Urban rewilding: The Londoners attracting wildlife to the capital through conservation projects

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In 2019, the UN said the resilience of cities, where most people will live by 2050, will “certainly depend on the level of greenness and clean air, biodiversity and overall human well-being”.

Rewilding is the practice of restoring our ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself, according to the group Rewilding Britain. It seeks to reinstate natural processes and missing species, allowing them to shape the landscape and habitats within.

The issue of rewilding is high on the agenda at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Saturday will focus on nature and how not only governments and businesses, but also local communities, are shifting towards more sustainable use of land and water, through protecting and restoring nature.

Urban rewilding is that which takes place within our city environments, and sustainability experts see it as a way to reverse species extinction, tackle climate change and improve our overall health and wellbeing.

With a population of nine million, London is a teeming metropolis with plenty of urban rewilding opportunities. These are just some of the efforts going on that hope to transform the capital from a concrete jungle to an urban oasis.

Bringing back wildlife to the capital

The return of wildlife that once used to thrive in our towns and cities is high up on the agenda for Citizen Zoo, a conservation group that puts community at the heart of its action.

One of its flagship projects focuses on reintroducing beavers to London. Although still “early days”, Elliot Newton, co-founder of Citizen Zoo, said the group is working with the Beaver Trust to identify potential sites where this could happen.

Beavers bring multiple benefits to our urban habitats including the “ability to reduce flood risk, improve water quality and biodiversity,” he explained. While the group is currently assessing viable spots for the enclosures, Mr Newton is hopeful London could see the return of beavers within the next two years, with Enfield Council already hoping to run a trial scheme this autumn.

Another exciting community-led project run by Citizen Zoo will see the reintroduction of 150 water voles to south-west London next spring. Water voles are the fastest declining mammal in the UK, said Mr Newton, who reckons around 97 per cent of the native population has been lost in the last 30 years. “There are probably less than 80,000 water voles living in the UK at the moment, which is pretty shocking”.

In a bid to revive their dwindling population, over the last three years Citizen Zoo has been working with hundreds of volunteers in a bid to reintroduce 150 water voles to the Hogsmill River in Kingston-upon-Thames.

They will be released into their new habitat next spring, and will bring numerous benefits to the surrounding ecosystems. Mr Newton said, “it’s been amazing to see how people can be part of the solution to bring these species back”.

The Thames is also home to a healthy seal population, with researchers from the Zoological Society of London reporting the river was home to 2,866 grey seals and 797 harbour seals following the most recent pupping season.

As one of the Thames’ apex predators, marine biologists use the mammals as a barometer of the health of the river, with stable numbers indicating good water quality and reliable stocks of fish.

Conservation biologist Thea Cox said: “Seals are a great indicator of ecological health, so they tell us how the Thames is doing.” The thriving seals show how far the recovery of the Thames has come since it was declared “biologically dead” in the 1950s. “People think the Thames is dead because it is brown, but the Thames is full of life – the water quality has improved so much,” she added.

Cleaning up the waterways

Thames21 is passionate about improving London’s waterways, which they say are “in a disgraceful state” at the moment. Not only is pollution causing havoc but sewage, plastic and oil are all getting washed into the capital’s rivers, explained John Bryden, who is head of improving rivers at the conservation charity.

The group is working to reverse the damaging effects of these pollutants through various rewilding efforts, including 12 current river restoration projects across Greater London and working in partnership with local councils to create wetlands.

“When we rewild the river, we try to reverse all of these issues as much as we can within the urban context of London,” said Mr Bryden.

Creating wetlands is another way to improve biodiversity and the group says it has identified the potential for more than 1,000 wetlands across Greater London. It is currently working with a number of local authorities to build these habitats, including Enfield, Harrow and Waltham Forest. Not only are they great places for animals, but they also break down pollutants, act as a carbon store and slow down the flow of water to the river, reducing flood risks.

For Mr Bryden, rewilding London’s rivers is vital to not only reverse nature’s decline but also to become more resilient to the adapting climate. He explained, “we really need to be adapting for the future climate, even if we manage to halt climate change to 1.5 degrees.

“All of the recent weather events we have seen, such as the flooding around Walthamstow, that’s a symptom that our rivers aren’t fit for the climate. These events are going to get worse and worse. We need to make sure our rivers and homes are adapted to this future climate.”

Tree planting for greener spaces

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan confirmed the capital as the world’s first National Park City in 2019, having planted over 330,00 trees and improved more than 400 hectares of green space. Trees in urban spaces have many benefits, from cleaning the air and water, to reducing flooding and cooling the city in summer.

The charity Trees for Cities predicts that each year, London’s trees remove 2.4 million tonnes of air pollution, including carbon dioxide, dust and other gaseous toxins. That’s one of the reasons it leads community tree-planting projects across the capital.

Its most recent project in Seven Kings Park saw local residents plant 50 trees to “restore the park to its former glory, as well as creating new habitats for wildlife”. Another in New Beckton Park, in Newham, saw the planting of a community orchard to not only provide a local resource for wildlife, but also educate on where fruits and nuts come from and how pollination works.

Looking at how we can rewild at home

While charity-led initiatives are helping to rewild London, more individual pursuits are also under way to help revive the capital’s budding ecosystem.

One person encouraging this action is Sian Moxon, an academic and founder of the conservation project Rewild My Street. The campaign aims to transform London’s homes, gardens and streets for wildlife through design and advocates for small acts that can help make a big difference.

“The idea is to focus initially on residential garden spaces and give people ideas of small things they can do to attract wildlife. This may be something like installing a bird box or adding a mini patio pond to your garden or balcony. These little actions will then add up across a house or street, a neighbourhood and across a city, to be something really meaningful,” Ms Moxon said.

And with more people now working from home, the pandemic has provided a great opportunity to regenerate city centres through urban rewilding. This can be through creating pocket parks in places that might have been former retail and office sites, making more room for cycling and walking and seeing how ‘micro forests’ - the size of a tennis court - can be realised are all ways to help attract wildlife, she explained.

For Ms Moxon, the benefits of urban rewilding are plentiful, including “positive associations with greener cities on our health and wellbeing”, from reducing crime to increasing our life expectancy and even raising house prices.

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