Beavers are to be introduced into urban London for the first time since they were hunted to extinction 400 years ago.
At least one male and one female beaver, but possibly more, will be released in Paradise Fields, an eight hectare site of woodland and wetlands in Ealing, in the autumn.
The project, led by Ealing Wildlife Group, Ealing Council and other conservation groups, will mark the first time beavers have been introduced to such an urban area.
The fields are just minutes from Greenford Underground in zone four of the city and will be opened to the public once its new inhabitants have settled in.
Conservationists hope to build on the success of other beaver reintroduction projects across the UK by using the animals’ supreme dam-building skills to protect against urban flooding, while creating diverse wetland habitats.
Beavers a 'refuge for other wildlife'
“They are biodiversity magic pills,” Sean McCormack, of Ealing Wildlife Group, told The Telegraph.
“What beavers do is create really rich and diverse wetland habitats. They will take even a small, little stream and they will turn it into a series of pools and marshes and wet meadows by damming the stream and creating deeper water.”
During times of high rainfall, the area around Paradise Fields floods “awfully”, said Mr McCormack, which causes millions of pounds in damage every year. But beavers reduce flood risk by slowing water flow in times of high rainfall. They can also help to mitigate drought by holding more water on the land.
The demand for beaver meat, fur and the secretion from a small gland used for perfume and pain relief meant they were hunted to the point of their disappearance in the 16th century.
Now conservation projects across the UK have seen them successfully reintroduced to local habitats, which in turn allows other species to thrive.
“Beavers are pre-programmed instinctively to create deep water and [keep] more water on the land, because traditionally they were hunted by people and wolves and bears," said Mr McCormack.
“By creating those rich and complex wetlands, everything else finds it easier to live.”
Water voles, for example, can use the dams and lodges beavers create to escape predators of their own.
“They’re like a refuge for other wildlife,” said Mr McCormack.
One of the first projects to reintroduce beavers to the UK was in 2002 in Ham Fen, a wetland nature reserve in Kent.
Since then, they have been released in Forty Hall Farm, on the outskirts of north London, and in projects in Hampshire, Devon and Cumbria.
This week, a family of beavers were released at Loch Lomond for the first time in hundreds of years.
The beavers at Paradise Fields will come from Tayside, in Scotland. A pair will come first after the spring mating season and, if they have kits, or offspring, they will join them.
The project will be able to hold around 20 of the animals, with each pair expected to have between two and four kits a year.
Mr McCormack said it was only a matter of time before the animals naturally inch closer to London. Having seen the success of reintroduction projects in Berlin and Vancouver, he is confident they will be able to slip seamlessly into their new environment and alleviate urban flooding.