It’s a wildlife in the Barbican

City living seems to suit a number of species of mammal and avian wildlife which make their homes in and around the Barbican.

As well as providing a great living space for the human species, the Barbican supports a fair amount of wildlife as well, as the gardens and the lakes provide their own residences for some rare and not so rare birds and mammals. There is a great variety of plant life with some extremely interesting trees and shrubs in the Barbican gardens, in the igloos on the upper main lake and alongside it, but in this issue we’ll concentrate on some of the animal life which resides here and visits.

Birds

Peregrine Falcons can be easily seen and heard around the Barbican, particularly during the summer.

The rarest inhabitants are in bird life. Many residents are aware of the peregrine falcons which nest, and produce young each year in one of the tower blocks. The peregrine was one of Britain’s most endangered species not so long ago – the RSPB estimates still that there are only between 750 and 1,400 breeding pairs in the UK, but some have been able to adapt to living and breeding in urban surroundings. They have not always been the most popular of birds with gamekeepers, and were badly indirectly affected by pesticides until DDT was banned – and because of their relative rarity they have been targeted by egg collectors too, but nowadays nesting in tall buildings like a Barbican tower block or Battersea Power Station or the Tate Modern they are perhaps safer and less accessible to egg thieves. The Peregrine is renowned for its speed, reaching over 322 km/h (200 mph) during its characteristic hunting stoop (high speed dive), making it the fastest member of the animal kingdom. They mostly feed on medium sized and small birds – hence the antipathy of gamekeepers – and may also be contributors to the high mortality rate for Barbican ducklings – but are also helpful in keeping pigeons away.

But perhaps the rarest inhabitant may be the black redstart, although we have been unable to get any confirmation that the breeding pair which used to nest here, believed to be in the area of the herb garden next to the Barber Surgeons Hall, are still resident today. The black redstart is one of the country’s rarest birds, but is far from easy to spot. According to the RSPB its name comes from the plumage of the male, which is grey-black in colour with a red tail. With fewer than 100 breeding pairs nowadays in the UK, the black redstart is on the amber list of Birds of Conservation Concern. Many of those few which are around in the country have adapted to live in urban areas like the Barbican. If anyone should spot one please let us know.

The Black Redstart

Interestingly there used to be a number of breeding pairs in the area as the postwar bombsites in the City did provide a good habitat for them, but the construction of the Barbican and the regeneration of the City caused them mostly to move on. Apparently in the 1950s and 60s there were thought to be as many as 70 breeding pairs in the Cheapside area. The other bird which appears to be on the danger list these days, at least in England, is the once exceptionally common house sparrow. The population is known to have declined about 70% between 1977 and 2008 with no-one sure why. There are some to be seen in the Barbican as are blackbirds – which get confused by the light emanating from some of the office buildings around and sometimes can be heard to sing through the night. Many common bird species are to be seen around – tits, robins, wrens, finches,the occasional thrush. I have even seen a report of a sighting of a green woodpecker. We don’t yet seem to be plagued by magpies. There are occasional pigeons venturing by, but these are put off by the peregrines – and also by occasional visits from a falconer, with a harris hawk, paid to persuade the urban pigeons to stay away.

The lakes though, are a major attraction for some seabirds and waterfowl, and the odd predator like a heron which arrives occasionally for a spot of fishing. Seagulls are not popular with residents – noisy – and being aggressive and seemingly fearless birds have been known to be a major nuisance for those eating alfresco on the Barbican Centre terrace. They are also thought to be responsible for part of the annual duckling massacre. It must be heartbreaking being a mother duck here most years.

But speaking of ducks, those which grace the lakes are primarily mallards, on occasion joined by various other duck and small goose species which are usually temporary visitors. These have included ruddy ducks, Egyptian geese, an American wood duck (or it may have been a Mandarin) and undoubtedly others.

Despite being a monument to concrete, The Barbican is surprisingly welcoming for wildlife!

The mallards are the ones which breed here – often in residents’ balcony window boxes which does create a problem when it’s time for the progeny to venture forth into the dangers of the lake and the various predators which fancy duckling as a tasty treat. As noted above the mortality rate seems to be enormous these days although hopefully the reed beds which are now a part of the lake environment may provide some shelter.

We do also have one or two moorhens and coots, which tend to be cleverer than the ducks and do make better use of the reeds as shelter. Seagulls are not the onlv seabirds which come here – recently a cormorant has been spotted looking for lunch, but the most spectacular fishing bird is of course the heron which makes the occasional foray here and graces the front cover of this issue. The heron is a truly spectacular bird and tends to create particular interest among watchers by the lakeside. It is thought the one which comes to the Barbican may flyover from Regents Park – I have a number of photographs of it on the waterfall, but it also sometimes is seen on the small stretch of Lake behind St Giles and near Mountjoy House and the Roman wall.

Our largest avian resident.

We used to be plagued with Canada Geese every summer. Although a handsome bird, they are strong, messy and can be aggressive, particularly when they have young. They seem to have been discouraged, but if they return some time it is best not to feed them as that encourages them to come back year-on-year. They also had been accused of killing ducklings, but this may have just been due to dislike of the species. Always blame the unpopular ones! They are actually largely herbivores eating grass but have been also known to eat small in sects and small fish.

Actually Canada Geese are pretty moral birds by human standards. They are monogamous, mating for life and both the male and female help protect the nest while the eggs are incubating.

Fish

One of the attractions for birds like the heron or the cormorant are the fish in the lake. According to Michael Barrett’s newsletter noted above, originally there weren’t going to be any fish in the lake. But then swarms of midges began to bite concert goers. So carp were introduced to control the midges. In that they were a success, but they created a lot of mess in the water. When they drained the lake several years back now, they had to catch all the carp. Apparently they removed 3,500 carp. When the lake was refilled it was restocked with a different type of fish -1,000 Golden Orfe and Golden Rudd, which are more dainty surface feeders. They can occasionally be seen around the waterfall – and presumably elsewhere, but given that they come to the surface more than the carp used to they may thus be easier prey for the predatory birds.

Mammals

The most common mammals in and around the Barbican, apart from rats and mice which tend to keep themselves well hidden – and the odd pet cat – and occasional small dog – of course defying the lease terms – are foxes and squirrels.

They’re cute. They’re furry. They might poo on top of your car in the Bunyan car park though.

Foxes can frequently be seen, and heard, in the Barbican. They have found a new lease of life in urban surroundings, and the Barbican must be a bit of a paradise for some which breed in the area. They seem to be less and less afraid of people and we get reports of them totally ignoring the odd human being sitting in the gardens. Indeed recently one curious specimen was observed by a former Chairman of the Barbican Association sitting in the stairwell in Seddon House.

The foxes are often seen in the evenings and one couple I know reckons they are often visible on the girls’ school playing field from the windows of Mountjoy House or Thomas More House. They are of course, far quieter visitors to the playing fields than the girls. Michael Barrett, in a special newsletter circulated around the Barbican a few years back, noted that foxes have lived on the burial mound near Barber Surgeons’ Hall (round the corner from Wallside and the circular bit of ruined wall). And that they probably now live in the Wild Garden in Fann Street.

Indeed European red foxes thrive particularly well in urban environments. The species is first thought to have colonised British cities during the 1930s, entering London during the 1940s. Urban foxes are most common in residential suburbs consisting of privately owned, low-density housing, but are rare in areas where council rented houses predominate. They must have realized that the Barbican Estate flats are now largely privately owned!

Back in 2006 it was estimated that there were 10,000 foxes in London. According to Wikipedia, city- dwelling foxes may have the potential to consistently grow larger than their rural counterparts, as a result of abundant scraps and a relative dearth of predators. While foxes will scavenge successfully in the city (and the foxes tend to eat anything that the humans eat) some urban residents will deliberately leave food out for the animals, finding them endearing. Some researchers speculate that the urban fox is evolving into a different species from its countryside cousin, as it has a different diet of mainly man-made food, different survival skills (for example, the ability to cross roads), different places to live (under buildings rather than trees), a lack of their natural fear of humans, and a larger size.]

Squirrels are also often seen in the Barbican, undertaking feats of derring-do leaping from trees to Barbican balconies and, according to some residents, occasionally wreaking havoc in some window boxes. (From a recent posting on Barbican Talk: “Early this morning the £$%A&*@% squirrels destroyed my 12 year orchid collection the first day I put them outside”) The posting was actually on a thread suggesting squirrel traps should be brought in as in some parts of the estate squirrels are becoming quite a menace.

The furry menace. (?)

Squirrels can be aggressive and pretty fearless and it is not unknown for them to venture inside a flat when balcony doors have been left open. Indeed one former resident once claimed to have fed a friendly squirrel with shortbread inside her flat. Probably shouldn’t be encouraged.    As also pointed out from time to time, although squirrels look cute they are actually vermin – and the variety we have here has largely been responsible for the native red squirrel almost being drive to extinction.

Squirrels are omnivores – not only do they eat nuts, but fungi, eggs, bulbs, shortbread biscuits and sometimes young birds – perhaps yet another duckling predator. In terms of squirrel residences they usually either build a nest in the upper branches of a tree or create a den in a hollow tree. They are also known to have nested in the bushy undergrowth on the old burial mound near Barber Surgeons’ Hall, there are also a good number in Bunhill Fields.
Doubtless there are numerous other small furry animals around the Barbican, some living within the buildings, some in the network of tunnels under the complex and others in the gardens. There are also bats to be seen, or sensed, at dusk – reportedly nesting in the church tower at St Giles and possibly other spots here.

So there is a pretty broad diversity of animal wildlife visible within the confines of the Barbican – perhaps remarkable for a complex located in the heart of one of the world’s major cities. Yes, some of it causes the occasional nuisance, but then maybe some of your human neighbours may do too! As one resident k writing on barbicantalk put it a year or so ago – “I think showing the sheer diversity and prosperity of wildlife in the Barbican would be of both surprise and interest to many others in London and the rest of the UK. If I was asked to do a gushy pitch then it would focus on peoples perception of the city as the centre for financial services, trading across the world, a place of hustle and bustle and yet, here in the mayhem is this oasis of peace and quiet where birds and mammals prosper”