Nature

The rightful return of the beaver to Britain

The return of an iconic keystone species is cause for hope and celebration

As the five year Devon Beaver Project draws to a close, the UK government in the form of DEFRA has decided to drag its heels and delay making a decision on the future of wild beavers in England for a further six months. This is despite solid scientific evidence showing beaver presence to provide a range of important benefits. This trial is one of the most in-depth and rigorous research programmes ever undertaken to investigate the impact of a native species reintroduction.

Photo credit - Gordon Muir

Beavers were a part of Britain until around 400 years ago when they were hunted to extinction, for their meat, fur and castoreum, the latter being a secretion from their anal glands that formed the basis of perfumes in times past. It is thought at one point, up to 30% of the British landmass may have been “beaver managed”. Beavers are viewed as perhaps the prototypical ecosystem engineer and keystone species. They are water gardeners, creating a mosaic of wetland habitat through their dam-building, benefitting all manner of flora and fauna.

Beaver eco-engineering - photo credit - Scottish Wild Beaver Group

A propensity for ecosystem engineering is a trait they share with us humans, and a reason why we occasionally clash. While our engineering of the planet’s ecosystems tends to be detrimental for most other forms of life, the impact beavers have on the wider environment is a great deal more positive for all manner of species.

Examples of beaver eco-engineering and effect on other species - image credit - Jeroen Helmer

In our ecologically degraded landscape, it is easy to overlook the effect that species can have on the wider environment. With the loss of keystone species, it is mainly physical processes that dictate what can or can’t survive. But as evidence from this trial makes clear, following the restoration of a powerful ecosystem engineer, there is a two-way interaction at play where the earth shapes life, and life shapes the earth. In terms of bang for one’s buck for biodiversity and environmental gains, it would be hard to top the reintroduction of beavers, and if their return was given the green light, it would be one of the most important moments in English conservation history.

In the words of ecologist and beaver breeder, believer and all-round expert Derek Gow:

When this animal existed in the tens of millions in Western Europe and Eurasia, it was a dominant landscape force, in the way that wind and water and fire are.

The ways in which beavers engineer the landscape and benefit other species is explored in the clip below:

Certainly, beavers are not without their issues. They can cause small scale flooding, fell trees and consume crops. However these issues are localised and can be managed, and the overall benefits of a managed beaver population far outweigh the drawbacks. Bavaria is roughly the same size as Scotland and has a population of around 40,000 beavers compared to Scotland’s 500 or so. Beavers live side by side with humans in areas of intensive agriculture, and where issues arise they are managed and mitigated, while allowing for the various important benefits beaver presence provides.

Beavers create a rich mosaic of different habitats such as ponds, riffles, marshes and wet woodland. Their ecological engineering activities bring about a greater variation and dynamism in the landscape. This creates a higher density of different niches, which benefits a range of different species. Beavers have earned an unfair reputation as tree killers. While a few trees may die as a result of them raising the water table, they don’t tend to kill trees directly; rather they naturally coppice them. Deadwood is also an important food source and habitat. More sunlight reaches the ground, and this benefits a wide array of different plant and bryophyte species.

A beaver feasting on water lilies - photo credit - SCOTLAND: The Big Picture

Their wetland habitat creation has had clear benefits to plants, invertebrates, fish, mammals of conservation concern such as water voles and otters, and a number of wetland and hole-nesting birds. Amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts benefit markedly from beaver wetland creation. This offers hope, given that amphibians have been declining in the UK for decades, along with much other wildlife.

Some people don’t like beavers because they consider their eco-engineering work to be “messy”. This silly superficial human designation says more about us than it does about beavers, and how disconnected from nature we have become. What we perceive as messiness in our landscape is a good thing we could do with more of.

Through their dam building and use of sediment to shore these up, beavers create ponds. While ponds are, or were, primarily man-made habitats, they are important havens for wildlife and are increasingly scarce now in Britain. Having a natural pond builder back in our landscape would help reverse some of our wildlife declines.

Photo credit - SCOTLAND: The Big Picture

Among their various benefits, the dams they build have been found to filter sediment and to trap fertiliser and soil runoff from fields. This is important, as many British waterways are in an ecologically degraded state, and fertiliser runoff and pollution is a major widespread issue presenting a persistent threat to the life of our waterways.

Their dams also dramatically slow down overland water flow, while markedly increasing the water storage capacity of the land. This, in turn, buffers peak flow following rainfall events, and this can help avert flooding. This same eco-engineering can also buffer against the effects of drought. Given that we likely face more extremes of weather in the wake of climate change, sharing the landscape with a creature that can increase its ecological resilience is not something that should be overlooked.

Restoring beavers to their rightful place in the British countryside would not only have important effects on our island’s ecology, but also on the psychology of us islanders. The UK is considered one of the most nature depleted parts of the world. Our connection to nature, as well as spending time in it, is associated with a broad range of benefits to physical and mental health, and there is increasing evidence that experiencing greater biodiversity enhances these benefits, something beaver presence would rapidly and markedly boost in the wider landscape.

Witnessing beavers and their eco-engineering at first had at Bamff estate in Perthshire, Scotland was a very special experience. Such a natural spectacle is something else…it’s akin to stepping back in time, and getting a glimpse of how wild and rich much of the British landscape once was. And could be again.

Photo credit - Gordon Muir

With these benefits in mind, our severely nature depleted and ecologically degraded little island needs more than beavers behind fences! Their rightful return to England would breathe life back into our landscape and be a desperately needed good news story for wildlife at a time of ever-mounting pressure on the natural world. In support of beavers, please consider taking 30 seconds out of your day to sign this petition to encourage DEFRA to reintroduce beavers into England, and support the restoration of a very important member of our fauna back to its rightful place in our countryside where it belongs.

In the words of the Beaver Trust:

Normalising the beaver in the British landscape would bring us huge benefits. We now need clear government policy to enable this to happen.

Photo credit - __Gordon Muir

Useful Resources:

The Beaver Trust: https://beavertrust.org/

Scottish Wild Beaver Group: https://www.scottishwildbeavers.org.uk/

Ben Goldfarb’s book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

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