MANY of the splendid urban and civic parks all over Britain are gardens rather than areas of countryside. Nature often has to take second place to gardening and recreation. Tennis courts, bowling greens, bandstands, playgrounds and paddling pools, are the conventional attractions. Moreover, in the past, gardeners made it their pride and joy to plant out large beds with ordinary annual flowering plants. A favourite scheme used to consist of red geraniums, white alyssum, and blue lobelia, to demonstrate patriotism. Many of these beds, together with formal rose gardens, flowering clocks, and memorial gardens, were triumphs of the gardener’s art, but had litde wild life interest. Fortunately, from the point of view of the naturalist, changes of fashion have led to much freer styles of gardening, with greater dependence on trees and shrubs, and shortages of labour have inevitably led to overgrown corners and wilder areas. For eveiy kind of wild life – animals, birds, weeds, and insects – these are changes for the better. So today these parks offer unrivalled opportunities for close study of a limited range of wild life. It is true that familiarity with human beings has tamed some birds and beasts. The woods round Vienna, for instance, have large notices warning the visitor to beware of the wild boars. But in practice, as you enter the woods and leave your car, you are surrounded by grunting and extremely tame pigs begging for food. In the same way, the pelicans in St James’s Park in London allow us to approach them much more closely than we ever could in their natural homes. So behaviour has been modified, in many cases.
THE GARDENS OF BUCKINGHAM PALACE
What then can we expect to find in these parks, situated as they often are in the very middle of towns? The gardens of Buckingham Palace have been more carefully studied than any other similar area. They are different from public parks, in that they are much less used, so that birds, for example, can breed in places and at heights where the nests would certainly be robbed elsewhere. On the other hand, the gardens have been entirely surrounded by high walls for over a hundred years. Outside the walls there is the biggest built-up area in the world, and pollution has been a serious factor, though less so now, since London’s air became cleaner. Again, the gardens are so well cared for that there are few weeds, and no piles of leaf litter or old stumps, and so they lack many of the attractions so useful for nature in less tidy areas. But from the model studies made there by teams of specialist biologists, we can obtain clues as to the variety of wild life to be looked for in cultivated open spaces completely surrounded by streets and houses.
In the garden area of about 39 acres, scientists identified about 2,000 taxa, or forms of life. These included, in round figures: 600 different cultivated plants and trees. 250 wild and naturalized plants and trees. 33 mosses, liverworts and lichens. 40 fungi. 60 birds. 5 butterflies. 34 moths. 2 mammals.
In addition to this list, there were many other insects, beedes, spiders, small invertebrate animals, and fish in the lake. From the list given, it follows that if your opportunities for observation are limited to public parks in towns, there would be a far greater variety of birds or moths than animals or butterflies for you to study. The only two mammals found were the mouse and the brown rat. A glimpse was obtained of one other small brown animal, probably a vole. This agrees with findings in other gardens and parks in built-up areas, but if the parks were situated on the outskirts of towns, instead of being islands of vegetation, there would certainly be squirrels, foxes, perhaps badgers, and moles.
The very small number of butterflies – red admiral, small tortoiseshell, small white, large white and holly blue – is largely due to the lack of the favoured food plants. The gardeners do their work so well that there are very few weeds of any size. Imagine so large a garden with not a single nettle in it anywhere. They have been completely wiped out. Newts, toads, and frogs are very scarce, and there are very few slugs and snails, again partly because the gardeners are far too tidy to leave debris lying about in which the animals can feed and breed.
The quiet and seclusion of the gardens permit a very varied bird life. About 20 kinds of birds actually nest and breed there. This compares with 17 in St James’s Park (at the time the study was made; some of these numbers have increased since), 23 in Hyde Park, and 26 in Regent’s Park – all of them very much larger than the Palace gardens. In addition to the breeding birds, others observed in the royal gardens included winter visitors, passage migrants, and occasional visitors such as the great spotted woodpecker, the magpie, and the cuckoo. So the bird watcher is not short of material, but it does seem that the number of breeding birds would be increased if there were more long grass, wildernesses, and overgrown shrubberies. Incidentally, there were no cats in the gardens.
The cultivated plants and trees of the Palace grounds are superb, and include many kinds of roses, camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, lilies, delphiniums, and others. There are also many wild and naturalized flowers, even if weeds are ruthlessly eliminated. In recent years the number of wild plants recorded throughout central London is 475. At the Palace there were 260, and 50 of these were not found elsewhere in London. There are few plant associations, as would be found in the countryside, but there are in fact enough plants growing naturally to indicate what the vegetation would be if allowed to revert to a state of nature. Every year ‘aliens’ arrive, with bedding plants, shrubs, or in soil brought from outside, but they seldom survive. Strange plants from seed dropped near the bird table on the north terrace were soon rooted out. On the whole pollution does little harm today, even in gardens so closely hemmed in by a great city. Some of the evergreens drop their leaves in winter, unable to keep them in polluted conditions, but in fact most of them flourish. Altogether the limiting factors for nature and wild life at Buckingham Palace are lack of contact with the countryside, and the high standard of gardening.
All the London parks are wonderful places for bird watching, and they are kept under very close obser- 9i vation, so that changes of all kinds – losses, new birds, new nesting sites – are carefully noted. Some of them have definite areas set aside as bird sanctuaries. According to the latest available surveys, the largest number per acre and the most varied list of species in the public parks are to be found in Regent’s Park with the adjacent area of Primrose Hill. Over a hundred different kinds of birds are to be seen there, and more than a third of them breed successfully. Herons are frequent visitors, and the first known attempt of herons to nest in Inner London took place there in 1968. Buzzards, peregrines, sparrow hawks and kestrels have been observed ; on one occasion 1,600 lapwings flew over during a two-hour watch; and infrequent visitors have been grey plover, snipe, greenshank, lesser black-backed gulls, collared doves, cuckoos, and little owls. Because of the changes made under the Clean Air Act, swifts and house martins have started to breed just outside the park, and swallows nesting in a shed in 1968 were the first to do so since 1908, when they nested at the Zoo. During 1968 on one solitary occasion a nightingale was seen.
The waterfowl collection on the lake in St James’s Park is joined by many wild birds. Herring gulls, long-tailed ducks, great-crested grebes, teal, shovelers, and pochard are only some of the interesting birds to be seen there. Moorhen and coot nest in quite large numbers. The Highgate Ponds and the Kenwood Lake in north London are also notable for water birds – gadwall, shov-eler, goldeneye and shelduck are sometimes there; kingfishers have been seen; and reed warblers are returning after long absences. The ornamental lakes in very many of our public parks are almost equally good places for bird study. Swans, mallard, and moorhens regularly nest in the larger parks with stretches of water.
These London and other parks are in many ways better and easier places for bird studies than the open fields and woodlands of our countryside, because space is comparatively limited, and the range of species is not so great as to be utterly confusing. Bird nesting habits could well be studied there – which birds choose which trees, the height of nests, the number of successful breeding birds, or the material used for nests. Another possibility is feeding habits – which birds eat which berries and fruits, and in what order. And there is still much to be learnt and recorded about bird song – the different times of the year during which the different birds can be heard, according to conditions such as temperature, wind, and rain, and also the total output of song of any one bird during the day. Some studies have been done on this last question. On one day in May a skylark was heard singing a total of 47 minutes out of a singing day of 13 hours 42 minutes. In July it sang 181 minutes out of a singing clay of 17 hours 55 minutes. Making notes of this kind is a matter for great patience and accuracy, but you would learn a lot about birds doing it.
Most of the larger British mammals are both nocturnal and shy, so that parks are not the best places to look for them in, unless they are informal areas of woodland or open country, or situated next to such areas, with open access. In Richmond Park hares may be seen dancing in March, on the open ground. From time to time a fox may be glimpsed there. Squirrels are everywhere, and their dreys can be seen high in trees – most easily seen in winter, when the trees have lost their leaves. Weasels are also common. Rabbits have practically disappeared. In Richmond Park there are also two badger setts, each with a boar and sow, with their family. Badgers are actually more common than is often realized, but choose the least frequented places, so are often quite unobserved. There is a herd of fallow deer in Greenwich Park, and in Richmond Park as well as fallow deer there are red or Scottish deer, ranging freely through the park.
Many species of fungi can be collected in parks. If you go on a fungus foray, you will need a large flattish basket, like a garden trug, to avoid crushing your specimens, and this is best lined with damp moss. Sheets of newspaper between layers will prevent damage. A few small tins may be useful, and a knife or trowel, in case some of the material on which the fungi are growing has to be cut away. Never take all the mushrooms or toadstools ; one or two of each kind is enough, or if it is a large specimen, a piece of it will do, because what you are picking is the fruiting body, from which eventually new plants will be produced.
Spring is the time to find the cup fungi – a warm spring day after heavy rain should be productive. The most common of the cup fungi is the red elf cup, or pixie cup, one of the most attractive little fungi to be found. It is crimson red, round, and rather neat, curled up at the edges, having started as a hollow thin rubbery ball, opening out into a cup. It usually grows on dead branches, in damp mossy areas, or on bare soil. Another is the orange peel fungus, looking like bits of orange peel thrown down by the wayside. It is thinner than real orange peel, and is orange inside as well as out. If you take one home, and keep it in a saucer of damp moss in a sunny place, you may see faint clouds of orange spores rising from it. Look for it on newly-made paths, or where the earth has lately been disturbed.
In autumn other groups of fungi will be found, and again warm weather after rain is the best time. Often species of fungi are associated with particular trees. An example is the beef steak fungus, usually found on old oak trees. It is sometimes called the ox tongue, or poor man’s beefsteak, being reddish brown in colour, its flesh looking and feeling like red meat. Similarly, the white butt rot is nearly always found on beech trees, where it causes serious and damaging heart rot. What has been called a ‘give-and-take’ relationship between certain fungi and the roots of certain trees often exists, apparently to their mutual advantage. In birch woods or near birch trees we often find the red flycap, or fly agaric, so called because its juice was at one time used as the poisoning agent in fly paper. The young white cap changes later to a brilliant scarlet, with white warts or patches. It is poisonous and dangerous, but not often fatal. It is this fungus which is used as the model in children’s painting books, or for toys, or garden ornaments in association with plastic gnomes.
The jelly fungi include a number of oddities, and are found on trees, dead branches, or decayed wood. The best known is Jew’s Ear, brownish flesh colour, ear-shaped, growing on elder. It is like jelly when moist, and goes bone-hard with age. Another well-known one is witches’ butter, dark orange when dry, orange yellow when moist. It is contorted, and brain-like, in appearance, and is found on dead branches, hanging like a mass of jelly from the twigs.
Among the puffball kind of fungi are the true puffballs, earth balls, and stinkhorns. These are round, and hold the spores inside them; when they are ripe the spores are allowed to escape. The puffball opens with a hole at the top, and out of this puffs of brown smoke appear. The giant puffball is the largest fungus in Britain, and may be almost a foot across. The common earth ball is yellowish in colour, with cracks all over the upper surface, through which the spores escape; it may be rounded or bun-shaped. The stinkhorn makes use of flies to carry off its spores, and the first clue you will probably have as to its whereabouts is its smell, like rotten eggs.
How many of these fungi you will find in parks depends entirely on the local conditions. Look for them on trees, old stumps, and dead branches; also along the foot of hedges; by the side of paths; and on compost heaps. In grass you may see fairy rings, as they are called. These are made by fungi which grow outwards from the centre, leaving the middle dying, as they grow, so that every year they produce an ever-widening circle. The name shows how mysterious they have always been considered, as do many other country names. Other names show that in course of time people have learnt a healthy respect for the poisonous nature of fungi – death cap, destroying angel, poison pie, the sickener, are just some of them.
Photographing fungi where they are growing with a colour camera is a good idea, because it records the habitat and reproduces the right colours. They last a very short time if picked and taken home. Colours may begin to change almost at once. The inkhorn kind may dissolve into a sticky black liquid on the way home. Modelling the fungi in plasticine or wax is really rather difficult, but it can be done. The kind divided up into stem and cap — not the jellies or the puff balls – can be used to make spore prints. Try doing it with open mushrooms from the greengrocer. Just take off the cap of one of them, and place it on a sheet of white paper. After a few hours you will find an intricate pattern left on the paper.
A VARIETY OF LIFE
This is far from exhausting the wild life interest of public parks. In the gardens of Buckingham Palace there were 57 species of spiders, and this figure could well be exceeded in a large park outside an urban area. (The cellars of the Palace were examined, but they were too clean to give spiders much to eat and drink. One species was found which is confined to cellars and is imported with cases of French wine.) One of the team of scientists searched seven habitats for Acari, or terrestrial mites, including the carpet of moss under holly trees, humus near the lake, dry litter on bare ground under holly, litter under rose bushes, the manure heap, and long coarse grass. Others looked for harvestmen, centipedes and millipedes and woodlice. 26 species of worms were found. Snails and slugs, as has been said, were disappointingly scarce. Bristletails, springtails, (about 26 species), cockroaches, earwigs, mayflies, dragonflies, thrips, bugs, leaf-hoppers, scale insects and caddis flics were found. Beetles were there in large numbers, and the Diptera or flies included daddy-long-legs, winter gnats, mosquitoes, midges, horse flies, bluebottles, clung flies,’ and many others. The entomologist is never at a loss for material.
NATURE TRAILS IN PARKS
The difficulty in many parks is to know where to begin. For this reason, some of the local councils in Britain, who manage parks and gardens, while taking considerable trouble to enhance the wild life interest of these areas, have also set up nature trails, to give an idea of what to look for at different times of year. In Glasgow, the Parks Department has done this at Linn Park, with great success, because the park has many natural assets, a river running through it, different kinds of woods, a castle at one end, and an open golf course near by. The nature trail takes about three hours to walk round, and there are fifteen marked points at which to stop and look. The starting point, leading to the first post, and the post itself, give the chance of approaching and then entering a pine wood. In spring there are many wild flowers, such as bluebells, primroses, celandines, and wood sorrel. Wood pigeons will be nesting there, and inside the wood there may be traces of rabbits, birds’ feathers, and owl pellets. A little later in the year, in paths by the wood, there will be germander speedwell, lady’s smock, com-frey, wild violets, creeping-jenny, or wild strawberries, and in the pine woods there will be toadstools such as the fly agaric already mentioned, or another known as the shaggy parasol. In autumn these will be followed by fairy-rings. As the trees do not shed their leaves in autumn, many birds and small animals find shelter there. In winter the shapes of other trees can be studied. In some places a look out can be kept for kingfishers, tree creepers, swallows, larks, woodpeckers and owls, as well as all sorts of insects and plants. The visitor is given many suggestions on where to look for everything. In another Glasgow Park, Kelvingrove, there is also a nature trail, with 14 observation posts. The Parks Department has produced a useful illustrated guide book to this trail. They suggest that at one post you can mark out a square yard on the grass, and note down everything you find in it. Hints are given for identifying the grasses, insects, tiny soil animals, and seeds, you might discover.
Some public parks are rather different because they have been formed out of the gardens and grounds of mansions or large houses, acquired for the purpose by local councils. Calderstones Park, in Liverpool, used to be a private estate. It gets its name from the calder stones, large stones thought to have been part of an ancient burial mound outside the park. The word ‘calder’ may come from ‘gaulder’, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning wizard or enchanter. The nature trail constructed in this park takes you round several interesting features, such as the ‘ha ha’, a sunken ditch with a stone retaining wall, built to keep cows straying into the gardens from fields beyond the park. Another feature deriving from its history as a family home is a large isolated mulberry tree, known as the fertility tree, as it was planted in the belief that while it survived there would be no break in the family line of inheritance.
A similar park with the same sort of history, and with a nature trail in it, is Witton Park, in Blackburn, which also belonged to a local family before it became a park in 1946. The ruins of the old house are still there, and have been colonized by a large variety of plants – gorse, broom, harebells, heather, and many others – trying to establish themselves there. Trees introduced when it was still a private garden include an Adantic cedar, a tree found in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, and a monkey puzzle tree.
These are just a few examples of nature trails in paries, and as more local councils adopt the same policy of providing them public parks will become increasingly interesting to visit. If the park in your own town does not yet contain such a trail, you can make one for yourself -on paper, that is. To do this you will need to acquire a map of the park, or make your own by surveying it or make a diagram, on a large scale. Then you can mark on it anything of interest – special trees, a pond with water birds, places where you see butterflies -and think out a circular tour round these places, marking it on your map. If you made plans, maps, sketches, and took slides or snaps, and collected pictures from local newspapers, you could build up your material into a small exhibition. Or you could make it into a lecture, with a tape recording of your own voice pointing out things worth noticing. Then you might be able to raise a little money for local charities or nature conservation in your own area, by showing what you have done. But this is rather ambitious, and perhaps you would rather consider something easier. In that case, to give just one suggestion, having made your map of the park you could use it for bird surveys. You simply put down on the map an initial or a code whenever you see or hear a particular bird in a particular place – such as B for blackbird, or R for robin. Then you can mark by strokes after the initial the number of times you see that bird in the same place -e.g. B/// (Blackbird, three times), R//////// (Robin, eight times) and so on. You may find some birds are fairly constant to the same patch of ground, such as individual robins dividing up the park between them, while others, for instance the wood pigeon, fly about all over the place. As you get more familiar with different birds you can add to the list, but you must miss out sparrows, because there are too many of them, and perhaps starlings as well.