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.
Take St. James's Park, for instance. Few people who are aquainted with London are strangers to it, and yet who would have recognized it as ``the finest nature reserve in central London''? Flocks of black-headed gulls overwinter here, seeking refuge from the frozen wastes of the Baltic, and joining the hosts of ducks, geese, swans, and pelicans that are permanently at home on Duck Island, opposite Horseguards Parade. Feeding the birds here is a must, and you will be very unpopular if you arrive unprepared. Birds are no strangers to the park. Henry VIII first formed a garden here in about 1520 and paid a keeper to look after his animals and birds. Birdcage Walk to the south, takes its name from the aviaries that Charles II installed when it was his garden in the 17th century.
David Goode recommends, especially in winter, a longish walk through the royal parks, which stretch from Westminster to Kensington. After the chatter of St. James's there is the comparative calm of Green Park, furnished with nothing but stately plane trees. There are numerous species of birds to look for in the unlikely environs of Piccadilly. Wisely taking the underpass to avoid the treacherous rapids of traffic at Hyde Park corner, one comes up into Hyde Park, the largest of the parks, with 360 acres first carved out of the countryside by Henry VIII to form a deer park. The Dell at the east end of the Serpentine and the Lido along the south are a safe haven for many birds, such as cormorants, great crested grebes, and the occasional heron. The special atmosphere of the early morning would reward your efforts to see the birds busy fishing, riders exercizing their horses along Rotten Row, and rabbits and squirrels eagerly searching for breakfast. The views from the road bridge, east down the Serpentine and northwest up the Long Water are among the most beautiful in the city.
Kensington Gardens to the west is quite different. It may best be described as genteel, perhaps because of the presence of the Royal Palace (rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren at the end of the 17th century) and partly occupied today by some of the royal family. In the park may be seen many woodland birds among the oaks and sweet chestnuts.
But there is much, much more. The walks are endless: Holland Park, which contains many woodland birds and even tawny owls; Regents Park with its herons; and Battersea Park with its Canada geese. Further afield on the perimeter of greater London lie the great heaths and woodlands of Hampstead, Richmond, Epping Forest, Kings Wood, and Petts Wood, open spaces that are still remarkably intact.
Goode's book also points the way to less familiar corners - to railway embankments, reservoirs, derelict industrial sites, and cemeteries where nature appears to be rampant in every season.