Beavers Build Back Better – but their future is not secure

(C) David Parkyn

Beavers are back, but their future is not secure. The Wildlife Trusts are calling for a Beaver Strategy for England.

The Wildlife Trusts have pioneered the reintroduction of beavers to Britain ever since Kent Wildlife Trust released these industrious creatures into a fenced area of fenland in 2001. Then followed the Scottish Beaver Trial, which saw the first ever reintroduction of a native extinct mammal to the British Isles since they were hunted to extinction over 400 years ago. Later, in 2015, the River Otter Beaver Trial, based in East Devon and led by Devon Wildlife Trust, enabled beavers to roam wild again in England.

Beavers are back, but their future is not secure.  The Wildlife Trusts are calling for a Beaver Strategy for England which would provide a roadmap for a future where:

  • There are more beavers in many more catchments
  • Beaver populations are healthy and thriving
  • Management frameworks are agreed which provide support for farmers, landowners and river users
  • Beaver impacts and their population health are scientifically monitored
beaver wildlife trust

David Parkyn

The Wildlife Trusts and our partners believe that beavers should be an integral part of a green recovery. The impressive and ever-growing body of independent scientific evidence reveals the vast array of benefits that beavers can bring to society by working with nature. These include:

  • Improved water quality: Beaver dams slow and filter water, causing sediment and nutrients to be deposited in ponds. This improves the quality of water flowing from sites where beavers are present.
  • Land holds more water: The dams, ponds and channels created by beavers increase capacity of land to store water and produce a more consistent outflow below their dams. This can result in less water being released during heavy rainfall (reducing flooding downstream) and more water availability during times of drought.
  • Carbon is captured: Beaver wetlands capture carbon, locked up in dams, and boggy vegetation and wet woodlands which are restored.
  • More wildlife: Beavers create diverse wetland habitats that can provide a home for a wide range of wildlife, especially aquatic invertebrates which act as a food source for other species.
  • People engaged with wildlife: People are fascinated by beavers. The presence of beavers in an area provides an opportunity for people to engage with wildlife, as well as creating a market for nature tourism.

Beavers create thriving ecosystems helping us to put nature firmly back on the road to recovery.  And they do all this for free.

(C) David Parkyn

© David Parkyn

By working alongside farmers, landowners, river users and local communities we have learnt that management is essential if we are to maximise the benefits that beavers provide.  We now have a range of carefully honed techniques which can help us do this, which help avoid or minimise any localised negative impacts which might occur. We have gained widespread support for our recommended approaches in Scotland and Devon.

We are also calling on government to provide farmers and landowners with financial support to make space for water and beavers on their land. This will reward those who give up some of their land to benefit communities downstream, which will benefit from lower flood or drought risk and higher water quality.

Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“Beavers are proving just what a valuable force they can be in helping to solve the nature and climate crises. Their extraordinary ability to naturalise landscapes, improving them for other wildlife, enhancing water quality and controlling water flow makes them a vital component of a modern approach to land management.  People love beavers and their presence has really boosted tourism in the places where they’ve been reintroduced.

“Now it is time to look forward and set out an ambitious vision for the return of these animals.  But this must be done properly and thoughtfully, with the right support systems in place.   That’s why it is so important that the government publishes its beaver strategy soon.”   

Harry Barton, CEO of Devon Wildlife Trust, says:

“This is an incredibly exciting time for re-establishing beavers and bringing them back where they belong.  The work we’ve done on the river Otter over the past five years, with a team of international experts led by the University of Exeter, shows just how many benefits these fascinating animals can bring, and how we can manage any problems that might arise.   It’s now time to seize the moment and take this exciting work forward so that beavers can deliver their many benefits on a larger scale.  We look forward to a swift and positive response from the government.”

Professor Richard Brazier, University of Exeter, chair of the Science and Evidence Forum that published the River Otter Beaver Trial Report, says:

“Our detailed research programmes have concluded that the positive impacts of beavers outweighed the negatives. A summary of the quantifiable cost and benefits of beaver reintroduction in the River Otter in Devon demonstrates that the ecosystem services and social benefits accrued are greater than the financial costs incurred.”

The Wildlife Trusts are gathering public support for an England beaver strategy – play your part. 

Add your name to support an England beaver strategy

Editor’s Notes

More about beavers: www.wildlifetrusts.org/saving-species/beavers

The River Otter Beaver Trial in Devon is led by the Devon Wildlife Trust in partnership with the University of Exeter, Clinton Devon Estates and Derek Gow Consultancy. The Project Steering Group includes a range of statutory bodies, protected landscape representatives, landowning, conservation and fishing organisations.  It was funded by the Peter de Haan Charitable Trust, RSWT, Garfield Weston Foundation, The Tale Valley Trust and donations from the local community.  Its five year licence has been extended to 31st August.

Other Wildlife Trusts who are running or planning beaver trials include Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset, Derbyshire, Hampshire & Isles of Wight, Herefordshire, Kent, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire and Shropshire Wildlife Trusts.

Letter from The Wildlife Trusts to the Secretary of State, 7th May 2020

The Rt Hon George Eustice MP

Secretary of State

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

2 Marsham Street

London, SW1P 4DF

7th May 2020

Dear Secretary of State,

RE: Beaver reintroduction in England

We are writing to express our concern that the Government’s decision on the future of beavers in England is not delayed and that licenced reintroductions are allowed to continue.

Beavers are nature’s aquatic engineers.  They have the unique ability to change riverine habitats, impounding water, slowing the flow and diversifying habitat around river courses.  England’s wetlands and their wildlife coevolved with beavers over millennia and their absence has had profound negative impacts. The behaviour of these formerly native and widespread animals is often misunderstood.  Their impacts in less agriculturally productive landscapes often go unnoticed or are focussed in smaller headwater streams.  Elsewhere, low cost interventions maximise the overwhelming environmental and economic benefits to society and avoid unnecessary negative impacts. 

The Wildlife Trusts have a great deal of experience and expertise with beavers, built up over the past two decades, with projects being successfully run in Kent, Scotland, Devon, Cornwall, and numerous other locations. Other Wildlife Trusts are also planning reintroduction projects, such as Derbyshire, who are in advanced planning stages, and Hampshire & Isle of Wight, who have commissioned a feasibility study for reintroductions on the Island. The five-year licenced reintroductions into the wild in Scotland and Devon, the only two to date in Britain, were both led or co-led by local Wildlife Trusts. The Scottish Beaver Trial, (led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland), which marked the first time a mammal had officially been reintroduced to Britain, led to beavers being granted European Protected Species Status in Scotland on 1st May last year.  In all these cases, we have pushed for management plans with partners and built strong partnership consensus, including with landowners, local businesses, fishing organisations, statutory agencies, leading academic institutions, and others.

The body of independent scientific evidence reveals the vast array of benefits that beavers can bring to society by working with and catalysing natural processes. These include flood alleviation by slowing flows through networks of ‘leaky’ dams; water quality by stripping out harmful pollution; and carbon sequestration as dams lock in organic carbon.  Beavers also create thriving ecosystems that benefit many other species. 

In March 2020, the five-year River Otter Beaver Trial, led by Devon Wildlife Trust, produced its final science and evidence report, a copy of which can be found here.  This is high quality, independent scientific work by leading internationally recognised experts.  There have been a small number of claims made from some individuals and organisations that beavers damage fisheries or cause other problems.  While we would welcome further research in this field, these claims have not been substantiated by scientific evidence.

Support for beavers among local communities in all the Wildlife Trust led beaver projects has been very strong, and media interest has been intense.  Schools have found the beavers particularly engaging, and local businesses on the river Otter have reported benefitting from greater visitor numbers.  There is good evidence to suggest that the more direct experience people have with beavers the more supportive they are.  In Devon, all sections of the population, including farming and fishing groups, showed higher levels of support at the end of the Trial than at the start. 

The experience of the wild licenced releases in Scotland and Devon show that managing the impact of beavers on the landscape is crucial and needs to be fully integrated into reintroduction programmes from the outset.  There have been few reported problems raised by landowners in either of these trials because of the resources provided in advice, awareness, and mitigation. Wherever issues have arisen, such as a flooded area of crop, problems were successfully resolved. Considerable time was invested with stakeholders, with Defra support, to agree a Beaver Management Strategy Framework following the Devon Trial, and a copy of which can be found here.

In contrast, where populations of beavers have appeared without stakeholder engagement being undertaken or mitigation support in place, for example the initial years of beavers on the river Tay in Scotland, problems have been harder to resolve.  We understand that the intention was for Natural England to publish a beaver strategy in April.  This would have provided a framework for deciding on future beaver releases and management strategies. Clearly Covid-19 has changed things.  A decision on whether beavers can remain on the river Otter, and by implication spread to other catchments, has been deferred until August.  We have not heard about the amended timetable to launching the beaver strategy.  It is extremely important that the beaver strategy is launched this year and that the decision on the river Otter beavers is not subject to any further delay for a number of reasons.

First, it is crucial to clarify the legal status, licensing system and management regime for beavers.  Until it is clarified, there is a real risk to beavers in the wild and an equal risk that any problems that might be caused cannot be dealt with adequately.  Experience of other parts of Europe, such as Bavaria, show that maximising these animals’ many positive impacts and minimising any potential problems relies on a clear licencing systems and management framework, with quick decision making.  Any delay will work against that. 

Secondly, beaver projects require staffing and funding.  The Trials in Devon and Scotland have been successful because there have been officers on the ground liaising with local stakeholders, providing advice and monitoring, and dealing with any potential problems.   Many other projects in the pipeline have secured significant funding and built essential partnership support.  Any delay could put these funds and hard-won partnerships at risk, wasting a huge amount of resources and causing a great deal of resentment, bad publicity, and financial loss. 

Thirdly, it should be noted that beaver populations are increasing year on year, and as well as the licenced populations already noted there are also numerous unlicensed wild populations in various parts of Britain.  Delaying decisions will not make managing these populations easier.  An effective and responsible approach to beavers, and maximising their many benefits, requires clear and timely decision making.

At the point at which the Covid-19 pandemic hit Britain, support for the natural environment was higher than at any time in recent history. Recent polling suggests that it is still among the issues of highest concern among the British public, even if immediate focus has shifted to the health crisis.  Reintroducing the beaver has captured the public’s imagination, and the evidence that these animals will bring real and measurable benefits is overwhelming. The significant climate, environmental and monetary benefits to local economies and communities mean that they could be a crucial part in delivering a green recovery and the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Setting a clear direction by launching the beaver strategy and taking a clear decision on the beavers in the river Otter would be a real statement of the Government’s intention to stay true to its promise for this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it.

We look forward to your response, and we would be delighted to meet you in Westminster or on site at one of the beaver projects to discuss this further.

Yours sincerely,

 

Craig Bennett, CEO, The Wildlife Trusts

Estelle Bailey, CEO, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust

Brian Bleese, CEO, Dorset Wildlife Trust

Carolyn Cadman, CEO, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Stephen Trotter, CEO, Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Jo Smith, CEO, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

Harry Barton, CEO, Devon Wildlife Trust

Debbie Tann, CEO, Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust

Helen Stace, CEO, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust

Evan Bowen-Jones, CEO, Kent Wildlife Trust

Mike Pratt, CEO, Northumberland Wildlife Trust

Paul Wilkinson, CEO, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust

Colin Preston, CEO, Shropshire Wildlife Trust                                                              

Georgia Stokes, CEO, Somerset Wildlife Trust

Julian Woolford, CEO, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust

Tor Lawrence, CEO, Sussex Wildlife Trust

 

The Wildlife Trusts

The Wildlife Trusts believe that people need nature and it needs us. We are here to make the world wilder and to make nature part of everyone’s lives. We are a grassroots movement of 46 charities with more than 850,000 members and 38,000 volunteers. No matter where you are in the UK, there is a Wildlife Trust inspiring people and saving, protecting and standing up for the natural world. With the support of our members, we care for and restore special places for nature on land and run marine conservation projects and collect vital data on the state of our seas. Every Wildlife Trust works within its local community to inspire people to create a wilder future – from advising thousands of landowners on how to manage their land to benefit wildlife, to connecting hundreds of thousands of school children with nature every year.  wildlifetrusts.org