LONDON has for centuries been famous - or infamous - for its wild life, which the adventurous have sought to their cost. But now many are seeking the city's wildlife, which is proving much less hazardous. Whatever flora and fauna have made it through to our times are now fiercely defended by armies of nature conservationists. They are determined not only to preserve what has remained untouched by the hand of urbanization but - where possible - to reintroduce indigenous species that have not.
Until the 18th century, London consisted of little more than a hotchpotch of streets clustered around the ancient City. What we now regard as central London consisted of country villages ringed by woodlands, heaths, and farmland. Late in the 18th century, however, the area north of Oxford Street, now one of the busiest streets in the world, was lost to farmers when urban sprawl began in earnest.
Since the onset of 19th-century urban development, most people have probably felt that London's flora and fauna were doomed. Indeed, many species seemed to be lost causes until the introduction of the Clean Air Bill and simultaneous efforts to clean up the Thames in the 1950s. Since then, wildlife has made a remarkable recovery. Today, if you take to your feet and open your eyes, there is a lot to see.
For years I have been delighted to see the first spring primroses gladdening an otherwise dull railway embankment on my regular commute into the city, and slightly less glad to see them replaced by rosebay willow herb later in the year. The sudden crash landing of a kestrel on my office windowsill left me wondering if it had not strayed far out of its territory. Apparently not! Kestrels have been nesting on the rooftops of some of London's most famous buildings for years, and have developed a taste for the hapless sparrow, to be found in plenty.
Londoners and visitors alike are now being encouraged to take an interest in this living heritage. Dr. David Goode, head of the Greater London Ecology Unit, has written a very personal account of London's natural sights and sounds. His book, ``Wild in London,'' details areas both large and small, natural and man-made, famous and obscure where one may enjoy the countryside experience.