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'London is great for wildlife'

Sydenham Hill Wood
Sydenham Hill Wood is a great place to see rare insects, birds and bats

By Boc Ly
BBC London

The chair of the London Wildlife Trust talks to BBC London about the organisation's role in protecting the capital's green spaces and picks his top five nature sites that are worth a visit.

Justin Dillon was a schoolteacher in 1981 when he became a member of the newly-formed London Wildlife Trust (LWT).

Nearly three decades later, Justin is now a senior lecturer in Science and Environmental Education at King's College London and, for the last eight years, he has been the chair of the LWT.

The LWT now manages about 50 sites throughout London - 'some are impressive, some not so impressive' says Justin - and has several thousand members and many more volunteers who help out and take part in wildlife conservation activities.

Justin Dillon
Justin Dillon is also a senior lecturer

"One reason why the LWT is the newest wildlife trust out of the 47 across the country is because people didn't really associate urban areas with wildlife," says Justin.

"They thought you needed to go to the countryside to get wildlife but, of course, if you look closely you see an enormous amount."

The greenest of cities

The common perception of London as a modern urban metropolis belies the diversity of the natural world to be found within the city. After all, one-third of London is open or green space.

"You can see almost any part of the plant and animal world," insists Justin.

"You've got bats, a whole range of birds including the fastest animal in the world which is the Peregrine falcon, small mammals, a range of invertebrates and plants and fungi, some of which are quite peculiar to London."

It is so diverse, he adds, partly because London is fairly big anyway and also because of immigrant species from all over the world who have made the city their home and as a result, helped to shape its environment.

Wild politics

Something else that separates the LWT from other wildlife groups around the country is London's unique governance structure.

Whereas other trusts may have to work with one or two local authorities, the LWT needs to work with 32 boroughs, the Greater London Authority and the Mayor's office.

Although Boris Johnson has limited powers in terms of environmental policy, Justin says he is 'astonishingly important in terms of being a figurehead for a whole stream of policy.'

The LWT and in particular its chief executive, Carlo Laurenzi, works hard to influence policy makers and to ensure that the wildlife lobby has a voice in the politicians' ears.

Stepping down

The LWT's chair is an unpaid role and is elected by the charity's board of trustees, who in turn are elected by its membership.

Justin Dillon, who devotes up to one and a half days a week on LWT business on top of his day job, will be stepping down as chair in November.

Before his departure Justin has picked five wildlife spots in London that he believes are most worth a visit.

Centre for Wildlife Gardening

Centre for Wildlife Gardening
The centre was recently awarded a Green Pennant

"This site in Peckham used to be a local council depot for dustcarts and things like that. Local people in 1981 lobbied for a wildlife gardening centre and this has now become known as a centre for excellence. It is an award-winning eco-building and the centre helped to create the LWT's gold medal winning garden at the Hampton Court Garden Show.

You go there and can see a whole range of birds and plants. It's a nice little niche site in inner London."

East Reservoir Community Garden

East Reservoir Community Garden
The Community Garden has been open one year

"A year ago the East Reservoir Community Garden was essentially just a patch of mud, on the edge of a large housing estate. It has only been open a year but it recently won a Green Pennant, a national scheme for recognizing community-based green areas.

What's good about this site is that it brings in a whole range of people who would not normally get associated with working in the environment. Traditionally it is the urban, white middle-class. Now we are trying to broaden our appeal to make it much more representative of London's diversity."

Camley Street Natural Park

"At St Pancras, as you're sitting on the Eurostar platform, to the east you'll see the Camley Street Natural Park which was again formed in the early 1980s when it was a coal depot.

Camley Street Natural Park
Camley Street used to be a coal depot

Local people fought and have set up a nature reserve, which I think opened in '82 and it's a real gem. It has a lake, a whole range habitats and a meadow. It is one of the few urban green spaces in the centre of London.

On the 7/7 bombings in King's Cross thousands of people were taken to Camley Street for sanctuary. We've planted a tree to mark that tragic event."

Camley Park was recently awarded a Green Flag Award.

Crane Park Island

Crane Park Island
Volunteers at Crane Park Island

"Crane Park Island, near Twickenham, is a very different site surrounded by wetlands. You can see kingfishers and you might get to see the fairly rare water vole, which the LWT has been campaigning to protect.

You will also see the green parakeets which came to Britain in the 50s or 60s. Some people don't like them but they add a flash of colour to the London skyline."

Sydenham Hill Wood

Sydenham Hill Wood

"Sydenham Hill Wood is a mix of very old woods and a Victorian garden escape.

There is a railway tunnel that is now a roost for bats and it is a great place to see a whole range of plants, about 200 species of them.

Again, it's suburban but still a great place to go to see wildlife."




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