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Resuscitating Britain’s Breathing Places

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Resuscitating Britain’s Breathing Places

By Katie Lloyd

If birds are in my garden then I’m happy. Not just because I love birds and like spying the odd rarity such as a bullfinch or green woodpecker in the garden, but because if birds can fly anywhere they want and they happen to choose my garden then how can I not be happy with that? As it happens I don’t get many birds in my garden. My study overlooks my garden and the whole host of other gardens neatly packed into my suburban estate and unfortunately, whilst I sit with a blank page of unwritten work beside me looking out in the hope of spotting something other than a pigeon or a magpie, I don’t see much else. That’s not to say that pigeons and magpies aren’t birds, and aren’t good birds at that. They often make my procrastinating gazes worthwhile. Regardless of the fact that I haven’t the fortune of a garden which attracts a great diversity of bird species, I have managed to find somewhere that has. Quite a few places actually. Yes, the Western coasts of Scotland; the flat marshes of Norfolk; and the woodland hills of South Wales. Indeed all of the fifteen National Parks that Britain consists of are fantastic places to have a ramble and spot some wildlife. But not everyone has easy access to these beautiful reserves of life.

A Woodpecker on my garden feeder
Woodpecker on garden feeder

According to research carried out in 2007 nearly two million Brits have never been to our countryside. For most people that would be a horrendous thought; upon reading it I came over a bit hot, sweaty and claustrophobic. How can you spend your life living in a country with such magnificent countryside and never even see it? The reason of such an appalling statistic has to lie within education. If people don’t know what belongs to the natural world of Britain how do they know they want to go there? That can’t be left down to our tourist boards. The education system has a gaping hole where more can be done to teach children the life outside the classroom.

Then again, maybe people just can’t get to the countryside. If you don’t drive and can’t particularly afford the train fare to the back of beyond then there’s not much you can do but stay put. But just because we don’t all have the accessibility of the countryside at hand doesn’t mean we sit and ignore the nature and wildlife that surrounds our urban sprawls because somewhere nearby there is a little snapshot of that nature. Like gardens amidst a suburban estate our local parks lie larger and teeming with more life that you would at first think.

Our large and charming National Parks make wildlife watching so easy, but for most people they aren’t on our doorsteps. On the other hand our local parks are accessible every day, and, although they may not quite have the scenic attraction of our larger National Parks, they can give us something a little more than what our garden can.

Swan in local park
Swan in park, Buckinghamshire

Now, believe me, in appearance there is nothing special about my local park; it is but a small urban chunk of green which is continuously picked on by developers who see the ‘empty’ grassland as a waste when it is just waiting to become cold hard cash. Nevertheless the park still maintains a small lake which tends to be edged with rubbish of the kind that picnickers, geese-feeders and fishermen like to dispose of once they have used the park according to their needs. It also has a small stream, by which was once a good spot to sit and take in a summer’s afternoon, but now is edged with overgrown grasses and bramble and contains the remnants of three vandalised footbridges. Good job I don’t write for the tourist board isn’t it? These aspects of the park are quite upsetting to see. Especially since, many years ago, it was a particularly pleasant and well-maintained piece of land, which since developers have got their hands on it has been left to deteriorate. But – getting to my point – all this aside, there is still a great deal of wildlife residing in my local park. Walking my dog on a spring evening I get to see house martins skimming the surface of the lake and swallows dipping and diving for their dinners, on one occasion I even spied a stoat running across a path.

I said I would never do it, never become a ‘got-it’ birdwatcher that ticks and tallies but unfortunately last month, following an evening spying a badger and hearing a tawny owl’s hoot, I began listing ‘My Local Park Sightings’. Most days are certainly nothing to get excited about or worth writing an article about but luckily that chunk of green space, overrun with buildings, sometimes does grant me with the odd day of delight. Let’s take the entry for last Thursday’s walk:

Sightings: orange tip butterfly x 2; cabbage white x 3; painted lady; small heath x 2.

Bird Sightings: Buzzard being bombed by 1 kingfisher; 2 wrens; 12 house martins; 2 swallows; 1 great tit; 1 whitethroat; 3 pochards; 2 ruddy ducks; 4 Canada geese with 7 goslings; 2 great crested grebes; 4 coots – 2 with 3 chicks; 2 moorhens with 2 chicks; grey heron.
Bird songs: Chaffinch; chiffchaff; blackcap (or garden warbler maybe?); robin; blackbird; song thrush; another wren.
Fox carrying prey near stream.

I’ve cut it down a bit as reading lists of ducks isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you get the picture; in less than an hours walk at a park five minute walk from my house and ten minutes drive from the city centre I managed to find a profusion of wildlife. I’ve also seen common pipistrelle bats at later times flying over the lake. Amazing really, that these birds, these butterflies, everything there has chosen to be at my local park when there are much nicer places to be – don’t get me wrong I like my local park but I wouldn’t go there on holiday. It just goes to show that no matter how small an area is, as long as some kind of balance in its growth is maintained it will begin to compose habitats, which will in turn make up an ecosystem and will ultimately reveal a snapshot of nature and what the world is made up of. If every creature chose the nicest place to live in they’d all live in the Galloway Forest or the Lakes but the truth is nature is everywhere from your back garden to the Amazon rainforest. Even if it takes you longer to get to the countryside than it does your nearest outdoor clothing store you can still go to your local park and actually be with nature.

A blackbird
Blackbird in Cumbria

Not only are parks good for getting close to nature, they provide us with a space to breathe in and relax away from the daily toils of busy work lives and they give us the opportunity to exercise outside of the gym. The main problem with our local parks is that they’re pretty low on the government’s agenda. Sure the government have a lot of other things to worry about but I think the good our local parks can do for society is severely overlooked. Without getting too political all of a sudden its a good idea to use your park as often as you can. Even if some of our park land is slipping from communities’ grasp into the clutch of developers we still have a right to make the most of our parks by setting up community groups, bugging the council for funding, or just taking the dog for a walk. The more we use our parks the more the government will take notice and increase the budgets set for maintaining the life within our parks. For if our parks go then Britain’s city-dwellers have no link with the natural countryside and the divide between town and country would become even greater.

So next time you find yourself with a spare half an hour admiring that lovely pigeon poking about in your lawn why not take a trip down to your local park to see what’s about? If more of us take an active interest in the nature of our local park then hopefully we can put some life back into these breathing spaces and make nature a bigger part of our life in Britain.

About the author – Katie Lloyd
A writer and conservationist, Katie’s time is split between rambling across hills in search of elusive wildlife and tapping away at a laptop. And sometimes – if the weather is fine – she attempts to combine the two. Having recently spent a good while admiring the wildlife of Australasia she will be returning her attention to her much-missed British countryside and in particular to Cumbria’s fells as she is soon to embark on an MSc in Conservation Biology based in Penrith.

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