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Birds, beavers and microparks: experts plan to rewild London

By Helena Horton Environment reporter
A beaver in  Enfield, London, earlier this year.
A beaver in Enfield, London, earlier this year. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

London will be “rewilded” with new nature reserves, pocket parks and a mass community movement to bring nature back to the capital, the Guardian can reveal.

A group of rewilding experts commissioned by the mayor, Sadiq Khan, are in the early stages of drawing up the proposal. The idea came from Ben Goldsmith, a financier and environment campaigner who is on the board of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The plan includes a selection of “core rewilding areas” on the outskirts of London, which could involve turning parts of the Thames estuary into a wetland teeming with wading birds and other wildlife, and releasing beavers into the marshes around the periphery of the capital. Beavers have already been released in Enfield, to the delight of locals, and there are more set to be released in Ealing later this year.

These will then be connected by “nature corridors” that could run alongside train lines and on brownfield sites crisscrossing the city, which the wildlife could travel along. This would also create new wild green space for people to enjoy.

The third prong of the plan is to involve Londoners, who will be encouraged to bring nature into their gardens, window boxes – and even on to their roofs.

Shirley Rodrigues, the London deputy mayor for environment, said: “In London there are differences in how people can access green space – this isn’t just an environmental issue, it is a social justice issue. We have academics, practitioners, youth campaigners, all helping us with this project. People are massively excited about this – people were so excited about the beavers being released in Enfield, they want to see more nature in London.”

Goldsmith, who has been tasked with looking at viable areas to rewild, said: “The plan is to develop Knepp-style rewilding projects around the periphery of Greater London in such places as the Dagenham Marshes; at Enfield, where a big nature restoration project is already under way; and in the Colne valley. These areas will be London’s core nature areas with real ecological integrity.

“We must look to create connectivity in the form of threads of nature crisscrossing the city, north-south, east-west, making use for example of the banks on either side of railways, canals and rivers.”

The team is also discussing the creation of new “microparks” inspired by those in Japanese cities, to increase access to green space in nature-deprived areas and to act as “stepping stones” for wildlife.

It may seem surprising that Goldsmith, the brother of Khan’s former foe Zac, who ran against him during a fractious mayoral campaign in 2016, is working closely with the mayor to make the capital wilder.

But it seems the brothers and the mayor have let bygones be bygones. “We made friends,” Goldsmith said. “I met Sadiq at a meeting at the Cop26 in Glasgow and we spent some time together and had a nice chat. I suggested that a rewilding taskforce in London would be a really exciting innovation, not least given London is making strides on all kinds of aspects of the climate agenda.”

And the mayor immediately signed up. “He was wildly enthusiastic about it,” the conservationist said.

Goldsmith, who is in the process of rewilding his own estate in Somerset, which currently boasts beavers and wild boar that he says came of their own accord after a suitable habitat was created for them, used his contacts to help create a group of experts who are bringing wildlife back to the capital.

The group includes the UK’s most famous rewilder, Isabella Tree, whose success at Knepp Castle has made headlines worldwide. She has recently reintroduced beavers to the estate, and her work has brought back species including nightingales and storks to the Sussex countryside.

Another expert is the RSPB’s Nick Bruce-White. The bird charity’s regional director for southern England has been drafted in to consult on how to bring various bird species back to London and improve the habitats across the city.

Birds fly over Rainham Marshes.
Birds fly over Rainham Marshes. Photograph: Ian West/PA

“We are talking about bringing back species along the Thames such as redshank, and lapwing. So there are some areas already where those birds are starting to come back, such as our Rainham Marshes reserve, but the Thames estuary would have once been an absolute haven for breeding waders and all sorts of duck species over the winter – and geese as well. And skylarks, all that kind of stuff. So, we’d be creating a really wild kind of estuary,” he said.

And the group is insistent that the rewilding movement will be a community campaign. Rodrigues said: “The point of talking about it as an urban taskforce is it isn’t just a few landowners changing their land – the point of it is we are being told about how excited people are about seeing nature introduced, it is important for health, for flood and climate resilience, it’s something everyone can be involved with.”

Bruce-White agreed and said the new rewilded areas would be open for the people of London to enjoy. “We want people to connect with and enjoy these places,” he said. “They should be wonderful places to go. If people aren’t connected with nature and connected with their landscapes then we’re all doomed, probably, aren’t we? Nature only wins when people care about it.”

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