Hampstead Heath 150: An oasis of biodiversity in central London

Grass snakes live in protected Heath areas

Grass snakes live in protected Heath areas - Credit: Duncan Chapman

The Hampstead Heath Act, whose 150th year we celebrate this month, has not only provided a lasting open space for Londoners, it has created a unique oasis of urban biodiversity.

By resisting “parkification” and maintaining natural habitats, the Heath has remained a true piece of British countryside, home to more than 500 species of flowering plants, 50 species of nesting birds and hundreds of kinds of insects, as well as hedgehogs, protected bats and many other animals.  

Of course, 150 years ago, it had much wildlife than today. Urbanisation has taken its toll as has the growing pressure of visiting people and dogs. Ground nesting birds, like skylarks, have long since disappeared. The Heath’s few fenced areas help to protect more sensitive species like snakes and kingfishers.

Common blue butterfly on its food plant in Heath meadows

Common blue butterfly on its food plant in Heath meadows - Credit: Adrian Brooker

At a time when the diversity of life on this planet is in steep decline due to human activity, the Heath is a unique urban refuge, worth enjoying and worth protecting.  

To encourage both, the Heath and Hampstead Society and its partners have created biodiversity interpretation boards, placed around entrances to the Heath and Kenwood.


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These introduce visitors to the less obvious and very special wildlife that can be easily seen or heard on the Heath.

In the next week, the spring boards will be changed to summer boards, showcasing the distinctive birds that live in the ancient trees of Ken Wood, and the butterflies and dragonflies now appearing on flowering meadows and ponds across the Heath. 

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The principle aim of these boards is to improve the nature experience for visitors to the Heath. But they have another purpose.  

Shy stock dove nest in Heath tree holes

Shy stock dove nest in Heath tree holes - Credit: Adrian Brooker

As Sir David Attenborough has observed: “No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced."

So each seasonal board highlights some simple things visitors can do to protect the biodiversity of Hampstead Heath. Small changes in how people and dogs use the Heath can have a big impact on the survival of its wildlife and plants, and this will help to keep the Heath a wonderful natural experience for at least another 150 years.

Professor Jeff Waage is a member of the Heath and Hampstead Society.

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