The Wild Side of Town

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Birds crisscross the sky over southwest London. The big metal ones, their bodies glistening in colorful corporate plumage, sweep noisily along their flight paths into Heathrow Airport. Below them, the small feathered kind, also in varied liveries, circle, swoop and dive, coming to rest in their own safe haven. For them, port is the 43-hectare Wetland Centre, the British capital's newest attraction and Europe's largest urban wetland-creation project.

As the Canada goose and the kestrel fly, the site in Barnes — a prosperous London residential area with a village-like feel on the south bank of the Thames — is less than 8 km from Piccadilly Circus. Its opening to the public last month fulfilled a dream of the painter and naturalist Peter Scott, who died in 1989, and who was the son of the Antarctic legend Robert Falcon Scott. "This is a place for birds and people in the heart of London. That is what Peter wanted," said his widow, Philippa Scott, honorary director of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (W.W.T.). Her husband founded the trust in 1946 to "save wetlands for wildlife and people."

While most wetlands — fragile areas where earth and water meet — draw visitors away from urban centers, the Barnes site brings the natural world into the city. "This is a wonderful, idyllic, romantic dream," enthused the wildlife documentary filmmaker David Attenborough. "A dream that goes back to St. Francis ... a dream that human beings and the wild creatures can live in harmony with each other."

Around the globe, wetlands, wildlife and people are closely interconnected, so mutually dependent that an international treaty — the Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971 — obliges its now 121 signatories to designate and protect their significant wetlands and to promote their "wise use." More than 1,000 sites, representing over 78 million hec-tares, are now on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance — well over 600 of them in Europe and roughly 180 of those in Britain and Ireland alone. In the battle to reverse the trend of wetland loss — caused by pollution, development and exploitation — Britain has "some of the best environmental protection in operation," thanks to legislation and European directives, says Dr. David Hill, chief executive of Ecoscope Applied Ecologists, a Yorkshire consultancy firm.

While wetlands are broadly defined and ever-changing, in number and diversity of species they are, some contend, second only to tropical rainforests. Apart from their value as sources of food, recreation and raw materials — including reeds for baskets, mats and chair seats — wetlands absorb some chemicals, filter pollutants and sediments, store water, help in flood control and reduce erosion. Marshes, fens, peat bogs, rivers, lakes, swamps, lagoons, reedbeds, floodplains, even shallow coral reefs, all are wetlands. So, too, are such human constructions as ponds, canals, fish farms, salt pans, sewage sites, rice paddies and, as in Barnes, reservoirs.

After years of haggling, ground was broken for the $25 million Wetland Centre in 1995 on the site of four disused Victorian-era reservoirs owned by Thames Water, a site known as Barn Elms. "Just look at what Ôunreasonable' people have created," marveled Bill Alexander, chief executive of the water company, which helped finance the center by selling part of its land to property developer Berkeley Homes for the construction of luxury residences on the northern edge of the nature reserve, close to the Thames.

Under the mutually beneficial arrangement, the W.W.T. is to pay Thames Water a nominal rent. The London-based organization Business in the Environment — which promotes good environmental behavior as a sound business practice — hailed the Wetland Centre as "a superb example of collaboration between business and conservation" in its productive use of derelict land, enhancement of biodiversity and promotion of sustainable transport policies. Indeed, visitors to the center are urged to arrive by train, bus, bicycle or on foot. Parking fees for cars are linked to the number of passengers.

Roaming on the "Wildside," visitors can observe (either in the open air or from within "hides" and towers) some of the more than than 130 bird species already recorded at the center, from the common teal to the rarely seen spotted crake — plus a wide variety of butterflies, bats, dragonflies, amphibians and aquatic plants. Elsewhere, a range of indoor and outdoor exhibits await exploration. International wetland habitats have been re-created, representing African floodplains, Asian rice paddies, Middle Eastern reedbeds, boggy Siberian tundra, tropical swamps and more, and then stocked with wildfowl indigenous to those areas. Green-thumbed visitors can pick up tips on environmentally friendly gardening, while children can get a close look at the tiny creatures living beneath the surface of a pond. Like W.W.T. founder Scott, bird enthusiasts can observe the bill patterns of Bewick's swans, noting as he did that each is as unique as a human fingerprint. It is this blend of the wild and the educational within the city limits, says Attenborough, that makes the center "a model for the millennium."

Such sites, Hill hopes, will help to bridge the gap between urban dwellers and the wider, more biodiverse environment. He adds, however, that such projects "are no substitute for having proper environmental protection laws and management regimes over vast areas of farmland and coastal lands that provide the majority of habitat for most of the bird species that live in Europe."

Working with member states, the European Union has designated 1,600 Special Protection Areas to safeguard 181 threatened species and subspecies of wild birds, totaling 100,000 sq km — an area larger than the entire Benelux region. For example, Berlin, a notably "green" capital, has under protection the Tiefwerder Wiese reedbed, just west of the city, where the River Spree enters the Havel. Hamburg has launched a project to transform the Outer Alster canals into shallow-water zones, thereby providing habitats for wading birds. Elsewhere, efforts have been made to preserve such favorite spots of migratory species as North Bull Island in Dublin Bay and the Tagus estuary near Lisbon.

Years before the Wetland Centre was created, birds stopped to winter or to breed at the Barn Elms reservoirs, leading to a designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Today, even as the Heath-row-bound jets roar above them, the wild creatures are at home in their urban sanctuary.


— With reporting by James Graff/Brussels