The L.N.H.S. and the Ruislip Natural History Society had together identified this Site and had persuaded the local council to manage it as a nature reserve in 1952, but it had to wait until 6 May 1959 for official declaration as southern England's first statutory Local Nature Reserve (Macfadyen and Gay, 1959).

In the late 1950's the County Naturalists' Trusts for Berks, Bucks, Essex, Kent and Surrey were inaugurated. They were soon to be followed in 1963, by the Herts and Middlesex Trust. This was a significant development and somewhat eased the burden of our hard-pressed Committee. C.P. Castell, the committee's long-standing Secretary reported that 1961 had been a quiet year. "This placidity may, perhaps, be due to an apparent reduction in the number and seriousness of threats to our conservation areas, but is more likely to be the result of increased activity of other societies and the County Naturalists Trusts in our area, combined with the usual apathy of our members, at least towards this Society's conservation needs". (Castell, 1962). Nature conservation was apparently proving something of an uphill struggle at that time! In his final report as secretary, Castell (1963) expressed the hope that the Society would "take a prominent part in the future in collaborating with the Trusts in conservation matters". In the years that followed this partnership was to become increasingly important, with representatives of the Trusts liaising closely with the Society.

In their report for 1969, the Committee described how Mr Milne-Redhead, acting on behalf of the L.N.H.S., had organised the collection and sowing of over half a million bluebell seeds (Hersey, 1970), Half were to be sown at the foot of Star and Garter Hill in Richmond, and the rest were sown in Highgate Wood. I have no information about the outcome in Richmond, but I believe that many of the bluebells still surviving in Highgate Wood derive from this valuable experiment.

To celebrate "European Conservation Year" in 1970 the Society arranged a special programme of activities on a conservation theme(Small, 1972). They were most ably organised by Pearl Small who was to chair the Conservation Committee throughout most of the following decade. At that time the Committee consisted of approximately 20 people. It should be remembered that, then as now, the society employed no paid staff and its officers and members were all extremely busy people. Looking back today, it is remarkable how much was achieved with such slender means. In 1972, for example, the committee played a prominent part in the successful campaign to save Staines Moor from the recurrent threat of gravel extraction (Small, 1973).

Throughout the seventies the ravages of dutch elm disease were all too apparent, and the Committee faced an uphill struggle in its attempts to persuade park superintendents to leave the dead elms alone wherever they did not constitute a hazard. Much unnecessary felling and "tidying up" took place (McCord, 1978).

The inauguration of the London Wildlife Trust in 1981 marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. The L.N.H.S. had been at the centre of conservation work in London for nearly 40 years. Now the London Wildlife Trust was the obvious body to carry on the work. John Montgomery was to play a central role in smoothing this potentially difficult transition. He was at that time not only chairman of our own Committee, but also chairman of the Surrey Trust. He was thus ideally placed to calm the inevitable anxieties of the County Trust around London, who were understandably fearful of a loss of membership and an erosion of territory (Smyth, 1987). He became chairman of the new Trust's Conservation Committee and the L.N.H.S. gave a grant of 500 towards the salary of its newly appointed conservation officer.

At this time, there was a growing awareness within the wider conservation movement, of the increasing importance of urban conservation. Here, the emphasis had swung away from a concentration on the rare and spectacular towards an appreciation of the commonplace and familiar. There was a realisation (fully debated during the lengthy passage through Parliament of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and underlined in Marion Shoard's book The Theft of the Countryside (Shoard, 1980) that rural habitats were fast disappearing and that rare species were all too often becoming extinct. The urban habitat itself, with its disused railway lines and canals, abandoned sewage works and derelict land of all kinds had begun to receive attention in a new way. These habitats had been largely ignored or overlooked in the past, by traditional nature conservation. Richard Mabey's book The Unofficial Countryside (Mabey, 1973), had given such places a new sort of respectability. By 1975 even the Nature Conservancy Council, who until then had paid scant regard to the urban environment, began to realise its rich potential. They had, in that year, commissioned a survey of the industrial West Midlands so as to be better able to advise on its wildlife and wildlife habitats. Thus was born Bunny Teagle's evocative study The Endless Village (Teagle, 1978). He showed how wildlife was a vital part of our cities and had a important contribution to make towards urban renewal. In the final chapter, "A way ahead", Teagle summed up his vision for the future: "Over-riding all is the need to interest people in their wildlife heritage, to make it clear that the crowded towns are by no means devoid of natural history interest and to develop through both formal and informal education, a knowledge of the fauna and flora of the area and the desire for its continued existence".

In London, the London Wildlife Trust was to set about doing just that. By 1987 the Trust had 16 permanent staff and a membership of 5500, placing it in the top ten of the league table of R.S.N.C. trusts (Smyth, 1987). At that time they were managing 25 sites in the Capital. Today they are involved in the management of no less than 58 reserves throughout London. (Roger Taylor, pers. comm.). Their widely publicised campaigns, including "Foxwatch" and "Owl Prowl" have helped to raise the awareness of ordinary people about wildlife in London and they have been actively involved in the defence of a large number of threatened green sites throughout the Capital.

Shortly after their inauguration, there followed another event which was to have equally far reaching consequences for nature conservation in London. This was the setting up, in 1982, of an "Ecology Section" by the Greater London Council to advise Local Authorities on ecological matters. The Section was later to evolve into the London Ecology Unit (currently funded by the majority, but not all, of the London boroughs) following the abolition of the G.L.C. in 1986. One of their first actions was to commission the London Wildlife Trust to carry out a strategic survey of all sites of possible significant conservation interest in the Greater London Area. The habitats thus identified were chiefly assessed on the quality of their vegetation. The survey brought to light some valuable sites which had previously been missed and uncovered a number of rare plants. One of the more important of these discoveries was that of the narrow-leaved water-dropwort (Oenanthe silaifolia), a rare native umbellifer of doubtful previous occurrence in London, which was found growing in some quantity in damp meadowland near Yeading in the London Borough of Hillingdon (Hare, 1988). Results from this extensive survey have been used as one basis for a series of handbooks on ecological topics, produced by the London Ecology Unit. Thirteen of these describe the detailed ecology of individual boroughs, and more are in preperation. The London Ecology Unit has grown into an impressive and innovative organization which offers advice to subscribing local authorities and provides expert witnesses for them at public inquiries.

Now many local authorities have become actively involved in conserving their green spaces: my own borough, Haringey, was something of a pioneer in this field, being the first in London to appoint a conservation officer in 1984 and the first to publish a detailed "Nature Conservation Strategy" (Hope, 1986).

One reflection of the local authorities' new found enthusiasm for nature conservation has been the recent dramatic rise in Local Nature Reserve (LNR) declarations in London. Such Reserves are selected by the local authority in consultation with English Nature, under Section 21 of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. Today there are over 200 LNRs in England on sites which span a wide range of interests and uses (English Nature, 1991). However, in London only three such Reserves (at Ruislip, Perivale and Scadbury Park) had been declared before 1987 and the first of these has already been mentioned. All were essentially rural in character. On November 19th 1987, a fourth site, The Gunnersbury Triangle was declared by Hounslow Council. The circumstances that led up to this important declaration are vividly described in David Goode's book, Wild in London (Goode, 1986). This was emphatically not a rural site. It was surrounded on all three sides by railway lines and had only been in existence for a mere forty years. As Dr. Goode pointed out, "It had none of the features which, in traditional nature conservation terms, would make it a place worth preserving". Nevertheless, the woodland that had grown up on it provided the only genuinely wild place for miles around and it was greatly cherished by local people. British Rail, who owned the site, had applied for planning permission to put up warehousing over the whole of the triangle. This was refused by Hounslow Council and a public inquiry followed in 1983. The Inspector ruled that the development should not be allowed because of the considerable local ecological value. of the site This decision was hailed as an important precedent for urban nature conservation. Today (December 1992) there are 28 Local Nature Reserves in London and at least a dozen more have been formally welcomed (David Bentley, pers.comm). Many of these are also truly urban in character, none more so perhaps than that at Railway Fields, near Finsbury Park which, at 0.9 hectare, is currently the smallest LNR in London. Haringey also manages London's longest LNR, the Parkland Walk, (Figure 1) some 3.5 miles of land, once a railway line connecting Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace.

Local authorities are now in the process of publishing their Unitary Development Plans (UDPs) and many of these include detailed proposals for protecting even their smallest patches of green space. Haringey, for example has identified 54 such sites in its draft UDP (Haringey Council, 1992). There is a wide variety of sites including ancient woodland, urban parks, abandoned allotments, canals, reservoirs, and small ponds. Never before have London's green spaces been subjected to such detailed scrutiny and this has led to some remarkable new discoveries. In his book The Historical Flora of Middlesex. Kent (1975) included a list of 129 plants thought to have become extinct in the County. A surprising number of these have since been refound, and although some are best regarded as "casuals" and unlikely to persist, others may well become a permanent part of the flora again. Mention has already been made of the narrow-leaved water dropwort discovered at Yeading in 1984. Equally remarkable was the finding, in that same year (Burton 1985), of the wall bedstraw (Galium parisiense) by Brian Wurzell, growing on top of a wall in Tottenham. This inconspicuous annual had last been seen in Middlesex "at Hackney, on a wall" almost 300 years before, in 1690, the only previous record from the County (Kent, 1975). The plant is currently receiving protection as part of an ecologically sensitive conservation project. Wurzell was also responsible for another remarkable discovery: the mousetail (Myosurus minimus), a rare annual very seldom seem in the London Area, and found growing this time in the unlikely surroundings of Hyde Park (Burton, 1991). It was, perhaps not surprisingly, unable to survive here for very long. My own contribution to this list of newly found plants includes the lesser water plantain (Baldellia ranunculoides), in a pond near East Finchley in 1988 after an apparent absence of a mere 40 years (Burton, 1989). I was also pleased to refind a small colony of the attractive golden dock (Rumex maritimus) in 1982 growing in the rather less attractive base of a disused concrete sewage container at Bounds Green (Burton, 1983a). The colony survived here until 1988 and may well return; it has recently been reported from a few other Middlesex localities and may be increasing. Seed collected from the original colony germinated in 1992 and I have established a few plants at Railway Fields. The narrow-leaved hare's ear (Bupleurium tenuissimum) is less likely to return to Tottenham Marsh, from where I found a single plant in 1990 (Burton, 1991). It was previously seen (in abundance) on Ealing Common around 1860.

New discoveries in urban habitats are not confined to the plant kingdom. In August 1990, for example. a small colony of the long-tailed blue butterfly (Lampides boeticus) was found on railway land at Gillespie Park Nature Reserve in Islington (Bevan, 1991). What is more, the females were found to be ovipositing onto the flowers of the abundant bladder senna (Colutea arborescens), and a number of the resulting larvae were successfully bred in captivity. There have been a few previous records of the long-tailed blue in the London area (Plant, 1987) but none of successful breeding. Sadly the colony failed to survive the following winter.

One other recent discovery needs to be mentioned here because it has implications for conservation in London. The Sumatran Fleabane (Conyza sumatrensis) was first recorded in London (by Brian Wurzell) in 1984 and has subsequently spread at an alarming rate, partly, it seems, as a result of our recent run of hot summers (Wurzell, 1988). It is already present in many gardens in North London and is likely to become an increasingly problematic weed. It poses a significant threat also to wildlife conservation areas and other reserves where its invasive nature and competitive ability could suppress the native flora in the more open habitats that it favours. It has now arrived, for example, in all three coppices which have been cut in Queens and Coldfall Woods in Haringey (Bevan 1992) and it may be difficult to eradicate. The Society could play a valuable part here in monitoring its future movements.

In his Presidential Address for 1982, Rodney Burton identified the central function of a local natural history society as "the collecting of worthwhile and usable records" (Burton, 1983b). This function has never been more important than today. For despite all the attention being paid to London's green spaces and all the exciting new discoveries being made they remain essentially under-recorded. Informed decisions about their management and conservation can only be made if there is the fullest information available on their natural history. This information is also of vital importance whenever such sites are threatened by development.

The LNHS can make an important contribution towards this knowledge through its recording activities. As part of a new strategy for greater use of information technology the Society has recently purchased a powerful new computer on which we are just commencing the construction of a valuable biological data base. Information stored in such a system, which could be quickly retrieved, would be of enormous value when vulnerable conservation sites come under threat. The subject of computer technology is one where I tread most carefully, for I am aware that my knowledge is limited. Nevertheless I do see the possibilities and I hope that other members, better qualified than I, will pursue these.

The Society has just appointed me to the newly created post of Conservation Officer. I see the job, initially, as primarily one of communication - encouraging links between ourselves and other organisations concerned with conservation in London, such as the Wildlife Trusts, the London Ecology Unit, and English Nature.

I believe that this Society continues to have a role of vital importance to the common cause of conserving nature in London.


ABERCROMBIE, P. 1945 Greater London Plan 1944. H.M.S.O. London

ANON 1943. "Nature Reserves" Lond. Nat. 22:2

BETTON, K. 1984. The Sites of Special Scientific Interest in London. Lond. Nat. 63:7-13.

BEVAN, D. 1991. The long-tailed blue in Islington Butterfly Conservation News No 47: 29

BEVAN, D. 1992 The Natural History of Haringey's Ancient Woodlands.Lond. Nat. 71: 9-20.

BURTON, R.M. 1983a. Botanical Records for 1982 Lond. Nat. 62: 105-110.

BURTON, R.M. 1983b. The function of a Local Natural History Society. Lond. Nat. 62: 5-10

BURTON, R.M. 1985. Botanical Records for 1984. Lond. Nat. 64:113-124

BURTON, R.M. 1989. Botanical Records for 1988. Lond. Nat. 68:147-154

BURTON, R.M. 1991. Botanical Records for 1990. Lond. Nat. 70:153-162

CASTELL, C.P. 1946. Nature Conservation in the London Area. Lond. Nat. 26: 17-42

CASTELL, C.P. 1962. Report of the Society for 1961: Nature Conservation. Lond. Nat. 41: 6-8

CASTELL, C.P.1963. Nature Conservation in the London Area in 1962. Lond. Nat. 42: 101-104

ENGLISH NATURE, 1991. Local Nature Reserves in England. English Nature, Peterborough.

GOODE, D. 1986. A green renaissance. In: Wild in London. Michael Joseph,London.

HARE, T (Ed.). 1988 London's Meadows and Pastures. Ecology Handbook 8. London Ecology Unit, London.

HARINGEY COUNCIL, 1992. Haringey Draft Unitary Development Plan. Haringey Council, Directorate of Technical and Environmental Services.

HERSEY, D.C 1970). Conservation Report 1969. Lond. Nat. 49: 127-130.

HOPE, D 1986. Nature Conservation Strategy. Haringey Council, Parks Service.

KENT, D.H 1975. The Historical Flora Of Middlesex. Ray Society, London.

LONGFIELD, C. and CASTELL, C.P. 1952 Nature Conservation Committee's Report. Lond. Nat. 32: 122-123.

MABEY, R. 1973. The Unofficial Countryside Collins, London.

MacFADYEN, W.A. and Gay P.A. 1959. Nature Conservation in the London Area. Report on activities of the Nature Conservancy 1958-59. Lond. Nat. 39: 142-144.

McCORD, A. 1978. Conservation in the London Area 1977. Lond. Nat. 57: 68-69.

PLANT, C. 1987 The Butterflies of the London Area London Natural History Society, London.

SHOARD, M 1980. The Theft of the Countryside Temple Smith, London.

SMALL, L.M.P. 1972 Report on European Conservation Year 1970. Lond. Nat. 51: 77-80.

SMALL, L.M.P. 1973. Conservation Report 1972. Lond. Nat. 52: 114-115.

SMYTH, B. 1987. The Rise of Urban Wildlife Groups. In: City Wildspace. 65. Hilary Shipman, London.

TEAGLE, W.G. 1978. The Endless Village. Nature Conservancy Council, West Midlands Region

WURZELL, B. 1988. Conyza Sumatrensis (Retz) E Walker. Established in England. Watsonia 17: 145-148.

back to homepage

You can e-mail me at:

This page last maintained 10th Jan 1998