How to catch and rehouse more than 2,500 slow-worms was the problem facing property developer St James Homes when it set out to transform a former sewage works at Worcester Park, south-west London, into an estate of smart New England-style homes. To gain planning permission, St James had to agree to rehouse the slow-worms beside a nearby reservoir.
Slow-worms are an endangered species in Britain and are protected by law. (If you want to know for the next pub quiz: you can tell a slow-worm from a snake because, unlike snakes, slow-worms have eyelids — they are harmless lizards that have lost their legs). Protecting them, and other wildlife, is an issue that regularly faces developers as pressure grows to safeguard the environment.
About three-quarters of all new homes are built on
abandoned brownfield sites but many of these have become havens for insects such as stag beetles and bumblebees.
Ecologist Valerie Selby, of Wandsworth council, explains: “Brownfield sites often contain a greater biodiversity than highly managed green-belt land.
"We look at what is going to be affected by development, and, if an animal or plant is going to lose its home, the developers have to mitigate for it, perhaps by providing similar habitat on the site when the building work is done.” Very often this improves the local environment, which in turn encourages more wildlife. Says Selby: “Working with our ecologists, developers can create wildlife-friendly schemes at very little extra cost.”
Battersea Reach, a huge new housing scheme on the banks of the Thames, is being built on the site of former Gargoyle Wharf, which, since falling into disuse, had become home to more than 300 species of plants and animals, including a group of insects known as Thames Terrace Invertebrates. These insects, found only on wasteland sites along the river, include the gloriously named five-banded tailed digger wasp and the brown-banded carder bumblebee. They thrive on the acid grasslands and nectar-rich wild flowers that the relatively warm, dry climate along the Thames encourages.
The insects in turn provide food for sparrows and blue tits, familiar in our gardens, as well as endangered species, such as linnets and black redstarts, that prefer to live on wasteland.
Wandsworth council worked with Battersea Reach developer St George to create wildlife-friendly habitats, such as intertidal terraces — lines of wire baskets filled with gravel, mud and sand. The terraces are planted sparingly with reeds and sedges to allow room for native species to join them.
Selby says: “The theory is that, so long as you create the right habitat, animals and plants will come back. Wastelands act as a reservoir, and the Thames is a fantastic wildlife corridor.”
One-, two- and three-bedroom flats at Ensign House, part of Battersea Reach, are available from £359,950, with completions scheduled for early next year. Call 020 7978 4141, or visit www.batterseareach.com.
Just as nature intended
In a practice now common in the United States, and gaining popularity in the UK, developers can compensate for the environmental impact of new building by helping to fund the creation of eco-habitats nearby.
This can often mean a more cohesive approach to conserving wildlife, says John Newton, managing director of Ecology Consultancy, a firm of eco-experts that advises developers. “If you preserve wildlife on a strategic basis, rather than on a site-by-site basis, you can achieve much more,” he adds.
But it is not just new building that can cause problems for plants and animals — destroying old buildings can be damaging, too. Swifts, for example, spend most of their lives in the air but nest in the eaves found on traditional buildings. For very little cost, swift boxes can be incorporated into new developments to give them somewhere to breed.
Design for Biodiversity, an advisory group set up by the London Development Agency, GLA, Natural England, Groundwork London and London Wildlife Trust, provides guidance to developers, architects and landscape designers in the capital to help them build wildlife-friendly homes.
Emily Brennan of London Wildlife Trust says: “Incorporating the needs of wildlife at the outset is much more effective than simply adding a few features as an afterthought. Biodiversity can be incorporated into developments through landscaping, good drainage and features such as nesting bricks and boxes. Growing concern about climate change is giving us more opportunities to encourage developers and government to adopt building practices that benefit wildlife.”
Noah's ark without the flood
Rehousing slow-worms was only one of the problems for developer St James Homes at its New England-style development, The Hamptons, at Worcester Park, near Sutton. Half of the 60-acre site it had acquired was designated Metropolitan Open Land — vital green space for Londoners, which also faced a risk of flooding.
Working with Ecology Consultancy, St James created a series of ponds, with reed beds and sedge plants, to encourage water-loving birds such as sandpipers, snipes and herons, and to attract insects to maintain a population of pipistrelle bats.
The ponds also help with flood prevention: surface water from The Hamptons is collected in the reed beds, where it is naturally filtered. From there it passes into underground storage “cells” to be gently released later into a nearby river.
St James has turned the ecological sensitivities of the site to its advantage, with the surrounding landscape becoming a great selling point. The first three phases of the scheme sold quickly, and the fourth phase is well under way, creating almost 500 new homes. A fifth phase of 147 homes has been submitted for planning permission; these will feature wind turbines and solar thermal panels to cut emission levels by 20 per cent.
St James’s Matthew Townend says: “The people who move here are typically young, ecologically aware London couples moving out to somewhere more affordable, with more space, yet still within reach of work in the city.”
These are all great sites for discovering more about London’s wildlife: www.londons-swifts.org.uk; www.d4b.org.uk; and www.wildlondon.org.uk.