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“Churchill offloads Aussie Swans”

At least that is how the headline would be written today.

At the London Wetland Centre, there is an Aussie themed garden that hosts Black Swans which are the progeny of those gifted to Winston Churchill by the West Australian Government.  The story goes that the swans harassed Churchill so much in his backyard, that he sought help from Sir Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), to have some of them re-homed. Of course when you google the official record, Sir Peter wrote to the Prime Minister requesting loan of the said swans, so proper…

Sir Peter was a bona fide renaissance eco-man, having founded WWF and WWT, helped draft the IUCN red-book and even painted the first WWF Panda-logo (which now resides at WWT’s Slimbridge Wetlands Centre). Like the black swans, there are a variety of waterbirds from around the world, showcased at the London Wetlands Centre, many species I had never seen before and likely never will in the wild.

In some ways this colonial collection reminded me of the rich heritage of zoological and botanical collectors from England and France (particularly) who traveled the world looking for new specimens in the quest for knowledge, new resources, and new lands. Specimens were brought back to the motherland, dead or alive, for curation, propagation or zoo-keeping, and handsome rewards were paid.

But there is much more to London Wetland Centre than black swans. The visitor interface is well designed; my first impression, after travelling up the Thames to get there, was how refreshing it was to see clear water! Surely that is the best messaging technique for showcasing water quality to Londonians.

Once inside the Sanctuary, there is an indoor elevated viewing platform introducing people to the landscape.  Having bustled through the London traffic – vehicular and pedestrian, the overwhelming first impression is relief, relief that there is some space here where people come second and we can individually connect with the nature.

What you can see from that vantage point is beautiful, and what you can’t see is equally important.  The design gives the sense of wetlands continuing to the horizon (trees on the banks of the Thames in the mid-view help), while the higher-use education area and captive animal displays are beyond the boundaries of this hero view-shed (like the crowd in a baseball match when you are watching the pitch thrown down).

For a moment you could be nowhere near urbanisation…

The Wetlands have a variety of bird hides, including a family-friendly one and access for people of all abilities. A 2-storey hide provides 360-degree views, and a great vantage point for observing cattle roaming the wetlands and a bunch of bird species foreign to the land down under (including the ponytail lapwing shown below).

Spaces are provided for weddings, school groups and multipurpose spaces for meetings and community uses.  School groups are visiting every school-day, more than 30,000 kids per year. There is also a strategic shift underway in the education program, away from ‘telling and lecturing’ towards providing genuine immersive experiences and opportunities for self-discovery.

20 staff look after the facility and programs that cater for 220,000 visitors each year. The visitor facilities have reached their carrying capacity and the Trust is exploring planning options for new and expanded facilities.

It was amazing to explore the site with WWT CEO Martin Spray (CBE – Excellent Order of the British Empire) and pick his brains on all things leadership, fundraising, nature engagement and inspiration and biodiversity conservation – thanks Martin!

Looking forward to catching up with Martin again at Slimbridge Wetland Centre, where the painting of the first WWF logo hangs in Martin’s office (formerly Peter’s office).

This study tour is sponsored by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust

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