One of the less likely residents of of the Camden and Hampstead waterways is a cold-blooded reptile that by rights should be basking in the warmer climes of the southern USA and central America. But if you know where to look, on a warm day you can stand a pretty good chance of spotting a red-eared terrapin or six, the survivors of pets discarded in the aftermath of the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle craze of the early 1990s. Really.
The first time I noticed the little critters was in a pond on Hampstead Heath — the second north of the men’s swimming pond to be precise (on the right as you enter the east side of the heath from Merton Lane). On the east side is a bunch of trees that grow out directly over the water with some of their branches partially submerged. If the sun is shining, a few dome-shaped shells can be spied, hauled out on the branches to warm their cold veins.
Other good spots for terrapin sightings are in the ever delightful and surprising Waterlow Park, and on Regent’s Canal, rather fittingly right by Camley Street Natural Park. Although quite what these introduced voracious predators of tadpoles, frogspawn, young birds, and water life in general are doing for the conservation efforts of the Park, I don’t know.
With a lifespan of up to 30 years, these discarded Donatellos, runaway Raffaels, leftover Leonardos, and missing Michaelangelos may not have much longer left, and since they need temperatures upwards of 22 centigrade for 2 months to hatch a clutch of eggs, it’s highly unlikely they are replenishing their population.
So on the next hot day, get out there and see you if can see, before they hideaway for another winter — from which, like a Blue Peter tortoise, they might not emerge.
Dartmouth Park-based writer Peter Hayward trained in zoology and evolutionary biology before becoming editor of a medical journal, starting his Animal Of The Week blog back in 2004 @animaloftheweek