The Projects Cleaning Up London’s Waterways For Aquatic Wildlife

Creekside Education Trust is just one of the organisations working to clean up the Thames
Creekside Education Trust is just one of the organisations working to clean up the Thames | Courtesy of Creekside Education Trust
Emma Latham Phillips

Nearly half of London is green. However, winding between the open parks and concrete streets is a blue (or brownish) habitat often written off: water. The city’s aquatic wonderlands take on many forms, from rivers to canals, creeks and marshes, with each space offering a unique setting for wildlife spotting.

London’s waters are filling with wildlife, thanks to efforts of conservationists

Humans like to forget about what they cannot see, often using waterways as dumping grounds. However, freshwater habitats form important ecosystems for many species, and must be preserved so that they, in turn, can look after the people of the city. Clean water is not only essential to the health of the planet, but also to the wellbeing of the people who dwell around it. Thanks to these exciting conservation projects, aquatic life is returning to crowded London. Here’s where to find the city’s water-bound wildlife.

Kingfishers are returning to Kingsland Basin

Kingfishers at the Kingsland Basin

Between Kingsland Road and Whitmore Bridge, this dream is already a reality. What began as a fight with Gideon and Esther’s building contractors to keep their environmental obligations turned into a proactive stint of guerrilla gardening. The couple has since transformed this stretch of water with artificial banks and floating islands. “We made these banks using recycled materials,” they explain. “We sunk in buddleia, Christmas trees and soil-filled coffee sacks, which we then planted with native species. This habitat is perfect for nesting birds.” Here you can find moorhens and mallards preening their feathers, enjoy lunch at the Towpath Café and try to spot the coots’ nest. “It’s now made of natural vegetation,” explains Gideon. “Before, it was constructed with plastic.”

The couple gained support from the Canal & River Trust and then funding from the Mayor of London to build a collection of floating islands. These platforms allow plant roots to hang in the water: “this acts as a filtration system, cleaning up toxins and even algae,” Gideon explains. “It also provides hiding places for small fish and invertebrates, kickstarting the food chain.” The new influx of life has seen the return of kingfishers to the Kingsland Basin area, who’ve not fished there for fifteen years. Tour the towpath by bicycle and use this now natural nook to stop, meditate and appreciate.

The once-murky canals of Kingsland Basin are bursting with life

Seals at Canary Wharf

Contrary to popular belief, the Thames is actually teeming with wildlife. Beneath its misty waters lurk seahorses, seals and sometimes even sharks. The river has come a long way from 1957, when it was deemed biologically dead. Improved sewage systems have transformed the river from a toilet to an attractive habitat, and the brown stuff that can now be seen in the water is actually nutrient-rich sediment.

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) pushes to change public perception of the Thames, and it recently installed a VR experience near London Bridge that allows viewers to dive virtually into its dark depths. As well as encouraging volunteers to identify pollution outflows and reconnect eel migration paths, ZSL has been working to protect everyone’s favourite marine mammal since 2004.

According to surveys, seals often travel from the outer estuary to central London in the search of food. “You can spot grey or harbour seals near Billingsgate, thanks to the fish market,” says Anna Cucknell, who leads ZSL’s Thames conservation. If you spy this puppy-eyed creature, make sure to mark it on ZSL’s public sightings map. Or, if you want to search from your sofa, hourly photos appear from camera traps on the Instant Wild App. These seals are easy to identify: “they’re famous for having a bright red coat, caused by iron oxide in the Thames estuary mud,” says Anna.

Seals can sometimes be spotted lounging on the sandbanks of the Thames

Shrimp at Creekside Discovery Centre

When the tide goes out, the muddy sides of Deptford Creek are revealed and the water is low enough to wade through – it may look unappealing but it’s actually a natural adventure playground. Join Creekside Discovery Centre on one of their monthly low-tide walks and experience Zone 2 in a totally different way, looking up from below.

This charity’s location is unique because of the varying habitats; the centre itself was built on a brownfield site, perfect for native wildflowers. Since it’s opening in 2002, Creekside Discovery Centre has recorded over 300 different species, including the critically endangered small-flowered catchfly. Instead of adding plants to the area, the organisation utilises natural colonisation and management to protect the creek from invasive species.

The wildflowers aren’t Creekside’s only show-stopping feature – here the bank slopes gently down to a beach, a rare feature in a walled-up London. Once on the creek, turn over the rubble with your wellies to see what you can find. “The river is the healthiest it’s ever been,” says Sophie, who works at the centre. “We can tell this because we have an abundance of shrimp – an indicator that the water is clean.” If you’re lucky, you can also spot flounder fish or European eels.

Flapping fins aren’t the only things you might uncover; the history of Deptford sits within the creek. Before refrigerator systems, cattle were brought here to be slaughtered and their bones are buried in this thick mud. However, nothing can be taken home from the Thames without a mudlarking licence. Instead, the washed up treasures – old mobile phones, golf balls and plastic toys – form an eclectic, must-see collection within the centre.

Wade through the waters to discover what lies beneath

Reed warblers at Woodberry Wetlands

London Wildlife Trust protects the city’s last remaining wildernesses, and its 37 reserves are free to visit. A firm favourite is Woodberry Wetlands. Here, three imposing tower blocks loom over a re-wilded reservoir, the golden reed beds and distant white concrete a strangely satisfying match. The reservoir once dealt with the city’s drinking water, but in the 1990s it was put up for sale with the intention of being paved over. However, residents of the nearby Woodberry Down Estate successfully campaigned to save it. In the years since, chlorine and phosphate left the water and nature returned.

“The main habitat we have is the reed bed – this was extended and new beds planted,” Andy Flegg, Woodberry Wetlands senior site and project officer, explains. “This is managed in the traditional way – cut with scythes.” This wetland plant provides the perfect coverage for nesting birds, encouraging species such as reed and sedge warblers to settle down and stay. “We’ve even got a fox who makes his den here,” Andy says. Besides this urban predator, you can find birds like the tufted duck and common pochard paddling the waters, and as the sun drops, pipistrelle bats circle the air.

Once you’ve walked the perimeter and explored the grasslands and small woodland area, reward yourself with lunch at The Coal House Café. The venue also offers evening events, walks, talks and volunteer opportunities to get closer than ever before to London’s wetland wildlife.

Woodberry Wetlands is an oasis in an urban environment

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