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A beaver
Illustration: Kezia Gabriella

The race to rewild London

An ambitious crew of ecologists is battling to rewild our streets, rivers and even window boxes. Chiara Wilkinson meets the people working to bring nature back to the city.

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

Justin and Sigourney are an ambitious hardworking couple who’ve just moved to north London. Their hobbies include DIY and wild swimming. They follow a strict vegan diet and care a lot about dentistry and the environment. Oh, and their last name happens to be ‘Beaver.’

In March this year, the two beavers were released in a six-hectare enclosure in Enfield, the first to be welcomed back into the capital since the species was hunted to extinction 400 years ago. ‘This is the cheeriest thing I’ve seen in a long time,’ tweets one Londoner. ‘Who’s next? Jackie Beaver?’ tweets another.

The introduction of beavers is one of many projects happening at the moment to help ‘rewild’ the capital – a topic that’s as sweltering hot as the Bakerloo line in August. From Ed Sheeran’s plan to buy up as much land as he can to rewild the country, to Louis Vuitton’s Pont Street planting project, it seems like everyone is keen to get involved. And since those (fake) viral photos of dolphins appearing in Venice’s canals surfaced during the March 2020 lockdown, the conversation has found renewed interest. But what does rewilding actually mean – and why is it so important for our city?

Illustration: Kezia Gabriella

Going wild

According to Nathalie Pettorelli, senior scientist at the Zoological Society of London, rewilding is about putting nature in the driving seat of our city’s future. ‘The vision is to create a self-sustaining and self-regulated ecosystem, with low human intervention in the long run,’ Pettorelli says. The urgency of it boils down to one thing: climate change. ‘Climate change is all about carbon, right?’ says Pettorelli. ‘To combat climate change, you need to stop emitting carbon. But you’ll still be left with a bunch of carbon in the atmosphere, so you also need to capture and store it. Nature can do that job the most efficiently and cost-effectively.’

Rewilding is no silver bullet: it can’t fix the massive problem of global heating overnight. But it can help to cool cities during heatwaves, reduce air pollution, and change water flows, assisting with flood mitigation. Remember those images of Pudding Mill Lane submerged under a foot of water last July? Yeah, rewilding could maybe help.

Over in Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is creating new urban forests in the centre, as part of a mission to cover 50 percent of the city with planted areas by 2030. But according to Alistair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, ‘at the moment, there’s no large rewilding project happening in London’. Could that be about to change? Driver is part of the newly created Rewilding London Taskforce, a group of experts commissioned by the Mayor of London after COP26 to recommend how to properly rewild the capital. It will be up to the authorities to decide what is implemented, but if we get it right, Driver thinks it could have a significant impact. ‘This idea that global cities are concrete jungles is one we have to address,’ says Sadiq Khan. ‘For a relatively small sum of money, when you think about the global budget of London, we can really rebuild our city.’

Rewilding doesn’t just mean planting more trees (although that certainly wouldn’t go amiss). Our ecosystem is a complex network of species working together to get that bastard carbon out of the atmosphere. ‘When most people think of London, they probably don’t think of wildlife,’ says Elliot Newton, co-founder of Citizen Zoo, an organisation working to empower local communities to take part in conservation and rewilding projects. ‘Actually, London supports a rich biodiversity – there are more than 16,000 species recorded to exist here.’ If you keep your eyes peeled, you might be able to spot a black redstart – one of Britain’s rarest birds – or a stag beetle, Britain’s largest beetle. See? Nature here isn’t just pigeons, rats and Greene King pubs.

Water voles
Illustration: Kezia Gabriella

The rodent revolution

Which brings us to the next point. Rewilding cities is about moving towards a place where people can live with more nature. ‘When you’re used to living with zero nature, it can be seen as a problem,’ says Pettorelli. ‘That’s why we have words like “pest”.’ There’s a slight worry locals will consider species encouraged by rewilding practices to be the latest breed of vermin. But so far, attitudes have been encouraging. ‘A lot of people haven’t seen a beaver in their life,’ says Roísín Campbell-Palmer, restoration manager at the Beaver Trust and reintroduction expert. ‘So there’s always this excitement that you’re doing something new.’

When it comes to beavers, they’re not just pretty faces. ‘Beavers can put wetlands back into the country, slow water down, regenerate woodland, and help to manage soil,’ says Campbell-Palmer. Following in the pawsteps of Justin and Sigourney, there are plans to release more beavers in Ealing.

These semi-aquatic rodents aren’t the only mammals planning to move to the capital. ‘In the last 30 years, we’ve lost 97 percent of our water voles,’ says Newton. ‘They have a really important ecological role to play – we call them our “river guardians”.’

Enter the Hogsmill river in south-west London. Over the past few years, dozens of Citizen Zoo volunteers have pulled on their wellies and waders to splash in shallow waters, keeping their eyes peeled for footprints of a particular invasive species: American mink, a carnivorous predator that can fit into vole burrows and wipe out entire populations. Esther Pye started volunteering for the project in 2019, helping to survey the habitat, restore the river, and plant vole-friendly wildlife. ‘I wanted to be David Attenborough when I was younger,’ she says. ‘I guess I put it on the back burner!’

Thanks to the hard graft and fundraising of around 300 volunteers, 150 water voles will be released into the river in August. ‘The local people made that happen,’ Newton says. ‘Our job then is to monitor the population and make sure they go on to thrive and expand into other areas.’

The water vole project is just one example of how communities can get involved with rewilding – and help to prevent some of the 2,000 threatened British species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List from becoming extinct. ‘We’re living in a time which scientists are calling the “sixth mass extinction”,’ says Newton. ‘Rewilding is all about restoring species and ecosystems, and trying to create environments where ecosystems can be functional.’

A red fox kit
Photograph: Scott Suriano/Getty Images

 Embracing the mess

Even if you don’t have a riverbank on your doorstep, there are still plenty of things that everyday Londoners can do to help the rewilding movement. Siân Moxon is a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University and the founder of Rewild My Street, a project that inspires Londoners to rewild their own homes, gardens and streets. Moxon has transformed her own small north London garden into an oasis for frogs, foxes and hedgehogs, with piles of logs, multiple bird boxes and a pond. Her fences are covered by climbing plants and they incorporate gaps to allow wildlife to easily come and go.

Of course, having a garden in London can be a luxury and a rarity, especially if you’re living closer to Zone 1. But even if you live in a towerblock, you can still plant a window box which will be great for pollinators, such as bees. ‘Everybody can be a conservationist,’ says Newton, ‘irrespective of where you live.’

Still, Pettorelli stresses that if you do want to rewild your space, you have to embrace a bit of mess. ‘The risk is people destroy stuff in their gardens and replace it,’ she explains. ‘Generally speaking, “tidy” is not good for biodiversity,’ says Driver. ‘And it’s not good to help tackle climate change. A weed is just a plant in a place you don’t want it.’

It’s not just our parks and gardens that we need to rewild, though, it’s also our attitudes. We need to rewild our tastes and our brains, and to teach children about rewilding in schools so they can grow up to embrace it as a beautiful necessity. But could the tide already be changing? The winner of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show was ‘A Rewilding Britain’ garden, which imagined a beavers’ dam on a brook with near-pinpoint ecological accuracy. Manicured gardens and trimmed lawns are out; lush mini jungles are in.

‘The idea is if lots of people do this, there will be more corridors for wildlife to travel along,’ Parks and gardens in the built-up areas of London work as ‘stepping stones’, connecting to larger wildlife areas in the outskirts. Then, to be really effective, London councils will have to team up with neighbouring local authorities to try and encourage cross-boundary nature corridors. The eventual result? Free-roaming wildlife throughout all of London and the UK.

Chelsea2022_MGL0380_May 22, 2022
Photograph: RHS/Neil HepworthA Rewilding Britain Landscape, at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Getting into gear

This all sounds nice and flowery on paper, but when it comes to day-to-day, it can be difficult and even scary to change our hedge-clipping, grass-mowing habits. Will we still have pretty parks to sit in to drink our tinnies? Will I wake up to find a beaver in my bed?

Rewilding is all about making nature work in harmony with people – so the trade-offs should be well worth it. One study has shown that nature has positive effects on medical conditions such as anxiety and depression, while another has proved green environments can improve creativity and memory span. There are economic benefits to reintroducing nature, too. Rewilding Britain’s study of more than 20 rewilding sites in England reveals a 47 percent increase in local full-time jobs, and the sites have also been able to generate income from food production, livestock and other enterprises.

So, will we be seeing wild boar, red wolves and dodos roaming around London in five years time? That’s probably quite unlikely. But there’s a chance we’ll see more white storks, common lizards, glow worms, hedgehogs, beavers and butterflies. While Jason and Sigourney are being closely monitored, it’s still early days. ‘You could sit back and wait 100 years for rewilding to happen, but we haven’t got 100 years to address the biodiversity crisis and climate emergency,’ says Driver. ‘We need to speed things up.’ That means money, it means time, and it means effort. And at the heart of it, it means involving communities. Sure, beavers and balcony plants aren’t going to solve the climate crisis by themselves. But they can certainly play a part in making our London a greener, cooler and much healthier place to live.

Illustration by Kezia Gabriella

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