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Finding the Wild in Scruffy Urban Sprawl

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Finding the Wild in Scruffy Urban Sprawl

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There’s something in our national psyche which means we can’t help but tidy up. And it’s not just Britain – humans in general have an obsession with open, ‘clean’ spaces. In contrast, you’ll usually find the most biodiversity in those scruffy patches which haven’t had much love.

Biodiversity in Unexpected Places

There’s a spot like this outside the back of my house – my neighbour’s garden. He’s been so busy renovating the flat that this tiny space has only been touched once in the past five years, and the vegetation is bursting with life in summer. Flowers, butterflies, bees, foxes – the neighbourhood refuge for every wild creature. Brambles scramble up towards the light, past exotic species of spurge that seem almost tropical, but are, surprisingly, native to this isle.

On the land below the brambles cascades a heaped pile of rocks – garden rubble and building waste in some people’s eyes. In others? A slow worm refuge – a scree slope – new habitat with succession leaping into action as plants start to become established on the shifting surface. The concrete driveway underneath offers little for biodiversity, but this pile has many nooks and crannies, perfect for hibernation.

Urban scree slope
The pile of rubble, with plants bursting to life from discarded stones and concrete.

Looking Through a Different Lens

Looked at through nature’s lens, many of our urban wastegrounds are not in fact a waste at all, but rich in opportunities for nature. With semi-permeable surfaces like gravel, dirt and rubble, they’re places for pioneer species to become established – the species we typically associate with cliff faces and rocky escarpments. As weedy tree species like Willow and Birch appear, these habitats shoot up in height, allowing them to support more birds and bats.

Sure, they’re not the wild ancient woodlands of our imagination, but scruffy unkempt patches of ground can benefit nature, too. Structural diversity, as in any habitat, is key to the biodiversity value. While a single huge stand of brambles can benefit many nesting birds and mammals, it could hold many more species if there were scattered scrub, grassland, bare ground, trees and ponds within the same space. That said, any kind of work to restore this habitat should be carried out in winter, to avoid disturbing birds during the nesting season.

Urban Fox
A tame fox which visits local gardens in the neighbourhood - hanging out in the bike store at the back of my house.

The Ecology of Urban Habitats

Bare ground – concrete, tarmac, rock – you name it – can play an important functional role within this kind of scruffy ecosystem. I’ve watched slow worms basking on tarmac car parks, concrete garage roofs and rubble. And it’s not just reptiles who value patches of bare ground – invertebrates like butterflies may use them to warm up in the sunlight. But there’s a threat here, too – the cat. In fact, there are so many cats in our neighbourhood that it’s been a while since I’ve had a slow worm in the garden, as they’re seen as a fun chew toy by these bored domestic predators.

The grassy layer of vegetation in urban areas arises from crevices in the concrete, and is often short-lived. It is swamped by later growth of brambles, which is a shame really, as a truly wild ecosystem would have a good mix of many different vegetation heights. What you’ll typically see in this kind of habitat is an ‘ecotone’ – a sort of wedge-shaped succession of low to high vegetation marching out into the unknown. It’s a great way to familiarise yourself with the war of succession – from pioneer plants in the outermost reaches to the ubiquitous bramble, buddleia and sycamore which take on the second half of the battle, casting their abundant seeds out across no-man’s-land like tiny grenades.

These seeds may split the thinnest hairline cracks in cement, which makes them the enemy of councils across the UK. It’s not the councils’ fault. Weed control isn’t some monster we need to tackle, but an important part of infrastructure maintenance. When we lay new paving and build replacement structures simply because we’ve allowed the existing ones to be torn apart by plant roots, we’re emitting unnecessary greenhouse gases from chugging machinery. And weed-strewn paving might look fine to you and me, but to the elderly, and those with vision and mobility impairments, it could mean a trip to A&E.

Ivy-Leaved Toadflax
Non-native species of plant often assist in the colonisation of urban habitats, like Buddleia, Sycamore and this Ivy-Leaved Toadflax

Balancing the Needs of People and Nature

Unkempt urban spaces are great for nature – in the right place. They can act as refuges which resupply biodiversity to the rest of the neighbourhood. But access to green spaces is also important for our health and wellbeing, and, like in rural areas, this can come into conflict with our desire for biodiversity. Urban parks are great for people, but the high foot traffic and abundant dogs makes them difficult spaces for nature to inhabit.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that places which are frequently visited by people are less welcoming to wildlife. Fences may be a way of separating the two, and keeping biodiversity and nature together in close proximity. This is why urban wastegrounds – frequently enclosed by high fencing – tend to be so biodiverse compared to their surroundings. At the heart of the town where I live, there is a disused golf course which is rich in nature, cut off from the inhabitants by vicious fences and fast roads. I would love for this place to become a public nature reserve, but I’m also aware that this would lead to the destruction of much of its biodiversity potential.

Nature often happens accidentally in urban areas – the wildest spots may be those which are unintentionally cut off from their surroundings. But it’s important to recognise this biodiversity when you come across it – for this kind of semi-wild green space to get proper protection. These are the hubs of our urban nature networks – be on the lookout for yours.

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