Beavers

Saving species

Beavers

Joanna Lindsay

Beavers can stay underwater for 15 minutes
They can grow to the size of a tubby spaniel!

Beavers in the UK

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 the UK. 

Beavers are herbivores - they don't eat fish!
Beavers live in family groups
They can live for around 15 years in the wild

Why bring back the beaver?

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

The Wildlife Trusts' beaver projects

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 Truial 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! 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 3 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 will now continue 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. Water levels and quality will also continue to be monitored at the site and all results will be published in 2016.

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.  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.
 

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 Welsh Beaver Project have identified many potential release sites and these also include enclosed sites where beavers would be used to undertake targeted habitat management. The Welsh Beaver Project is currently focusing on potential release sites. For more information please visit the website: www.welshbeaver.org.

However, the reintroduction of beavers does require funding and support to get this project off the ground! Please consider supporting this project by donating. 

The Cornish Beaver Project

After being hunted to extinction several hundred years ago, Cornwall Wildlife Trust and local farmers Chris and Janet Jones from Woodland Valley Farm are bringing Eurasian beavers back to Cornwall this summer 2017. This ground-breaking project intends 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 will be 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. Universities 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.

Two adult beavers will be introduced to a purpose-built five acre enclosure that contains prime beaver habitat and a stream that flows into the Tresillian River

Scientists from the University of Exeter have been studying the stream for over a year now.

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.”

Cornwall Wildlife Trust will be launching a Crowdfunder campaign to raise the funds needed to bring beavers back to Cornwall. For more information about the project please visit www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/beaverproject

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.
Adrian Lloyd Jones
Welsh Beaver Project / Prosiect Afancod Cymru

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 24 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.