Despite being one of the world's busiest cities, London is home to a surprising number of animals. And no, I'm not just talking about foxes, rats and pigeons. There are so many different birds, mammals and insects that you can see in London for free, without having to worry about the hefty ticket cost of the zoo. If you visit the city's parks and nature reserves, you'll be surrounded by creatures: pelicans, ducks, swans, deer, butterflies and kingfishers are to name just a few. Here are some of the top places in London for finding animals.
Richmond Park is renowned as being the best place in London to spot deer, although you can also find them in Greenwich Park, Clissold Park and Bushy Park. There are approximately 650 deer grazing Richmond Park's grassland, and the best time for spotting them is at dawn, when you can capture the best lighting with your camera. Remember to keep at least 50 metres away from the deer so that you don't disturb them, especially between May and July when the mothers protect their young, and in autumn when the male deer get particularly aggressive with each other. If that wasn't enough, you might also come across birds, butterflies, rabbits and mice during your walk around Richmond Park.
Although not native to the UK, ring-necked parakeets tend to swarm the city's parks in June. It is thought that they bred after escaping from aviaries and Isleworth Studios during the filming of The African Queen in 1951. Kensington Gardens seem to be popular amongst these species, although I did spot one in Regents Park last year, and they can also be seen in Wormwood Scrubs. Be sure to bring an apple if you want to get up close and personal with a parakeet. They will also feed on various fruit, berries, nuts, seeds and grains.
St James's Park may be located right in the centre of London, but it is a great place for seeing pelicans for free. The Russian ambassador gave pelicans to the UK as a gift in 1664, and there are still a few of their ancestors in St James's Park centuries later. You can watch the pelicans being fed by wildlife attendants between 2:30pm and 3:00pm every day outside Duck Island Cottage. And that's not all – you'll also be able to spot robins, herons, tawny owls, swans, exotic ducks and squirrels in St James's Park: ducks, swans and geese tend to cluster around Duck Island too.
Address: St James's Park, London, SW1A 2BJ
4. Horniman Museum and Gardens
By Cmglee - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18870242
Nestled in Forest Hill, which is about a 40-minute drive from central London, Horniman Museum and Gardens is a fantastic spot for animal lovers. There are several enclosures which act as a home for a number of mammals, such as goats, sheep, guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens. Once you've seen all the animals, pop over to one of the cafes, which offer either dine-in or takeaway options, and then let your kids explore the playground. Don't forget to book tickets in advance, and wear a face-covering while you're walking around the gardens.
Address: Horniman Museum and Gardens, 100 London Rd, Forest Hill, London SE23 3PQ
Located between Golders Green and Hampstead, Golders Hill Park is a beautiful gem just outside the busy city. If you wander around the park, you'll come across a small zoo with deer and exotic birds, as well as a pond which is home to ducks and geese. There is also a butterfly house, which is open from 1pm to 3pm every day between late March and October (although this may vary during the pandemic). Leave some time to discover the stunning Pergola.
Address: Golders Hill Park, N End Way, London NW3 7HE
Hampstead Heath is a haven for bird watchers. It is estimated that around 180 different species of birds can be seen in Hampstead Heath, ranging from the resident tawny owl, heron, mute swan, mallard and tufted duck, to temporary visitors such as skylark, warblers and goldcrest. Arrive at the park early in the morning for the best sightings.
Address: Hampstead Heath, Hampstead, London NW5 1QR
7. Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park
By Acrocephalus_scirpaceus_Vlaskop.jpg: Martien Brand from Mariënberg, The Netherlandsderivative work: Bogbumper (talk) - Acrocephalus_scirpaceus_Vlaskop.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10762567
Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park isn't very well-known, but it provides a unique habitat for a range of insects and birds, including dragonflies, butterflies, reed warblers and swifts. The park comprises of 4 acres of lakes, streams, a small pond, wildflower meadow, marsh and willow woodland. The lakes, ponds and streams, in particular, attract frogs, toads and newts.
Address: The Ecology Park Gatehouse, Thames Path, John Harrison Way, London SE10 0QZ
Just off Kensington High Street, Holland Park is a charming park that provides a lovely day out, despite being only 54 acres. If you wander through Holland Park, it's likely that you'll come across at least one or two peacocks. They are usually found in and around Kyoto Garden, but you might be able to spy one perched on a branch of a tree. Watch these magnificent birds strut majestically around the park and don't forget to take a few photos. Afterwards, have a picnic, head to the adventure playground, or just relax.
Address: Holland Park, Ilchester Pl, Kensington, London W8 6LU
9. Camley Street Natural Park
CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=316490
Run by the London Wildlife Trust, Camley Street Natural Park was created from an old coal yard in 1984. It's situated in King's Cross, along Regent's Canal, and has a collection of a pond, woodland and meadow habitats. During your visit to Camley Street Natural Park, look out for kingfishers, geese, mallard and bats. Visitors can enjoy a range of activities, such as guided walks, bug hunting and pond dipping. Camley Street is currently closed to the public while a new visitor and learning centre is being constructed, but hopefully, it will be open again soon.
Address: 12 Camley St, Kings Cross, London N1C 4PW
10. Woodberry Wetlands
By N Chadwick, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44059796
Woodberry Wetlands is spread out over 17 hectares and makes a fun day out for the entire family. It is located near Finsbury Park and offers a diverse habitat for bats, grey herons and tufted ducks. Common pochard, Canada goose and great crested grebe also frequent Woodberry Wetlands, particularly in early summer. As with Camley Street Natural Park, Woodberry Wetlands has several activities for kids on the weekends and during school holidays, for example, Wildlife Gardening for Kids and the Wild Adventure Club.
Address: Lordship Rd, New River Path, Woodberry Down, London N16 5HQ
These are just some of the best places in London for spotting animals for free. Of course, if you're more interested in exotic and larger animals and don't mind paying an entrance fee, you can always check out London Zoo or Battersea Zoo. You could also pay a visit to one of London's many city farms, which are mostly completely free to enter and have a whole range of super cute animals to admire - including alpacas, donkeys, sheep, cows, ducks, goats and even ferrets.