Today’s wildlife adventure took place a couple of hundred metres from my office in Aldgate East, in the innermost city part of the City of London. I stood for 20 minutes at lunchtime and tried to work out how many species I could spot on the patch of waste ground I normally walk right past. Because I’d neglected to take notes, I lost count. But I definitely saw some ferns unfurling, docks, thistles, more types of grass than I could recognise, and nettles covered in various snails. Oh yes, plus different flies, bees and wasps (sorry, entomologists, I’m especially bad at naming insects).
What does this gloriously fecund area look like? Here’s a picture.
You’re looking at a total eyesore, aren’t you? Well, not quite. There’s beauty there – you’ve just got to work out how to recognise it, because it’s beauty of an unconventional kind.
From Eyesore to Ice Age
Let me tell you a story. This (and every) patch of waste ground hosts a small-scale replay of what Britain went through after the last ice age. As the ice gradually retreated, it scoured the earth clear of pretty much all life, just as waste ground is stripped at the beginning of dereliction. After such a profound purge, all new life must come from elsewhere, whether that’s local colonies of survivors, or places of refuge far away.
When life arrives, it occupies the territory in waves: first in are the pioneer species like mosses and lichens. These break up the surfaces they grow on and begin to create soil. You’ll often also find free-living blue-green algae, which enrich the soil by converting nitrogen in the atmosphere to soil-based nutrients.
Next come grasses and flowering plants, followed by perennials, then woody plants like brambles. Finally, if the site is left to its own devices, trees will grow, and eventually become woodland. This wave-like process of colonisation by plants has been much studied by ecologists, who call it succession.
A Miniature Eden
Because waste ground is uneven, and full of all sorts of rubble and junk with varying textures, it tends to contain a really large number of micro-habitats. And as succession moves on, more and more micro-habitats emerge: for example, grasses and brambles offer shelter to tender plants and seedlings, and also to animal life. It might not be what we normally think of as attractive, but every plot of derelict land is potentially a miniature garden of Eden, giving rise to all kinds of life.
And if that’s not a special kind of beauty, I don’t know what you’d call it.
Too Tidy for Wildlife
Contrast the patch of waste land above with the two manicured and very pleasant parks in the same area (pictures below). They’re lovely in their own way, and I’ve eaten my packed lunches in both of them, but they’re not bursting with wildlife in the same way. It’s important to know that whenever a derelict patch of land is developed, the variety of wildlife in the area tends to decrease.
Need this be the case? I don’t know, and indeed it seems defeatist to say that it does. What I do know is that I’d love to see more urban planning which really takes wildlife into account. But that’s a blog post for another day.
What do you think? Is there a compromise between a tidy area and wildlife-rich one? Have you seen any interesting wildlife on waste ground?