London's animal inhabitants

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On the surface the capital is a wholly urban habitat, yet our city has an untamed heart. Stalking down back alleys and hovering above our city squares are Londoners with sharp teeth, talons and tails. Time Out grabs its binoculars and presents a spotter's guide to walking on the wild side

  • London's animal inhabitants

    Wild London: flying squirrels, giant crayfish, snakes on drugs and tigers in N1 (image © Steve Hoskins)

  • Fox

    Vulpes Vulpe

    Description Rusty, crafty, cocky.Habitat All over London.When to see them Dusk. Notes In tandem with the psychotic grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), the urban fox is slowly taking over London with a population said to top 10,000. According to a wonderfully hysterical article in the Daily Mail (where else?), things have got so bad that ‘children can no longer sleep in a tent on humid nights, or pets roam freely. With the shrieking of sexually aroused vixens in the middle of the night, children come running into the bedroom in terror.’ Apparently it all ‘makes bird flu look as innocent as a sneeze’. Who is to blame? Why ‘squelchy-hearted north London liberals’ of course! If the urban fox is pissing off the Mail, it’s okay by us.

    Signal crayfish

    Pacifasticus leniusculus

    Description Large and aggressive with two huge pinchers, bright red colouring under the claws and white patches on claw joints.Notes River Lea, Regent’s Canal, Clissold Park and some Pret sandwiches. When to see them All year round. General These American crayfish are slowly killing off the smaller, native white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes) after having been introduced to the UK in the 1970s. Watch out also for the red-eared terrapins (Trachemys scripta) that live in Mill Hill, where they terrorise the ducklings. The terrapins were kept as pets during the ‘Teenage Mutant Hero/Ninja Turtle’ craze of the late ’80s but released into the wild when they grew too large.

    Common seal

    Phoca vitulina

    Description Colour varies from bownish black to tan or grey, body and flippers are short, with a large, rounded head. The nostrils are distinctively V-shaped.Habitat Billingsgate Market.When to see them This one comes for the fish – the market opens at 5am, Tue-Sat. Notes The common seal has been spotted in increasing numbers since the Thames cleaned its act up and, in 2003, teacher Levi Clarke had his foot broken by a seal in the Thames estuary. ‘I was just swimming and larking about when all of a sudden one of the seals charged at me under the water,’ he said. The large female seal outside Billingsgate has become possibly the best-fed pinniped in London. Don’t lark about, though: she’ll have you.

    Red deer and fallow deer

    Cervus elaphus and Dama dama

    Description Large, reddish-brown or smaller, with brown coat with white mottles.Habitat Richmond Park, obviously. But also Bushy and Greenwich Parks.When to see them Male red deer have a distinctive bellow to attract the females. It can be heard during the early dawn and late evening. Notes There are 300 red deer and 350 fallow deer running wild in Richmond Park, a further 325 in Bushy Park and just 20 in Greenwich Park. Last year a woman in Hampton was attacked by a rutting stag. ‘I’m a small woman. I didn’t stand a chance,’ she said. Barnet also has a number of muntjac deer (Muntiacus reeves), originally from China. Careful: they will nibble your shrubbery.

    Ring-necked parakeet

    Psittacula krameri

    Description Large, long-tailed, bright green bird with red beak and pick, and black ring around face and neck.Habitat West London but spreading further south and into the centre. Look out for them in Norwood Grove (Croydon) and Richmond Park. When to see them Summer and autumn, especially on those occasional warm mornings.Notes London has been home to increasing numbers of ring-necked parakeets from India and sub-Saharan Africa since the 1960s. They are said to have bred from a flock released at Shepperton during the filming of ‘The African Queen’ or, alternatively, from a pair that Jimi Hendrix kept in his Notting Hill flat. Having started out in the west around Chiswick and slowly spread as far south as Purley and north as Harrow, there are now an estimated 30,000 in the capital – numbers so large that they are threatening native species, leading to calls for a cull.

    Badger

    Meles mele

    Description Carnivorous mammal, grey fur above and black on the under parts, with a distinctive black-and-white striped face. Come on, you know what a badger looks like.Habitat Croydon and Kew Gardens. When to see them From about 8.30pm in the evening. Notes After a long decline, the badger population has increased recently in London. Along the Croydon Tramlink there are established badger trails, so special tunnels and badger-proof fences have been built to make sure the creatures can cross safely. The badger is still baited in parts of Essex and remains an endangered species, but because it carries bovine TB is also subject to calls for culling.


    Grey heron

    Ardea cinerea

    Description A wading bird, native throughout temperate Europe, standing 90-100cm tall. Plumage is largely grey above, and off-white below.Habitat Around sheltered, clean water, where there’s fish to eat. Check around Crystal Palace Park and Regent’s Park (where they have been known to try stealing fish intended for the penguins in the zoo). When to see them They can be out at any time of day, hunting for fish in the shallow water. Listen out for a distinctive croaking call. Notes Half a century ago, London’s water became too dirty to support herons, and it was thought they would never breed here again. Thanks to improvements in the quality of Thames water, breeding pairs have been reappearing over the last five years. There are even signs that rarer herons are on their way back. In June, a squacco heron was spotted in Bexley, south-east London. It was the first time one had been seen in the capital since 1866.

    Harris hawk

    Parabuteo unicinctus

    Description Large, long-tailed, chocolate-brown, broad-winged hawk, with short, dark, hooked beak with yellow cere and white uppertail coverts When to see them Used to kill the pigeons at the British Museum and Trafalgar Square. Get there at dawn to watch the action.Habitat Major central London tourist attractions.General Unusually for raptors, Harris hawks are very social, making them one of the most popular birds for falconry in the West. When a Harris hawk was introduced to Trafalgar Square in 2004, the number of piugeons dropped from 5,000 to 100.

    Peregrine falcon

    Falco peregrinus

    Description Large, powerful falcon with long, broad, pointed wings and a relatively short tail. It is blue-grey above, with a blackish top of the head and an obvious black ‘moustache’ that contrasts with its white face. Its breast is finely spotted.Habitat Battersea Power Station, Tate Modern, the O2. When to see them They best time is between February and March, when they make their nests. They stay with their chicks for up to 30 days. Notes At least five pairs of rare breeding peregerine falcons have settled in London, where they feed on other birds, including pigeons, and small mammals such as mice, rats and rabbits. Last summer, the RSPB set up a telescope outside Tate Modern so wannabe twitchers could see the falcons, named Misty and Houdini, in their nest.

    Canada goose

    Branta canadensis

    Description Grey body with black head and neck with white chinstrap. Habitat London parks.When to see them All year round. They don’t even bother migrating, thanks to the regular food supplied by tourists. Notes The Canada goose was first introduced to Britain in the late seventeenth century as an addition to King James II’s waterfowl collection in St James’s Park and have since taken over London with their aggressive blandness and runny poo. The population is currently being managed by pricking their eggs to prevent offspring. Ha!


    Stag beetle

    Lucanus cervus

    Description
    Dark, violet-brown wing cases with little reddish-brown antlers. Their larva lives for up to five years but adults only last between May and August.Habitat South-east London. You’re most likely to spot one on or near some dead wood. When to see them Males can be seen flying on summer evenings an hour or two before dusk.Notes While the stag beetle, Britain’s largest beetle, is in decline nationally, it is prospering in London. The stag beetle is a protected species so if you see one report it to the London Wildlife Trust (www.wildlondon.org.uk). However, do not be misled by the lesser stag or common cockchafer beetle (Melolontha melolontha), another large, flying, summer beetle but without the brownish colour of the wing cases and with a much sillier name.


    Bat

    Various

    Description Surprisingly cute small, flying rodents with leathery wings.Habitat Good bat-spotting areas include Bushy Park, Hampstead Heath, Teddington, Hillingdon, Wanstead Flats, Wimbledon Common and Highgate Wood.Notes There are 16 species of bat living in London, from the tiny Pipistrellus pygmaeus to the larger Nyctalus noctula, and including the comedy, extremely rare, brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus). If you want to go bat watching, see www.londonbats.org.uk for details.Click here to continue onto the next page of this article.

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