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Hampstead Heath - known locally as "the Heath" is a large, public space, covering 320 hectares (790 acres). It sits astride a sandy ridge, on a band of London clay and commands great views over London. Historically, it has been a popular place for Londoners to take the air, and observe nature; the view from Parliament Hill, in the south-east part of the Heath, is protected by law.

The Heath is hilly and varied, comprising of acid grassland, meadows, scrub and ancient woodland. Formerly, it was notably more open, and peppered with gorse and heather. Sadly, most of this habitat is long gone, but remnants remain around Jack Straws Castle and the extension. Its two stream valleys, have been dammed to create a dozen large ponds, three of which are open-air public swimming pools. Elsewhere, the site contains a number of smaller ponds. Major earth works, including the dredging and re-landscaping of the Boating Pond, finished in 2017. These were both costly, and controversial. From a naturalists pov it wasn't too bad - at the end, there were significantly more reedbeds and marginal plants around the Boating Pond and the Men's Pond (Phragmites, bulrush, marsh marigold etc)

The Heath includes the stately home of Kenwood and its estate. Other features include a lido, at Gospel Oak, several playgrounds and an athletics track on Parliament Hill Fields. At Golders Hill Park, there are animal enclosures, a butterfly house and a pond with a collection of exotic wildfowl.

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).

It 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 the Hampstead Heath Extension, and Golders Hill Park, which both come under Barnet.

Both Golders Hill Park and Kenwood are fenced in, and closed at nights. Otherwise the Heath is accessible around the clock.

Map: [1]

How to get there[]

The Heath is facilitated by tube stations at Highgate, Hampstead and Golders Green ( each on the Northern Line and 10 minutes from the Heath itself). On the overland railway, there is Hampstead Heath station, on the Heath's southwest corner, and Gospel Oak, at the south edge near the lido.

South End Green is served by bus routes 88, 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 along the east of the Heath and the 88 terminates at Parliament Hill Fields.

This is a surprisingly large area of open fields, small hills, and deciduous woodland - with substantial oak and beech, but also significant hornbeam and birch. At the northern end - particularly around Kenwood, there is an understory of holly. There are two chains of relatively small ponds/old reservoirs - the Highgate chain and the Hampstead chain. In 2015-17 the Highgate ponds were extensively re-landscaped after desilting, then strengthening their dams, and given larger oxygenating pumps. Active management by the City of London has significantly improved both the grassland and the variety of mature deciduous woodland. More standing dead wood is now kept, for the numerous fungi, beetles etc rather than "tidied up". Fallen trees are increasingly spared too, and allowed to be covered by nettles and brambles.

Because of its proximity to the city centre, and obvious 'wildness', the site has always attracted plenty of people, especially at weekends. Since 2020 though, the numbers have shot up, making recording a challenge at times. That said, a few places still offer some respite, including the enclosed cricket pitch and some of the thicker scrub around Parliament Hill. Early starts usually generate more birds and more species. The exception are raptors which often don't appear until mid morning or even early afternoon for Kites or Buzzards.

Until quite recently, the site was getting little coverage, especially on West Heath and the Heath extension. This is now changing, and new birders are taking on the challenge of finding both migrants and dwindling breeders . An annual breeding bird survey is already up and running with further projects being discussed. Visit and sighting reports on "Londonbirders" are very strongly encouraged.

What to look for[]

The days of breeding Yellowhammers, Linnets and Tree Sparrows are over, but Red-backed Shrike, Dartford Warbler and even Stone Curlew have reminded us the place still has potential. Because of its elevation, Parliament Hill is a great place to observe visible migration, especially early in the morning, when numbers of finches, pipits, wagtails and thrushes can be numerous, especially in autumn. When conditions are right, Wheatears and Whinchats can literally drop out of the sky. Hirundines are less predictable, but can number into the thousands on a really good day. Hobby, Common Buzzard and Red Kite are regular these days - on a warm day in May or June you might get them all. Little Egrets, are increasingly recorded, mostly as flyovers but occasionally dropping down to fish in the shallows of a pond. Marsh Harrier and Osprey will need either a lot of skywatching, or beginners luck. In general, the hedgerows leading away from the hill, are probably the best and easiest worked to see a variety of warblers, chats and flycatchers. (Very) occasionally, something outstanding will pop up, such as Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Little Bittern or Alpine Swift, all of which were 'good birds' not just for the site but nationally.

Among commoner species, the Heath is an ideal place to see and hear Nuthatch, Treecreeper and the two larger Woodpeckers year round. Confirmed reports of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker are now extremely scarce. Goldfinches and Chaffinches are easy to see at any time, especially in October when hundreds may be seen migrating over Parliament Hill. Greenfinches are creeping back in numbers after their recent crash due to trichomonosis. Bullfinches have sadly become very scarce, and are now seen more often on migration. House Sparrows breed at nearby Savernake Road and can be seen commuting to hedges on the south side of Parliament Hill. Proactive management, of habitat surrounding the ponds, has produced breeding Kingfishers, and newly planted reed beds have encouraged Reed Warblers to breed. Sedge and Garden Warblers also pass through, and since 2018 Cetti's Warbler.

Water Rails are recorded each winter and in February 2012, a Bittern dropped in. Recent winters have seen Goldeneye, Wigeon and Goosander join the more frequent Teal, Gadwall and Shoveler. Late autumn and early winter is the time for Woodcocks - which may be under recorded in and around Kenwood and West Heath. Redwing arrivals in October can be notable, these sometimes accompanied by Skylarks or Reed Buntings.

Lapwing and Golden Plover are less commonly seen - usually as flyovers, except after snow when they are much more likely. In winter, the alders around the Sanctuary Pond and the birches in Kenwood are refuges for Siskins and Redpolls. As elsewhere, passage can be hit or miss, but Redstart, Whinchat, Wheatear, Spotted Flycatcher, Yellow Wagtail or even Cuckoo can all be seen with persistence.

In the past decade, Ring-necked Parakeets, have shown an explosion in numbers, especially on the Highgate side. Non-birders are often surprised to learn not only of their presence, but also exactly how easy to see they are.

A lack of any large expanse of water - or even muddy margins - doesn't help the patch lister. Waders are particularly sought after, and seldom remain long whenever they do turn up. However, 85 species is a reasonable target in a year - 100+ for the particularly diligent .

Where to go[]

Even if you know the Heath, it will take a good half day to cover it well, and it is better to concentrate on one of its three major constituent parts:

  • East Heath. This is the main part of the Heath which includes Kenwood and Parliament Hill . It also contains the most varied habitat, including 10 ponds in two separate chains, dense woods and open grassland. Kenwood, with 2 additional ponds and an area of bog, is to the north. As well as viz mig opportunities from Parliament Hill, it is worth checking the 'hedges' running downhill in all directions, concentrating on any dead tree tops. These are some of the most productive areas to search for passage birds, especially warblers, chats and flycatchers. The cricket pitch is always worth checking, it has turned up Ring Ouzel and both Redstarts in recent years but much more likely to reveal a tired Wheatear.
  • 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 surrounding 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 the 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. It is perhaps the least watched area on HH.

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 / Pete Mantle

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