Beavers in Britain
The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) is a large herbivore, a mammal that was formerly native to these shores and once played an important part in our landscape from prehistoric times until it was hunted to extinction in the 16th century for its fur, meat and scent glands. The loss of this charismatic species also led to loss of the mosaic of lakes, meres, mires, tarns and boggy places that it so brilliantly built.
The Wildlife Trusts are working hard to bring these fantastic mammals back to Britain.
Why do we need beavers?
This isn't just about the reintroduction of a species - it's about the reintroduction of an entire ecosystem that's been lost.
Beavers are often referred to as 'ecosystem engineers'. They make changes to their habitats, such as digging canal systems, damming water courses, and coppicing tree and shrub species, which create diverse wetlands. In turn these wetlands can bring enormous benefits to other species, such as otters, water shrews, water voles, birds, invertebrates (especially dragonflies) and breeding fish.
Beavers and the landscapes they generate benefit both people and wildlife because:
- They help to reduce downstream flooding - the channels, dams and wetland habitats that beavers create hold back water and release it more slowly after heavy rain
- They increase water retention
- They clean water
- They reduce siltation, which pollutes water
Current Wildlife Trust beaver projects
Take a look at the Wildlife Trusts that have reintroduced beavers in their areas.
The Scottish Beaver Trial
The Scottish Beaver Trial is a partnership project between the Scottish Wildlife Trust, The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and host partner Forestry Commission Scotland in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. This project was supported by a £1 million grant from Biffa Award as part of the Landfill Communities Fund.
In May 2009, the Scottish Beaver Trial released the first beavers to live wild in Scotland in over 400 years. This marked the first ever formal reintroduction of a native mammal species in Britain and launched a groundbreaking five year study to explore how beavers can enhance and restore natural environments.
There is no enclosure and the trial area covers 44 square kilometres. The five year monitoring phase of the trial has now finished, and the Scottish Government have confirmed that the beavers can stay! A further 28 animals over three years will be released between 2017 - 2020! In 2019 the Scottish Government announced legislation giving beavers legal protection, granting them European Protected Status.
Keep up to date on this project at scottishbeavers.org.uk
Can I visit?
Yes! Signs of beaver activity including felled and regenerating trees, stripped branches and a beaver dam, can now all be spotted as part of a family friendly day out. If you visit in the early morning or early evening, you may even see a beaver! Plan your visit here.
The Devon Beaver Project
In March 2011, a pair of juvenile Eurasian beavers were released into a three hectare fenced enclosure on private land in northern Devon. The objectives of the project are to use beavers to restore an area of nationally important wet grassland and to understand the effects that this once-native species will have on this environment.
This project aims to study the effects that beavers have on these wetlands. This will help to inform future decisions about the potential reintroduction of this species into the wider countryside.
The effects of the beavers are being monitored using water quality tests, flora and fauna surveys and fixed-point photography. The first phase of the Devon Beaver Project is complete and two years’ worth of valuable data has already been collected and analysed.
The effects on the compound so far have been astounding – the dense willow canopy has been opened up and the culm grassland beneath reawakened; a dynamic, diverse and bewitching tangle of habitats has been created by the beavers who’ve transformed what was a small trickle of water through the site into an amazing series of waterways.
The Project continues to monitor the ecological effects the beavers are having on their environment – from changes in the vegetation composition to effects on the populations of amphibians, bats and breeding birds. Work with the University of Exeter has found that the presence of beavers at this site has had a profound impact of the ability of the land to hold water, has reduced the sediment load in the surface water and an increase in biodiversity has been recorded. Find out more here.
Can I visit?
Sorry, access to the site is by invitation only for safety reasons and to minimise disturbance.
The River Otter Beaver Trial
In 2014, beavers were discovered living wild in east Devon. The origin of the population is unknown, though is presumably the result of an escape or unsanctioned deliberate release.
In July 2014, Defra announced its intention to catch and remove the wild beavers. Their plan was to re-home the animals in captivity because of the disease-risk posed by the beavers, and their potential impact on the local landscape and wildlife. Devon Wildlife Trust spent much of 2014 developing an alternative proposal: England's first ever wild beaver trial.
Following enthusiastic support from the local community, Natural England granted Devon Wildlife Trust permission to begin a five year monitoring project - the River Otter Beaver Trial. The Trial will oversee the population, range and health of the beavers, and the effect they have on the local landscape and people. It will focus on the beavers' impacts on wildlife, vegetation, water flow, water quality, communities and infrastructure.
In June 2015, the first baby beavers to be born as part of England's first wild beaver trial were filmed on the river Otter.
In 2018, the beavers have been recorded moving into new areas and creating dams and ditches to create wetland habitat which holds more water in the landscape, and filtering silt and agricultural chemicals out of water. Both reduce flooding downstream.
In 2020, Devon Wildlife Trust released the River Otter Beaver Trial report. The Government has extended the trial until later in 2020, while decisions are made about their long-term presence in East Devon - and potentially elsewhere in the country.
Please support Devon Wildlife Trust's beaver project - more details here!
Can I visit?
Yes, there is good public access alongside the River Otter. There is now evidence of beaver activity from Honiton to Budleigh Salterton, a distance of around 12 miles.
The Ham Fen Beaver Project, Kent
Kent Wildlife Trust hosts the pioneering enclosed reintroduction at Ham Fen.
This project began because of the challenges of restoring the last fenland in Kent using machinery. The conditions made it difficult to get machinery in and out of the site and the costs were very high. Then Kent Wildlife Trust hit on the idea of using beavers to help conserve the fen and began by releasing two families of Norwegian beavers in 2001.
The beavers are contained within the 30 hectare (just over 100 acres) site near Sandwich by 3.8 km of perimeter fencing. The project has been a great success and the ancient fenland and wet grassland with dykes and ditches are all thriving thanks to the beavers, which provide a more natural and sustainable way of maintaining wetland habitats and the diverse array of plants and animals they support. The effects have been so positive that the Project's licence has been extended by Natural England.
At the last count there were ten beavers on site. They’re doing a fantastic job of managing this ancient landscape of waterways – fish and many other species such as water voles have benefitted - and have created a self-maintaining landscape requiring less intervention by man and heavy machinery. To find out more, click here.
Can I visit?
Group visits are by appointment only, for safety reasons and to minimise disturbance. Kent Wildlife Trust runs regular beaver walks - contact us to find out more.
The Welsh Beaver Project
The Welsh Beaver Project is working to reintroduce wild beavers (Castor fiber) back into the Welsh landscape. This work has been led by the Wildlife Trusts in Wales as part of their Living Landscapes strategy and is being delivered in partnership with other organisations.
Feasibility studies have been undertaken in Wales and these studies have determined that there is abundant habitat within Wales suitable for beavers, and that a beaver reintroduction to Wales would be ecologically feasible.
Plans are now afoot to return beavers back into Wales.
The Cornish Beaver Project
Cornwall Wildlife Trust and local farmers Chris and Janet Jones from Woodland Valley Farm brought Eurasian beavers back to Cornwall in the summer of 2017. This ground-breaking project aims to show that beavers can help create new wildlife habitat, make our streams cleaner and crucially reduce flooding.
Chris Jones, Farmer at Woodland Valley said “I can’t wait to get the beavers on the farm and watch what they do. The site at the moment has one pond, the stream, a young even-aged tree plantation and not a great variety of plants – but the beavers could transform it into a truly natural wetland oasis. I’m really hoping the amount of wildlife and wetland increases.”
Beavers were re-introduced to a specially fenced area, upstream of Ladock village, just outside Truro. Ladock has suffered severe flooding in recent years and this project is designed to help. The University of Exeter will study the before and after impacts of the beavers – something never done before at this scale in an intensively farmed landscape like Cornwall. The project will build on research from other re-introductions in the UK and Europe, putting Cornwall on the global map. The results will help find out if this long-lost species could once again become part of the Cornish landscape to help us combat flooding in a natural way.
Professor Richard Brazier, from the University of Exeter said “The Woodland Valley Farm site is the perfect location and scale to show how effective beavers are at creating lots of environmental benefits and crucially whether their activity could reduce Ladock’s flooding problems.”
Already, the landscape is evolving as new dams are constructed and existing ones extended, holding water and slowing the flow. It used to take 15 minutes for water to flow through the site; it now takes an hour.
For more information about the project take a look here.
Can I visit?
Weekly ‘beaver watches’ are organised to engage people with wildlife and raise funds for the project. Over 1000 people have been shown around the site so far, and the farm has seen increasing bookings for residential stays by schools, colleges and universities. Get in touch with Cornwall Wildlife Trust to find out more!
Upcoming Wildlife Trust beaver projects
Several Wildlife Trusts are currently working on introducing beavers to their areas.
Derbyshire Wildlife Trust
Willington Wetlands Nature Reserve is a key wildlife hub in Derbyshire - and now Derbyshire Wildlife Trust want to bring beavers back to create a Wilder Willington!
Until Derbyshire Wildlife Trust acquired the site in 2005, gravel was extracted there for decades, leaving a series of deep pits across its 114 acres. They've gently helped nature and wildlife reclaim the landscape by keeping human impact low and by encouraging water to flow between the pits. These are now the vital water reservoirs at the heart of this rich wetland.
To help build a Wilder Willington, the Trust are planning to introduce beavers to the site. Beavers manage wetlands for their own benefit, and have a large positive impact on the ecology of the whole site. For example, beaver dams would slow the flow of Egginton Brook, diverting it onto the meadows of the reserve, in turn helping keep winter flood water away from the village of Willington.
Dorset Wildlife Trust
After a 400-year absence Dorset Wildlife Trust plans to reintroduce beavers in an enclosed trial. They want to study a pair of beavers to see the difference they make to an enclosed area and waterway. The trial site will be used sensitively as a place of learning, for people from all backgrounds; farmers, landowners, anglers, conservationists, local communities and academic institutions.
Dorset Wildlife Trust have a potential site and have secured a significant part of the total funding needed to start the project, with major contributions from several partners and donors. However, they urgently need to raise £20,000 from the generosity of local people and organisations to ensure they can deliver the full project.
Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust
Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust plan to return the beaver to the two counties. Exeter University, national experts in beaver research, have been commissioned to lead a feasibility study looking at the Isle Wight, with a particular focus on the Trust’s Newchurch Moors nature reserve.
The Trust has a strong track record of working to bring back missing species, and have seen otter, water vole and marsh fritillary return to their former haunts. We have also seen other species, such as the white clawed crayfish and sword-leave helleborine, bounce back from the brink of local extinction.
The introduction of the beaver will help to put nature back in charge of its own recovery, helping to address the impacts of climate change, both during times of drought and during periods of flooding.
Sussex Wildlife Trust
Sussex Wildlife Trust are a lead partner in the Sussex Beaver Trial.
Along with their partners, they had a licence approved by Defra to introduce beavers into a 250 ha fenced area of the Knepp estate in West Sussex. The introduction is planned to take place between Spring 2020 and Spring 2021. Two pairs of beavers will be released into a fenced enclosure at Knepp for a 5 year period, to see how they settle into and adapt their new environment.
Beavers are important in restoring wetlands. At least 80% of the UK’s natural wetlands have been damaged or destroyed in the past, and in Sussex it is probably closer to 95%. Wetlands are some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and are fantastic carbon sinks, helping to buffer us against climate change.
The intention of the Sussex Beaver Trial is not to sustain long-term a population of captive beavers, but to investigate the potential for beavers to be slowly reintegrated into landscapes at a catchment scale. The project will work closely with landowners, community groups, schools and others to inform them about the impact of beavers on a landscape.
A landscape with wild beavers re-established is wonderful to experience. Small, insignificant streams are transformed into cascading mosaics of dams, pools and wetlands, all providing new homes for all sorts of native wildlife, from dragonflies, fish and frogs to water voles, otters and water birds. Beavers would bring our streams, rivers and wetland habitats back to life, managing them perfectly for wildlife and people.Welsh Beaver Project / Prosiect Afancod Cymru
Give to a beaver appeal
Want to learn more?
If you're barmy about beavers, here's lots more information on why they're great for landscapes.
Experience from Europe
Reintroductions and translocations of Eurasian beaver have now taken place in more than 25 European countries. They began in the 1920s in Sweden, Norway, Latvia, Russia and the Ukraine and continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the Netherlands, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
Reintroductions usually involve the release of animals over a number of years to several sites. Most have been successful in terms of breeding, population growth and range expansion.
More than 150 translocations have now been undertaken across Europe, most without the detailed monitoring carried out by the Scottish Beaver Trial and other British projects, but some have been thoroughly studied, enabling scientists to predict with confidence the likely pattern of events post reintroduction. Experts and volunteers across Europe are able to manage problems that sometimes occur, for example in areas of arable production.
The economic impacts of beavers
A study on the economic impacts of the beaver by the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit concluded that "with forethought, prior consultation and planning, a beaver reintroduction should bring significant monetary benefits within the local economy and communities that could greatly outweigh any potential negative impacts.”
Research into the impact of beavers on the local economy around Knapdale Forest was carried out as part of the Scottish Beaver Trial and its results are currently being assessed by the Scottish Government. Local businesses reported an upturn in business due to interest in the Trial increasing visitor numbers to the area. There is also anecdotal evidence of an increase in beaver tourists to the River Otter in Devon.
The environmental impacts of beavers
Beavers can modify the habitats and landscapes they live in through coppicing, feeding and in some cases damming (beavers living on lakes or rivers have little need of constructing dams). However in many cases when they are living at low density, their impacts can be remarkably subtle and go unnoticed for many years.
Beavers forage close to water with activity usually concentrated within 20 metres of the water’s edge. Beavers do fell broad-leafed trees and bushes to reach upper branches, encourage regrowth, to eat the bark during the winter and to construct their lodges. Many tree species regenerate, which diversifies the surrounding habitat structure and create areas of mixed-height, mixed-age vegetation. Coppicing has been practiced by foresters throughout history as a method to manage bankside trees. The actions of beavers are very similar, meaning woodlands and trees are more naturally managed.
Evidence from Europe shows that shows that beaver impacts are, in the vast majority of cases, small-scale and localised. Beavers are not normally regarded as pests in Europe and where localised problems have occurred, there are a number of well-established mitigation methods that can be adopted. These include the removal of dams, the introduction of overflow piping, or the installation of fencing (as one does for deer and rabbits). In some cases, the removal and translocation of beavers could be considered. Some countries with sustainable beaver populations permit seasonal hunting and/or lethal control as legitimate management strategies.
The impact of beavers on water management
By creating dams and associated wetlands in headwater streams, beavers store floodwater in upper catchments, moderating water flows. This reduces the height of flood peaks and also ameliorates low flows during dry periods as the leaking dams recharge streams with fresh constant flows. For those landowners impacted, these dams clearly cause localised “flooding” or raised water levels in wetland habitats. The size of these ponds and wetlands can be restricted by the use of flow devices where pipes set the maximum height of the dam, and thus the area of land flooded.
Beavers rarely build dams in main rivers downstream where there is sufficient depth of water, and so many of the concerns about flooding are not real. However in low lying floodplains where agricultural activities depend on land drains and deep ditches, beaver dams can have more significant impacts. They can obstruct culverts and “restore wetlands” in places that are not compatible with the existing land-uses and therefore create real, and perceived conflicts. In some cases mitigation measures will not be successful, and beavers may need to be moved on.
Evidence from elsewhere in Europe shows that instances of beaver dams creating undesirable flooding are uncommon, localised and usually small-scale. In these situations dams are simply removed or pipes (‘beaver deceivers’) are placed through them to manage water levels.
The impacts of beavers on migratory fish
Beavers are herbivorous, so do not eat fish. Habitat modification by beavers, however, can have significant impacts on fish populations in some circumstances, and fisheries groups are often concerned about the potential impact of beaver dams on the movement of migratory fish.
The interaction between beaver activity and freshwater fisheries has been the subject of several reviews. Based on the combined results of an independent and systematic review of the literature and survey of expert opinion, Kemp et al. (2012) concluded that:
- Benefits (184) were cited more frequently than costs (119)
- Impacts were spatially and temporally variable and differed with species.
- The most frequently cited benefits of beaver dams were increased habitat heterogeneity, rearing and overwintering habitat; flow refuge; and invertebrate production.
- The most frequently cited negative impacts were impeded fish movement because of dams; siltation of spawning gravels (particularly for salmonids); and low oxygen levels in ponds.
- The majority of 49 North American and European experts (more than 60% of whom described themselves as fisheries scientists or managers) considered beavers to have an overall positive impact on fish populations, through their influence on abundance and productivity.
Watch Living with Beavers
Follow farmer Chris Jones and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust team as they travel to Bavaria, Germany to meet farmers and local residents living alongside beavers fifty years after they were reintroduced there. This film, by Nina Constable, explores how people and beavers can live alongside one another.