As a brand new ambassador for Beaver Trust, I thought it would be a good time to introduce myself and more excitingly the Ealing Beaver Project. My name’s Sean McCormack and I’m a qualified vet, conservationist and wildlife presenter. If my name doesn’t give it away, I’m Irish and grew up there as a nature-obsessed kid, envious of the richer biodiversity in Britain compared to Ireland. Lots of folk I speak with are astonished to hear that we only have one native reptile in Ireland, the common lizard, and no common toads, only one native newt species, no moles, fewer bat, shrew and rodent species, no tawny owls and until very recently no woodpeckers. The list goes on. Needless to say, I pored over so many books on British wildlife in wonder at just how many interesting species there were just out of reach across the Irish Sea. And one in particular that fascinated me and was sometimes mentioned was the Eurasian beaver, once native to Britain.
It wasn’t until studying for my undergraduate degree in Animal Science in Essex that I came across the very real possibility that this iconic species may have a chance of reintroduction. In fact, I wrote a project paper on the issue, examining social attitudes to species reintroductions. This was in about 2002 or so when the first official beaver reintroduction was happening in Kent. It seriously tingled my nature geek senses when I heard and I was desperate to know more. Fast forward to 2010 and having just finished my vet degree back home in Ireland, I found myself getting onboard a ferry for my second stint in the UK, destined for Kent and my first job as a newly qualified vet – in a bonkers vet practice with five zoos on its books. One of which was Wildwood Trust, which was involved in beaver reintroduction and other native species conservation and restoration projects, including water voles.
Fast forward again to 2016, when I took a break from full-time clinical vet work and took some time to decide what it was that I was truly passionate about. And much to my surprise having worked towards a career as a vet for so long, it was no longer about looking after pampered pets but revisiting my childhood passion for nature and wildlife. I made a leap into the industry as a vet consultant and suddenly found a work-life balance. For the first time ever in my career of long studies and gruelling work days, I had time to discover the green spaces on my doorstep in Ealing where l lived, and still do today. And I discovered Ealing has a lot to offer with an incredible green corridor that runs through the borough along the Brent River Park. After being tagged for my nature nerd knowledge in an opportune discussion about bats on Facebook, I asked my local community if anyone would like to go on a bat walk that summer. Over 400 people said yes. And Ealing Wildlife Group (EWG) was born.
EWG has now grown to nearly 6,000 members on our Facebook group, but we’re not only an online nature forum but an active volunteer-led conservation organisation. We operate a three C’s ethos: conservation, community and collaboration. And through partnerships with the Council parks team, other community groups, landowners and various stakeholders we have had successful projects to conserve and protect many species in Ealing including great crested newts, barn owls, peregrine falcons, bats, hedgehogs, swifts and much more.
When the pandemic came in 2020, I took it upon myself to go out and repeat an earlier borough-wide survey for another important aquatic rodent species, the water vole. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) had been commissioned by Ealing Council in 2009 to survey for this species, identifying just four sites remaining that had promising signs of water vole presence. One of those was Paradise Fields in North Greenford. Sadly on my surveys, during my single hour of exercise per day, I failed to find any feeding or latrine signs, not to mention a vole itself on my trail camera footage. It appeared that water voles in Ealing were no more, largely due to habitat degradation, overshading of riparian habitat, habitat fragmentation and potentially tipping isolated populations over the edge by invasive North American mink passing through.
While considering how we might look to reintroduce this species, and its tragic decline as a symbol of biodiversity loss and the dwindling health of our aquatic ecosystems, I had that eureka moment. There was little point in trying to reintroduce water voles at great expense and effort, putting decades of habitat management plans and a targeted mink surveying and control programme in place to secure their future. I asked myself why had they succumbed to modern times in the first place and the answer was clear. They had lost their keystone species that would create and maintain the perfect complex wetland habitats for them naturally and sustainably, the Eurasian beaver, missing from these shores for over 400 years. Healthy wetlands where they could escape and withstand mink predation events, which they so struggle to do on our linear, canalised rivers and streams.
But I couldn’t jump to beavers first, I needed to test the waters with the Council and our local community. What was the appetite for EWG to move away from more traditional, non-threatening conservation work and into the more controversial language and approach of rewilding and species reintroductions?
Through our barn owl project, which was now seeing success, we had managed to change habitat management across the borough and some areas were already rewilding to rough grassland, scrub, and marshland; booming with field voles and other small mammals. And so I launched the Rewilding Ealing initiative, to bring back Britain’s smallest native rodent, the harvest mouse. I joked at the time that one day we might move on to Britain’s largest, the Eurasian Beaver. Much laughter ensued. Except I wasn’t really joking, I was researching like crazy behind the scenes if it was a pipedream, or if it was possible.
And then along came my now good friend Elliot Newton from Citizen Zoo to do an interview at Paradise Fields with me for my podcast, Sean’s Wild Life, another lockdown project I invented to keep me occupied. I spoke with Elliot about his successful water vole reintroduction project in Kingston and floated the idea that Ealing could do beavers first, water voles second. As luck would have it Elliot and his colleagues were about to set up the London Beaver Working Group to bring people together with an interest in nature restoration and try to answer two questions. Firstly, is London prepared for the eventuality, which seemed pretty certain in time, that beavers would naturally recolonise London of their own accord? Secondly, were there any suitable organisations or individuals that might have suitable sites and resources to apply for a licence to reintroduce beavers in an enclosure trial and demonstrate how we might coexist in the urban environment?
Dreaming up the idea that we could have beavers again in urban London was one thing, for water vole and healthy river restoration as well as tackling urban flooding, but it took many conversations and a hard sell of the vision to various local stakeholders to convince that it was a good idea. Following a public consultation largely in favour and a positive feasibility visit from Beaver Trust experts, we approached the Council with the idea. Paradise Fields was already earmarked for expensive flood mitigation engineering works, as the highly urbanised area downstream is prone to flooding in high rainfall events. We pitched that beavers could tackle this problem at far less cost, be a pioneering project for the borough and bring many other benefits too. Luckily, our head of parks in the Council is Canadian and got onboard the beaver train straight away. Then it was a matter of convincing them to pledge some cash and begin the task of fundraising through as many sources as possible to really make the project sing.
Working as a collaborative project between Ealing Wildlife Group, Citizen Zoo, Friends of Horsenden Hill and Ealing Council, with support from Beaver Trust, we sealed the deal and got permission. We managed to get our licence granted by Natural England in January of this year after a few setbacks were ironed out and concerns alleviated. We’ve secured financial backing from Ealing Council, the Mayor of London, corporate investors & public crowdfunding to date and are almost complete on arrangements and site preparations to take us up to beaver release. We cannot thank all of our dedicated volunteers for getting stuck in and helping us prepare the site, clear it of historic litter, engage site users and generally pull together to make the many moving parts happen. But we are now nearly there with a family of beavers set to arrive in October 2023.
Paradise Fields is already a highly suitable habitat for beaver reintroduction, and we hope it will become a flagship London rewilding project. We’re enclosing most of the 10-hectare site and uniquely the project will allow visitors to enter an immersive experience in a rewilding beaver landscape, after a month of closure to allow the beavers to settle in.
It is important to study the impacts of beavers in the urban landscape in an enclosed trial before wider free-living beaver reintroduction is considered, or before natural recolonisation occurs over the coming years. We’ve had dozens of experts and citizen scientists on-site gathering biodiversity data that we can compare with later studies following the beavers’ changes to the ecosystem.
The key objectives of our project are to:
- Learn to manage beavers in the urban context including monitoring flood mitigation effects in an urban catchment
- Study habitat and biodiversity improvements on site, with a view to later reintroduce water voles, now considered locally extinct
- Promote public engagement of local urban communities with nature, biodiversity and nature-based solutions/ecosystem services
It’s all very exciting and I feel I’ve truly come full circle on my beaver journey. And once again, I’m thrilled to have joined the fantastic Beaver Trust as an ambassador, it’s a dream come true.