Allison Parkes, Barbican Wildlife Garden volunteer
The Barbican Wildlife Garden (BWG) is a “green gem in the heart of the City of London!” It is one of three residents’ Gardens on the Barbican Estate and is approximately ten minutes walk from St Paul’s Cathedral. The Garden is designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation.
First laid out as an amenity garden in the 1970s when the Estate was built, it became a wildlife garden in 1990 and since 2003 has been tended by a group of local community volunteers, with the help of City Gardeners. It is dedicated to the encouragement of wildlife and biodiversity in the City of London, one of the most urban areas in the country. To achieve this, planting in the Garden focusses on habitat creation and providing food for wildlife. All green waste is managed within the Garden and compost is produced on site. In 2018 and 2019, the Garden was recognised as “Outstanding” in the ‘Its Your Neighbourhood’ category of London In Bloom; an achievement repeated again this year following desktop judging of written submissions.
The BWG is 0.17 hectares of loveliness! We have a meadow which is hand scythed annually and two borders of hedging which include mature plane trees. There are two ponds and a small orchard of ‘rescued’ fruit trees. There is a much loved small bird hide, complete with a white board for observations. We have bird boxes and feeders, and a network of paths dotted with perching logs and benches. However, as this is The City we are surrounded by offices and residential tower blocks and we must work with extensive shading, shallow soils and, more recently, hot dry summers.
During the last few years the BWG volunteers have been watching and recording the wildlife the Garden supports. We have more than three years of unbroken weekly records of sightings, so that’s over 150 weeks of data. All this data has been shared with GiGL. Every week (sightings are often made over several days) a volunteer or resident visitor will have spent some time observing what they see and/or hear and (pre-Covid19) will have noted their observations on the bird hide white board.
With research and data collection on-going, we have so far recorded over 280 wildlife species (vertebrates & invertebrates) in the Garden, including 33 bird species, 17 butterfly species and ten species of dragonfly. The list also includes the lesser stag beetle, which, along with the house sparrow, is under severe threat in London.
I’m sure you will appreciate this recording adds up to a great deal of time spent in what we would describe as a joyful activity, but does all this effort make a difference or are we wasting our time? Does recording the robin that visits a garden most days, really help in any way at all?
In more ways than one it seems it does help. It’s possible that as well as participants making a direct contribution to research, schemes for recording wildlife are opportunities for personally transformative experiences that benefit wider society, as well as the individual.
Personal experiences and connections with nature not only provide powerful benefits for individual and societal health (perhaps our GP’s should start prescribing an hour of local wildlife watching?), but also improve a person’s sense of wellbeing and increases civic action in support of conservation.
So, the simple act of recording what you see or hear not only provides insights into the drivers of change and informs management of nature but also cultivates a love of nature and scientific understanding. This is empowering and engenders hope in an age of depressing and seemingly uncontrollable extinction. GiGL as the recipient of our data, shares all this knowledge with a much wider audience, thus enabling stakeholders to make informed decisions. In turn this allows for London’s natural environment to be better understood and hopefully better managed.
In writing this article, I asked the Garden’s volunteers “What do you enjoy about our Garden’s wildlife?” Their answers reflected a deep appreciation of a having a “wild space” to escape to:
For a volunteer who has been involved with the garden for twelve years, it is the
“adaptability of all forms of wildlife to, what appears to be, an unpromising environment – an ex-bombsite, heavily shaded by trees and tall buildings etc. …yet over a period of twelve years we have seen its biodiversity increase steadily to the point that it is now one of the richest wildlife habitats in the City of London.“
My own feelings echo those already expressed. I love the constant surprise and delight at the diversity and amount of wildlife the Garden supports and the changes we see each season. You really can switch off very quickly from the traffic noise and other worldly distractions and become immersed in the drama occurring between two argumentative goldfinches, or the thrill of sensing the curiosity of a young fox cub or the first appearance last year of a gatekeeper butterfly, and this year a brown argus, or some other new to the Garden bee, beetle or bug.
Coupled with the personal thrill of a sighting, there is also the pleasure of sharing the excitement with the other volunteers. It is also knowing that the record is scientifically relevant, as well as helping to safeguard “our patch” from future development, which is a constant concern.
Diving in a little deeper, Plymouth University have shown “that our cravings for cigarettes, alcohol and junk food are reduced by views of greenspace. Access to gardens and allotments, and even being able to see areas with more than 25% greenspace, were both associated with reductions in the strength and frequency of cravings”. Even greater then, is the growing and powerful argument for classing urban greenspace as a medical as well as a social and biodiversity benefit.
And returning to those carefully counted and recorded weekly sightings, by knowing what we have in our garden, its management can be better focussed. And we do know, thanks to the many hours spent in a free activity with far-reaching benefits. We are, of course, learning more all the time and constantly work to improve our knowledge so we can do what is best for the wildlife we cherish. Living amongst concrete definitely accentuates our desire to seek out the natural world and preserve and enhance its existence.
So, go spot those goldfinch, whether in your garden or local park, and join in with a recording scheme. Email your results to the lovely team at GiGL – you will be doing yourself and the wildlife of London a favour!
With thanks to Debbie Lee (BTO) and Leanne Martin and colleagues of Plymouth University with regards to research information provided for this article. All photos have been taken in the BWG.