I’ve dedicated much of my time to urban wildlife watching of late, specifically in and around the city of Newcastle – my home patch for the foreseeable future due to a recent change of circumstances. While previously I possessed only a modicum of interest for the nature here, amid the hustle and bustle, perpetual light and clamorous noise of the city, I have been pleasantly surprised by what she has offered me thus far. Specifically, by the wild intrigue unearthed down each alley and sidestreet, around each corner, on rooftops and wasteland alike.
Newcastle is a wild city: a wilderness, not in the traditional sense applied to the rugged coastline of the Hebrides, the windswept heathlands of Exmoor, or even the open expanses of Northumberland closer to home, but a wilderness nonetheless. An urban jungle whose heart beats to the same seasonal rhythm that natural history puritans hold dear in the wider countryside – the tune altered somewhat by the actions of successive generations dating way back to the time of Hadrian, obstructed but never once extinguished. Here, in Newcastle, the players may have changed, as old residents are extirpated, and new ones arrive to fill the void, but ultimately, the game remains the same.
As with most cities up and down the country, the wildlife of Newcastle is not restricted to the rats, pigeons, gulls and geese so many of us have come to associate with urban life. We have all four in abundance, of course, but here too foxes and hedgehogs roam in the shadows, starlings mimic car alarms atop the lofty pinnacles of radio antennae and red admirals sap goodness from windfall apples in carefully manicured gardens.
At the peak of Summer, roadsides and rooftops alike are painted lilac and white by the blooms of buddleia and house martins feed ravenous young in the eaves of the decrepit student houses. In Autumn, the leaves of oak and beech redden and fall; while by Winter, as flurries of snow tumble down in quick succession and ice forms, wildfowl gather on diminishing lakes – ready and willing to exploit the bread fed to them by local children.
The species mentioned above are, more or less, those one would associate with a typical city – adaptive natives and tenacious colonists. In Newcastle, however, surprises lie around every corner. Here, in Winter, Snipe feed on abandoned land too boggy to build on; while common terns haunt the air over parkland ponds, gliding over the heads of fishermen and unwitting walkers alike. Here too Stock Doves share the air with their feral kin, otters move by evening under the glaring light of quayside restaurants and the world’s most inland colony of kittiwakes thrives in the face of adversity and occasional human ill-will. Hidden gems each and all who, alongside their more conspicuous counterparts, form the foundations of the urban ecosystem.
Life for urban wildlife is fraught with difficulties: development, disturbance, degradation; the loss of traditional feeding sites and breeding abodes. There are new predators to evade, invasive competitors vying for scant resources, roads, pollution and, occasionally human ignorance to contend with. Yet, despite all this, opportunity also exists. New food sources, habitats and homes to exploit, generous humans ready and willing to offer a helping hand and, in certain areas, forgotten zones, abandoned by man, providing a home away from home for species of a more rural inclination. The clingers on – relics from a far greener and more pleasant time.
Wildlife watching is the city is not what it seems: confounding and about as far from boring as you can get, contrary to popular belief. Walks here, much like anywhere else in the countryside, accompanied by a sense of quiet anticipation, wonder and hope for things to come. Simply put, it is intriguing, in the finest sense of the word, and truly, you never know what you will find in the gardens, green spaces and grey areas of this Northern municipality.
Scrutinising the wildlife of the city over the past few weeks has taught me a few things: the virtues of patience and an adventurous nature foremost, but also to not accept the norm in life or nature. Not to form my opinions and plan my outings based on the experiences of others, those who extoll the praises of the wilderness and wildland in their traditional sense. As such, and with a certain degree of trepidation – it could all go horribly wrong – I have made myself a promise ahead of the New Year.
In 2018, I will largely abandon the countryside. Forsaking the fields, woodlands and coastal dunes of my regular haunts in favour of a new kind of wilderness – the urban one. In doing so I hope to uncover the secrets of Newcastle, a place I have visited often since birth but fear I have never truly understood, through which natures pulse flows unchallenged throughout the seasons, much as it does anywhere else on our small, crowded island.
Waxwing. A city treasure photographed earlier this year. What will 2018 hold I wonder?