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The future's orange for exotic ducks on the Heath

PUBLISHED: 16:56 28 March 2008 | UPDATED: 14:54 07 September 2010

A Japanese symbol of fidelity has taken up residence in Hampstead, writes Bob Gilbert To walk in Kenwood and hear the parakeets shrieking, or to see their distinctive long-tailed silhouettes gliding overhead, or to catch a glimpse of their brilliant em

A Japanese symbol of fidelity has taken up residence in Hampstead, writes Bob Gilbert

To walk in Kenwood and hear the parakeets shrieking, or to see their distinctive long-tailed silhouettes gliding overhead, or to catch a glimpse of their brilliant emerald green, is a bit like walking into a dream.

In summer, when the foliage is dense, it is like entering one of those lush jungle paintings by Rousseau. On a dark winter's day, it is the strangeness of their presence among the stark, bare trees that breeds a sense of unreality.

In our recent family walks, this feeling of dislocation has been heightened by the increased presence of another piece of seemingly misplaced exotica.

The mandarin must be among the most ornamental of ducks. In addition to a bewildering variety of shimmering colours and a chestnut-orange crest, the male carries its wing feathers upwards like a Japanese fan or the sails of a junk.

They have been present in this country since first imported as an aesthetic addition to the lakes of our country estates, but have been escaping and breeding here for more than a century.

Virginia Water, south-west of London, has long been a stronghold, and I occasionally made trips over to see them. That journey is no longer necessary, for they are also now on the Heath.

The mandarin is a woodland duck, nesting in the holes in trees - most often oaks - and most at home sitting on a branch projecting over the water, or even a floating log.

It was appropriate, therefore, that I first saw them here on Stock Pond, surrounded as it is by a thicket of trees. It was a cold

and grey day but nonetheless

they appeared to have flown straight out of a decorative willow-pattern plate.

More recently they seem to have moved over to the main concert bowl pond, perhaps sensing that this too is one of those artificial lakes originally engineered by country gentlemen to enhance the views from the grand house. My own equivalent is a birdbath.

Their population has been growing over the past 25 years and it now exceeds 7,000 birds.

At the same time they have been declining in their native Asia and

it is believed there are more breeding pairs in Britain than there are in Japan.

Nonetheless, they have to compete here with squirrels and jackdaws for their nest sites and it is good to see they are holding up against such tenacious foes.

They are, in Chinese folklore, symbolic of marital fidelity, though my plan to introduce them in our garden was eventually downgraded to chickens.

It is good, therefore, to know that I can still see them by travelling up the hill from Islington, even if it does mean entering a landscape that seems increasingly like the product of an overactive imagination.


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