With its trees still naked after winter, Lordship Road in the London borough of Hackney is an urban vista of asphalt, brick and concrete. Heading north, a pair of tower blocks loom from the horizon. Pounding its pavements to the soundtrack of vans accelerating between speed bumps, it’s hard to imagine that behind the barbed-wire-topped fence on my right, obscured by a tall, grassy bank, lies a nature reserve that is more biodiverse than much of what we consider the real countryside.
As soon as you enter Woodberry wetlands, the soundtrack changes to an enthusiastic avian choir. The high-pitched honks of the coots that live year round on this drinking-water reservoir punctuate the shrill chatter and song of robins, blackbirds, dunnocks, greenfinches, parakeets, wrens, warblers, tits (great, long-tailed and blue) and many more. The 11 hectares of wide-open space is calming, like a giant deep breath, while the enigmatic rustles and darting movements of nature going about its business are delightful and reassuring.
The reservoir was built in 1833, but was developed as wetlands with thriving reed beds and opened to the public in 2016. This is the result of investing in what the natural history writer and television producer Stephen Moss calls our accidental countryside. “My definition of it is quite simple,” he says. “Excluding farmland and gardens, it’s any place that was created originally for human use that wildlife either stayed in, or found and moved into later.”
From ancient ruins, to disused railways, these unintended havens dot the British landscape. Tate Modern, on the Thames, with its nesting peregrine falcons, counts as accidental countryside. So do motorway service stations, which birders keen to spy pied wagtails know offer birds more food than neighbouring sprayed fields. Stonework in cemeteries attracts more than 600 species of lichen – a composite organism of algae and fungi living in symbiosis – some of which are hundreds of years old. “None of these places were designed for wildlife,” says Moss.
In a country in which farms take up almost 57% of the land, the tiny, unmeasured fraction of accidental countryside we have needs protecting, says Moss, who made programmes with Bill Oddie for many years and has been a birder since boyhood. “Our society is geared to paying farmers very little money to produce huge amounts of food so supermarkets can make big profits and we have cheap food. Everyone’s happy except the farmers and the wildlife,” he says.
He quotes the environmentalist Chris Baines who said that one way to improve the biodiversity of an arable field is to build a housing estate on it. “This may sound glib, but he was being entirely serious,” writes Moss in his new book, The Accidental Countryside. “Most arable fields are monocultural deserts, with virtually no wildlife, whereas Britain’s gardens are often home to a suite of former woodland birds and other wild creatures.”
It is birders and other nature spotters who are often first to realise the ecological value of accidental havens. The classic example, says Moss, is Belfast docks. “They decommissioned three huge docks, and they left them because you can’t build on them [straight away]. The silt has to settle. Of course the birds turned up, birds brought seeds, plants grew, and suddenly you had this fantastic place in the 1980s or 90s, where birders would climb over the fence and watch the birds.” It is now a RSPB-managed nature reserve, “in the middle of Belfast docks and it’s incredible”.
Occasionally, the thought of inviting the public into these sites has made naturalists nervous. “It’s this idea that they’ll spoil it for us,” says Moss. But the birds won’t get frightened away, he says, because they’re used to people. He’s right. I used to regularly hang out with leggy herons on the human-made New River in Islington. One once stood unselfconsciously a few feet away from me, with a pair of kicking frogs legs dangling from its beak. “If I walk along in the countryside and see a heron, it will fly away, the way the foxes run away,” says Moss. “But here, you could walk up to them.” Even here, however, you will only see the iridescent blue flash of the cautious kingfisher if you are really lucky.
Cities invite biodiversity, says Moss, partly because they provide warmth – the reason he suspects he spotted his first bumblebee of the year here today, rather than near his home in Somerset. “There’s a longer growing season so there’s more natural and semi-natural food, places to nest and food that we provide.”
Moss is staunchly pro feeding the ducks. “There are a lot of theories about feeding ducks, but ducks eat lots of other stuff anyway,” he says. He sees the ritual as a gateway for connecting with nature. “I’m only here because, when I was three, my mum took me to feed the ducks and I asked her what the funny black ones were.” When he got home, he leafed through the Observer’s Book of Birds to discover they were in fact coots. “That was my first bird spot, the funny black duck. So feeding the ducks is incredibly important. It’s better if you can feed them seed, but not everyone can afford that. There’s a nice coot down there now,” he says, binoculars at the ready.
“There are some long-tailed tits coming through here, see? A little flock of them,” he says, pointing to the brambles on the outer edge of the reed beds. “They build amazing little ball-shaped nests out of lichen and spider’s web.” He picks out the call of a cetti’s warbler from the throng, once a rare sound in cities.
Sparrow populations, meanwhile, have declined in towns and cities where they used to be common, by 60% since the 70s and Moss said we won’t see one today. Gazing into the reeds now, however, he says: “That looks remarkably like a sparrow. It is a sparrow, how amazing.”
Over the past 20 years, he says, “there’s been a real understanding amongst conservationists that these places are not bolt-on extras, but they are where the wildlife is. Because it ain’t in the field.” At Canvey Wick in Essex, for example, a disused oil refinery is now known as a “brownfield rainforest”, home to rare insects. “Being further east, it has a more continental climate. It has the second most invertebrates of anywhere in Britain. Some of these sites are extraordinarily biodiverse.”
And yet because they have been previously developed by humans, they are classified as brownfield, and are therefore fair game for development. Moss argues that in terms of boosting biodiversity, it could be better to build on fields than rewilded brownfield sites.
“This is quite controversial,” he concedes. “Not everyone will agree with me. But fundamentally what I’m saying is, if your brownfield site is in the middle of Finsbury Park [in London] and it’s an old garage that’s not needed any more, of course you should build housing on it. The problem is, the word brownfield is used for anything where there has been some kind of industrial build.”
While building on “green” land seems sacrilege, he says we have an exaggerated notion of how built up Britain really is. According to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, 7% of Britain is built on, rising to 10.6% in England alone. In 2012, the BBC reporter Mark Easton analysed this statistic and found that when you take into account urban gardens, parks and other green areas, the proportion of England that is built up drops to 2.3% (and lower nationally).
“Given that we need to build so many new homes to alleviate the current housing crisis, perhaps we should consider a radical solution: putting at least some of them in the countryside itself,” writes Moss.
In 1993, Thames Water put the site of Woodberry wetlands up for sale, but local residents campaigned against building over the reservoirs (one has become the nature reserve while the other is a leisure and water-sports centre.) Other potential reserves haven’t been so lucky. Perry Oaks sewage farm in west London, once rich with migratory waders such as wood and green sandpipers, was obliterated in 2002 by Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5.
Some smaller nature havens don’t even have names. One particular pond known to wildlife fans on the edge of the Chilterns to the west of London, home to the rare southern damselfly, had been drained when Moss returned to it as his book was going to press. And the rich surrounding vegetation, beloved of butterflies, had been cleared. “That’s the fate of so much of the accidental countryside,” Moss writes.
Strolling around the reservoir at Woodberry wetlands, we pass walkers and runners wearing blissful expressions. “One of the most exciting things the accidental countryside offers,” says Moss, “is making nature available to everyone.” A mother watches the water birds (there are five species of gull) while her toddler plays with stones on the pathway. And a lone walker bids us good morning – something strangers rarely do in London.
The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife by Stephen Moss is published by Faber & Faber on 19 March. To buy for GBP11.99 (RRP GBP16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 020 3176 3837. P&P charges may apply.