Beavers are back in London’s waterways after 400 years away
In a groundbreaking collaboration between Citizen Zoo and the local community, beavers have been reintroduced to London’s waterways for the first time in 400 years. The ripple effect? Enhanced biodiversity, water quality, and a city reconnected with nature.
For the staff and volunteers involved in the Ealing Beaver Project – a collaboration between Citizen Zoo, Ealing Wildlife Group, Friends of Horsenden Hill and Ealing Council – there had been a sleepless night before the morning of their release. But in the cold dawn at Paradise Fields, with last minute preparations completed, crowds huddled around metal boxes set at the water’s edge. Their voices reduced to a whisper as they awaited the big reveal.
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, stood leaning in to watch them. With the Mayor’s Rewilding London fund a supporter of the Ealing Beaver Project’s work, he has a vested interest in what is unarguably a curious – and positive – news story, and he was tasked with releasing one of the mammals himself.
Some had expected the beavers to be shy. Relocated from Scotland, where farmers in Tayside were getting annoyed with flooding on their land, options had run out. If they didn’t find a new home, the alternative was – without sounding too dramatic – lethal control.
But when the doors come off their boxes, they put on a show, swimming around, gliding into reeds, diving and coming up to the water’s edge. As they settle in, their teeth will get to work remodelling their new manor, while a community will learn to live alongside its newest members as stewards and educators of the Ealing Beaver Project.
London was very different four centuries ago, when beavers last roamed free there. Charles was king, yes, but Shakespeare had just died, and the mammals had been hunted to extinction, prized for their fur, meat and glands.
But now the dam-builders are back in the UK, with populations growing. There are around 300 beavers in Kent, and they’re making their way to London. Nobody knows when, only that there’s a need to be ready.
They’re good neighbours, mind, improving both water quality and biodiversity. By felling trees, beavers increase the amount of sunlight that can reach the ground, bringing the spark for new lives. The dams they build can improve water quality downstream, and create natural wetlands upstream.
The big day has been made possible by an army of volunteers. With the release, they had fresh evidence of how communities can play an active role in rewilding.
“It was important to us that the public be involved and still be able to see this landscape. Most other beaver projects are just in an enclosure, there’s no public visitation,” explains Nadya Mirochnitchenko, beaver coordinator at Ealing Wildlife Group.
“But here people will be able to actually walk through the capital ring path, enjoy the nature, watch the landscape actually change before their eyes.”
“We believe absolutely anyone can be a conservationist if they want to.”
It was a sleepless night for Elliot Newton. “Beavers on the mind all night. I won’t lie, I didn’t have the best night’s sleep. But I woke up this morning with excitement,” says Newton, the co-founder of Citizen Zoo.
One of the forces behind the project, Citizen Zoo focuses on getting residents of urban areas involved in rewilding. Its other projects have involved reintroducing water voles and grasshoppers.
“We put community at the heart of our conservation projects. We believe everyone has the ability to be a conservationist if they’re given the right support and guidance,” says Newton.
As with the newly-released Ealing beavers, the projects rely on volunteers, and show communities that they can change their surroundings.
“We believe absolutely anyone can be a conservationist if they want to,” Newton adds.
‘We can be confident we’re not contributing to more fossil fuels’
Citroën, which has also been working with Big Issue Group, providing vehicles to our frontline delivery and support teams round the UK as part of our Driving Change For Good partnership, have loaned Citizen Zoo an electric van to go about their work.
“It’s fantastic that we are able to support Citizen Zoo in this partnership with an ë-Berlingo van,” Greg Taylor, Managing Director of Citroën UK, says.
“Citizen Zoo does vital work restoring habitats to their functional states, reintroducing species and empowering people and communities, It’s great to see the zero-tailpipe emissions ë-Berlingo van out and about supporting the incredible work that Citizen Zoo do supporting wildlife across the country.”
Newton says the van has been integral to running projects like this one in Ealing. It’s also exempt from the newly-expanded Ulez, reducing daily running costs for the group while they move tools, people and sometimes species around.
“Having this electric vehicle, we can be confident we’re not contributing to more fossil fuels and it helps us to run every single one of our conservation projects. Without it, we’d be incredibly compromised,” says Newton.
Running next to the beaver enclosure is a busy road, with commuter cars and delivery vans rolling along it. Volunteers are confident that there’s nothing to draw the beavers towards it – it’s loud, uphill, and there isn’t any water to sniff out.
It’s really important to recognise that nature was here first
Speaking at the release, Sadiq Khan believes the recent Ulez expansion will also be good for nature – and for Londoners who want to enjoy nature.
“It’s really important to recognise that nature was here first. The roads came afterwards and that’s led to issues outside schools, but also issues here,” Khan says.
“What’s really important is that the vehicles on the main road will now be Ulez compliant – hopefully – and so will not be churning out particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide.”
‘This landscape will change dramatically’
In the month after the release, the beavers will settle in before the public is allowed to swing by. Trees will be gnawed, foraging will take place, and some willow trees might even come down, explains Eva Bishop, head of communications at Beaver Trust.
“This landscape will change dramatically,” Bishop says. And, alongside the changes to nature and biodiversity, the community will also continue to evolve and grow, with education on how to treat their newest residents the right way and learn more about the environment they are sharing.
Says Mirochnitchenko: “We’re learning how to live alongside beavers. We’re learning to manage the beavers, but also the people. Education’s a big part of it.”
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