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Hugh Smith, chief wildlife officer for Royal Parks
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Things you only know if you look after the St James’s Park pelicans

By Claire Wong

…according to Hugh Smith, 27.

The St James’s Park pelicans are surprisingly self-sufficient

‘I’m the senior wildlife officer of all the Royal Parks in central London, which includes feeding and looking after the exotic and non-native birds in St James’s Park. Historically, my role would have been the “birdman”, and I’d have lived in the park at Duck Island Cottage. The pelicans were originally a gift to King James and have been around since the 1600s. They’re actually quite capable of feeding themselves under the right conditions, despite being born and bred in captivity.’

Being surrounded by nature in the city can feel surreal

‘One of the best bits about my job is being in the middle of the largest city in western Europe, yet surrounded by more than 1,000 acres of green space. It’s always such a thrill when I stumble across really unusual or cryptic creatures: I could be less than 200 metres from 10 Downing Street and see a woodcock fly off! Just recently we saw two kingfishers inhabiting the lake, which is spectacular. It says something about the quality of the habitat.’

There are some quietly amazing people who care a lot about wildlife…

‘We get a lot of returning visitors, who mostly remain anonymous. We had a blogger who dedicated pretty much all his spare time to writing about the wildlife in Hyde Park. Occasionally they do approach you and you realise there are exceptional people out there who really care about nature.’

…but we’ve still got a long way to go

‘It does upset me when people spend their whole time in the park just looking at their phones. We’ve all become quite insular. It reduces our willingness to communicate with nature. But overall I think we’re going in the right direction – particularly with young people.’

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