Words by Smiley Team
When was the last time you took a walk on the wild side?
With more than 8 in 10 people in the UK now living in an urban setting, you might think opportunities are limited. But if you open your eyes, you’ll be staggered at what you can find on your own doorstep.
It’s what writer and filmmaker Florence Wilkinson wants you to do, in her debut book Wild City, which encourages all city dwellers to meet their fellow urban neighbours, in a celebration of the natural world that is all too easily overlooked. From the badgers of Brighton's most exclusive postcode, to the water voles of Glasgow, and the Black Country bats who have found a haven in old industrial tunnels, be prepared to expect the unexpected.
Nature has always been a passion for Florence, who grew up in North Essex with a menagerie of animals including ducks, giant rabbits, guinea pigs and pet mice.
She also co-founded an app called Warblr, which automatically recognises British birds by their song. During the coronavirus lockdowns, the app was so popular that it crashed due to the number of people downloading it.
Speaking to Smiley News, Florence says: “The birds had always been there, it’s just that people hadn’t been listening out for them. I couldn’t believe how much young people knew about technology, but how little they knew about the natural world – it was one of the first things I wanted to do, to open people’s eyes to the nature that’s around them.”
She adds: “People’s hyper-local environment became super important. They don’t realise what diversity we’ve got in cities. One of the key things is to try and look at the city differently. Get out of the headspace of being a human, and try to imagine you’re navigating the city in a different way, as one of the creatures that inhabits it. For example, people often forget to look up.”
Florence argues that if we only take the time to look, there’s a lot to be learned from observing the more common creatures that you would expect to find on your doorstep.
The book divides the city up into different slices, starting from above. Then there's island life, water bodies and the underworld - home to rats, which Florence finds “fascinating”, but admits “aren’t everyone’s cup of tea”.
“I did have a rat who was visiting my bird feeder for a while”, she says. “I called her Ratticus Finch… although I think my neighbours were a little bit less impressed that I was attracting rats with my bird feeder!” she adds.
Wild City includes an urban wildlife manifesto, with actions for everyone to take.
For example, Florence says: “One of the things I encourage anyone with a garden to do is to create a little pond. Even if it’s just a bucket, with a ramp for creatures to get in and out.” She also encourages people to let their gardens grow wild and stop pulling up weeds.
Interestingly, the book also explores the ways in which some species have taken the physical structures humans have created, and made use of them, perhaps because they sort of mimic the environment that those species used to inhabit.
“Peregrine falcons are a good example, they have basically taken to our high rises and skyscrapers, as surrogate cliffs and they treat them in a similar way. So as long as they’re good ledges, they use those spaces to build their nest and to roost,” Florence adds.
“I’m very much a city dweller”, she says. “I love living in a city - I love going to the pub and meeting friends, I love going to the theatre, and everything that the city can offer you. I like the fact that the transport comes every two minutes. I’m not your ordinary nature writer in that sense.
“For too long I think we’ve divorced people from animals and nature, and had this idea that you should go out into some kind of wilderness or the countryside, and sit and absorb it all. Actually, if you look at the unprecedented issues that we need to tackle, such as what’s happening to our biodiversity, it’s not necessarily the most helpful way to look at wildlife.”
She adds: “It’s about opening people’s eyes as to what’s out there. If people don’t know it’s there, they’re not going to care about it, or support, encourage and try to protect it. So I hope that that’s the first step really.”
DONATE OR VOLUNTEER: The Wildlife Trusts help preserve the nature of our country – find out how you can get involved.