The Walthamstow safari

Walthamstow Wetlands, one of the largest urban nature reserves in Europe, is due to open next year. The Waltham Cat takes a tour

It’s easy to forget that you’re spitting distance from Tottenham Hale and Blackhorse Road stations when you enter the developing site at Walthamstow Wetlands. The tweets of songbirds and the squawking of geese replace the cheerless din of Forest Road as soon as you step through the gate.

The reservoirs are owned and managed by Thames Water. The London Wildlife Trust, with help from Waltham Forest and Hackney councils, is leading the Walthamstow Wetlands project. The wetlands, which is set to open in spring 2017, aims to be the biggest urban wetlands conservation area in Europe. It is the largest in London.

A guided tour with Wildlife Trust community engagement officer Rachel Smith and volunteer ‘Wetlands Steve’ is free and a good use of two hours.

The guides started their tour at the Marine Engine House. It was built in 1894 as the Ferry Lane Pumping station, but changed its name somewhere along the line. In the future this will be home to a cafe and an exhibition centre for art and photography, as well as an education hub for schools.

Fenced off for decades while the reservoirs were in use, the vast expanse of land – some 211 hectares – is teeming with wildlife. So much so that the site has been designated an area of international importance under the Ramsar convention, which means it has the same conservation status as the Nile and Amazon rivers.

There are lots of birds here. The grey heron, little egret, cormorant, kingfisher, tufted duck, shoveler, gadwall, pochard, red-crested pochard, garganey, mandarin, scaup, red-breasted merganser, wigeon, green and common sandpiper, dunlin, redshank, lapwing, plover, curlew, ruff, snipe, oystercatcher, wood sandpiper, whimbrel, golden plover, little stint, bittern, plus many more breeds of ducks and geese come to the wetlands. There are those that don’t need to live near water, such as the finches, tits, hawks, falcons and parakeets.

Two hectares of reed beds are being created by pump dredging – pumping silt from under the ground into the water that gathers on the banks. The reeds attract birds like reed bunting, Cetti’s warbler and bittern while providing a safe haven for fish eggs, which may otherwise be eaten by cormorants.

I spotted about four little egrets, which were nearly hunted to extinction at turn end of the 20th century in the name of fashion, specifically, ladies’ hats. Walthamstow Wetlands is the only place in London where little egrets have been known to successfully breed. The egrets live in the heronries alongside the grey herons, of which there are around 100 breeding pairs. With a wingspan of around six feet, they look a bit ungainly roosting in the highest branches of tall trees.

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At Cormorant Island, which is snowy white with droppings, around 100 pairs of the birds now nest. Despite their tremendous ability to dive and hunt for fish, there is a design fault: the birds’ feathers are not waterproof, as they lack the preen oil that ducks have, so they stand with their wings outstretched to dry them off.

The ominous Coppermill building has been standing in one form or another for a long time. According to the Domesday book (1086) there has ‘always’ been a mill there, so perhaps it’s prehistoric. It has been used for grain, corn, gunpowder during the civil war (1650s), linseed, leather, paper and copper. It was here that the Walthamstow Penny was manufactured, in response to the shortage of currency being produced by the government.

From the hill near the Coppermill building, London’s cityscape is visible and safely in the distance. The Cheesegrater, the Walkie Talkie and Heron Tower now overshadow the Gherkin. Numerous cranes poise, ready to hoist more glass and concrete into the skies. Walthamstow Wetlands may well look like barren wasteland from the view from Heron Tower, but I know where I’d much rather be.

To find out more about the wetlands or about volunteering, click here.

Next up: Bats.

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