Inside Croydon

Beavers on the Wandle: Newman dives in for greener Croydon

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There could be beavers lurking beneath the surface of Croydon’s rivers and ponds by the end of this year under the council’s Operation Flair Pool

EXCLUSIVE: Operation Flair Pool could see the introduction of a shy and industrious mammal to Wandle Park as soon as this autumn, in what the council leader has described as ‘an exciting high-water mark for Croydon’s  Green New Deal’.
Our environment correspondent, PAUL LUSHION, reports on what were, until now, the council’s secret plans

Senior Town Hall figures are close to completing a secret study which could see the introduction of beavers on a stretch of the River Wandle from as early as this autumn, confidential papers obtained by Inside Croydon suggest.

The top-secret council file, titled “Operation Flair Pool”, could see the introduction of the shy but industrious mammal in Wandle Park and possibly also Waddon Ponds, as part of what one council figure has described as “an ambitious re-wilding project that is entirely in keeping with Tony Newman’s vision for a greener Croydon… that, and the use of solar-powered passenger aircraft from Gatwick“.

Newman, the council leader who has allowed the borough to use the vast waste incinerator at Beddington and who signed off on a 3,000-space car park under the original plans for a Westfield in the town centre while allowing the concreting over of kids’ playgrounds and green spaces throughout the borough, has been keen to reclaim some green credentials after agreeing last year to declare a climate emergency in the borough.

“Tony’s very keen on the beavers,” said the source. They even claimed that Newman described the project as “an exciting high-water mark for Croydon’s new Green Deal”.

Beavers were hunted to extinction in the British Isles by the mid- to late 1700s, their skins used for fashionable top hats and the muffs worn by the ladies of the aristocracy at that time.

The River Wandle in Wandle Park: less than a decade ago, it was a forgotten culvert. Now, it could become home to London’s first beavers for 300 years

But reintroduction projects across Europe, including at Knapdale in Scotland and the River Otter, in Devon (apparently, the River Beaver was not suitable) have so far been regarded by conservationists and environmental groups as highly successful.

The Croydon scheme would be significant because of the borough’s otherwise urban eco-system. Until 10 years ago, the River Wandle was simply a forgotten culvert, used almost like a sewer, under the park and for long stretches along its course to the Thames. Historically, the area was renowned as a good source of fish, including trout – in the late 18th Century, Admiral Nelson even had a home in nearby Merton so he could enjoy the fishing.

Beavers are plant eaters, so their presence does not affect fish numbers adversely in the rivers and wetlands they inhabit. Indeed, there is growing evidence that the beavers’ habit of damming up rivers to create deeper pools for their lodges actively improves the habit for other wildlife, including fish.

Operation Flair Pool is understood to be overseen by one of Newman’s most trusted lieutenants, golf caddy-turned-councillor Oliver Lewis, who is widely remembered across the borough for pouring tens of thousands of pounds of grant money into performance art at the Town Hall which featured laxatives and butt plugs in a show that was billed as “demystifying the anus”.

“Olly’s got a firm grip on this one,” the Katharine Street source said.

“He knows that for the council’s Green New Deal to be taken seriously, we’ve got to do something big and bold. With beavers, Olly’s said that ‘we’re dammed if we do, we’re dammed if we don’t’.”

The project could see a pair of beavers introduced at Wandle Park, with its willow tree-lined stretches of river, which could help build a resilience to minimise the kind of flooding parts of the borough experienced in 2014.

There is also some consideration being given to having a second pair released in Waddon Ponds, with the hope that colonies could become established and extend their range as far as Morden Hall Park.

Beaver dams help slow the flow of water, enhancing habitat and reducing flood risks

Morden Hall Park is already undergoing extensive re-wilding projects under the supervision of its owners, the National Trust, including a special study of the eel population in the hope of restoring a dish to the tables of Londoners: jellied eels.

Writing for the Royal Society of Biological Science, Professor Nigel Willby, of the University of Stirling, has said that beavers do help to improve natural habitats.

“They’re very beneficial, in terms of their habitat creation potential.

“Certainly they bring a lot of benefits and we have to be aware of the fact that the world is a very changing place… we have to be receptive to the opportunities that re-wilding, for example, brings to deal with climate change, which we are well aware of and experiencing on a daily basis.”

And the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is also in favour, and is looking at introducing beavers on some of its sites.

“The wetlands in which beavers live are valuable for many other species too. Animals like otters, water voles, water shrews and wildfowl such as teals all benefit. Craneflies, water beetles and dragonflies in turn support breeding fish and insect-eating birds like spotted flycatchers.”

Senior council officials have been consulting the Beaver Advisory Committee for England (BACE), and are understood to be going through the latter stages of obtaining the necessary wildlife permits for the scheme to go ahead.

“There could be a few gnawing problems,” said the source, “and we need to check our dates very carefully, but there’s a strong sense that the council will go with the flow on this one.”


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