Beavers are set to be released in London in the UK’s most significant urban reintroduction, the Guardian can reveal.
It is hoped the rodents, which went extinct in the UK 400 years ago after being hunted for their fur and an oil they produce, will be brought to a site in Tottenham.
While most of the north London area is built-up – and the home of a football stadium – it has areas well suited to beavers, including a large marshland.
Citizen Zoo, a rewilding group aimed at bringing nature to urban areas, is behind the project. Volunteers from the group recently crowdfunded a release of 200 water voles in Richmond, south-west London.
A beaver expert involved with the project said: “The Tottenham site is going ahead, and we are looking out for more,” adding he wants to “beaver up” London.
Those hoping to release beavers have to get a licence from Natural England, the government quango in charge of all matters to do with nature and the countryside.
Ben Goldsmith, a non-executive board member at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who has financed many of the beaver releases in the UK, welcomed the plans.
“Beavers have a vital role to play in breathing life back into the terribly depleted natural fabric of our landscapes. Beaver dams on smaller streams and creeks also help to reduce flooding and drought. We must have beavers back, living free outside of fenced enclosures, in all of Britain’s river systems including in our capital city,” he said.
While many associate beavers with the countryside, there are moves to return them to city centres, where they will create “wildlife corridors” by turning ugly canals into verdant wetlands. The Wildlife Trusts aims to release the animals, which create dams and coppice willows, to urban areas including Shrewsbury.
Rewilding campaigners laud beavers as a “keystone species”, meaning they are a harbinger of biodiversity and a sign of a healthy natural environment. A recent government-backed study of beavers on the River Tay in Scotland found the animals increased the number of fish and invertebrates on the catchment, and that by building dams they reduced flooding downriver.
The current law only allows landowners to release beavers if they are kept in a fenced enclosure. However, the government is developing a national beaver strategy that campaigners hope will include a roadmap for tearing these fences down.
Citizen Zoo is trying to bring back nature across London and recently bought a farm in Kingston upon Thames.
It is hoped Tolworth Court farm will become a haven for rare animals, with releases of endangered creatures planned for the site.
The group hopes to take part in nature-friendly farming on the land, citing the Knepp estate in West Sussex, which has introduced animals including storks and beavers, as an inspiration.