Hampstead Heath (known locally just as "the Heath") is a large, ancient London park, covering 320 hectares (790 acres). It sits astride a sandy ridge resting on a band of London clay. It is one of the highest points in London, rising to 134 metres (440 ft) above mean sea level, and has long been a popular place for Londoners to take the air. The view from Parliament Hill, in the south-east part of the Heath, is protected by law.
The Heath is rambling and hilly, embracing large grassy spaces and recent and ancient woodlands. Its two stream valleys have been dammed to create a dozen large ponds, three of which are open-air public swimming pools. Elsewhere around the site are a number of smaller ponds. A significant area of controversy surrounds the proposed work on many of the dams of the Heath ponds, which might lead to major earthworks in the 2013-15 timescale.
The Heath includes the stately home of Kenwood and its estate. Other features are a lido at Gospel Oak, several playgrounds and a training track on Parliament Hill Fields and animal enclosures, a butterfly house and a pond with exotic waterfowl in Golders Hill Park.
The Heath is a Local Nature Reserve and a Site of Metropolitan Importance. One third of the Kenwood Estate is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (London's smallest).
The Heath is mainly managed by the City of London Corporation, although the Kenwood Estate is the responsibility of English Heritage. The site lies within the London Borough of Camden, except for Hampstead Heath Extension and Golders Hill Park, which are in the London Borough of Barnet.
Both Golders Hill Park and Kenwood are fenced in and closed at nights. Otherwise the Heath is accessible round the clock.
How to get thereEdit
Access to the Heath is generally unrestricted and travel to the area is facilitated by Tube stations at Highgate, Hampstead and Golders Green (all on the Northern Line, each just a c.10-minute walk from the Heath itself). On the North London overland railway, there is the Hampstead Heath Station, which as the name suggests, stops close to the Heath (in South End Green, right next to the Heath's southwest corner) and Gospel Oak, next to the Lido at the south of the Heath.
South End Green is also served by bus routes 24, 46, 168, 268, C11 and N5. Route 210 passes along Spaniards Road, which crosses through the northern part of the site (as does the school-run 603, with just two buses each way in the morning and two in the afternoon). Route 214 passes close to the east side of the Heath .
This is a surprisingly large area of open fields, hills, and deciduous woodland (substantially oak and beech) with two main groups of relatively small ponds/old reservoirs on the Highgate side and near South End Green. The active management of the Heath by the Corporation of London has significantly improved both the grassland and the amount and variety of mature deciduous woodland in recent decades.
Because the site is in the heart of London, it does attract a lot of people, especially at weekends. If you are intending to visit for birding purposes, a good idea is therefore to arrive at, or even before, dawn before any birds have been disturbed by walkers (human or canine!). This is especially important during periods of passage as some shyer species may decide it is too busy for them and promptly 'move on' (vanish).
Although the site is large and in a large population centre, it does get surprisingly limited regular coverage (Bill Oddie used to state that it is his local patch, but to be fair, he lives very close). Visit and sighting reports on "Londonbirders" are very strongly encouraged.
What to look for Edit
The days of breeding Yellowhammers and Red-backed Shrikes are sadly no more, but Red-backed Shrikes, a Dartford Warbler and even a Stone Curlew have been seen on passage recently. Because of its elevated situation, Parliament Hill is a surprisingly good place to observe visible migration, especially early in the morning, with birds of prey including Hobby, Honey Buzzard and Osprey as well as the far more numerous passerines. In addition, the bushes and areas of grass around it, and the hedgerows leading away from it, are probably the best and easiest-worked areas for passage passerines. (Very) occasionally something really outstanding will pop up such as Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Little Bittern and Alpine Swift, all of which were 'good birds' not just for the site but nationally.
In terms of more usual species, the Heath is good for all the woodland finches, tits, warblers, etc, as well as all three species of Woodpecker, which breed here [?? - including Lesser Spotted still?]. Active management of the habitats around the ponds has also led to breeding Kingfishers, and reed beds that attract Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers, as well as wintering Water Rails and, in February 2012, a Bittern. Recent winters have also seen interesting records of less usual duck, with occasional Teal and Wigeon dropping in during particularly cold periods to join the more normal Gadwall and Shoveler. Early on in the year is also best for Woodcock, which may be present in quite high numbers, especially in the less disturbed areas of Kenwood and West Heath. Passage can see small but regular numbers of pipits, larks, chats and redstarts.
In the past few years, the Heath has been colonised by Ring-necked Parakeets, especially at the Highgate side. It is obvious that they find the site to their liking, as their numbers have shown an almost alarming explosion. Non-birders are nearly always surprised to learn not only of their presence, but also exactly how many there are.
As stated at the beginning, this is a very large site, and even when it is busy, it may be possible to find a relatively quiet spot where it is easy to forget that you are close to the centre of London. On account of a relative lack of large water expanses for interesting winter duck, and marsh areas for waders, a "normal" year list could probably reach 70+ species, and perhaps 90+ for the particularly diligent (and fortunate) patch lister.
Where to go Edit
If you are unfamiliar with the Heath, it is easy to get lost, since it really is a large area. Even if you know the Heath, it will take you a good half day to cover it well, and it is more often best to break it up into its three major constituent parts:
- East Heath. This is the main part of the Heath and includes Kenwood, Parliament Hill and all the large ponds. It is by far the largest area, and with the most varied habitat. Please note that, to comply with the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, major work will almost certainly have to be carried out on almost all of the pond-dams in the next few years, causing temporary disruption to wildlife.
- West Heath. This includes Golders Hill Park, and is best accessed from Golders Green. Apart from the park, it is largely deciduous woodland, with a lot of mature birch and related bog. Please note that for years the West Heath has been used by gay men as a place to pick up others with the same tastes. For this reason, it should be avoided at dusk in the summer if you wish to avoid a potentially embarrassing encounter. (It is a relatively small area and not exciting ornithologically, so can easily be left out of your visit).
- Sandy Heath and Hampstead Heath Extension. Again with quickest access from Golders Green, this is the smallest area, but it includes some surprisingly productive small ponds and tree lines between the playing fields.
For further reading we must mention 'Where to watch birds in the London area' by Dominic Mitchell which covers the site more thoroughly than we do here. The Heath is also the subject of an ongoing survey by the LNHS who (along with the Marylebone Birdwatching Society and the Heath & Hampstead Society) regularly have field meetings visiting the Heath for those who might find an initial solo visit slightly intimidating.
Paul White/Sash Tusa