Reckless reintroduction act or maverick rewilding success story?
A beaver standing to feed - photo credit - Gordon Muir
The unsanctioned reintroduction of wildlife is a controversial and polarising issue, generating strong feelings among both its proponents and its critics. Certainly, this applies to guerrilla beaver reintroduction, or ‘beaver bombing’. Beaver bombing does not refer to dropping beavers from planes - although strangely this did occur in rural Idaho in the late 1940’s. Rather it refers to the intentional, unsanctioned and often illegal release of beavers into the wild, done without official approval.
Considered by some to be risky and unhelpful with regard to “above ground” conservation work and setting a dangerous precedent, others feel that the ends more than justify the means. Part of the motivation of beaver bombers may be underpinned by the glacially slow pace that British authorities have moved when it comes to beaver reintroduction, with some gnawed at by feelings that the biodiversity crisis demands a greater sense of urgency and more action. However, anyone caught releasing beavers into the wild in Britain without a licence could face up to two years in prison in addition to an unlimited fine.
Officially sanctioned species reintroduction is a complex and sensitive issue and a variety of factors - ecological, genetic, psychological, logistical, financial, socioeconomic - are given careful consideration. There are also inherent risks, such as the possibility of spreading diseases and parasites. Failure of species reintroduction initiatives is not uncommon, and the reasons for this are varied. This may range from a lack of finances to support long-term monitoring and management of the reintroduced species, or a lack of understanding of the behavioural ecology of the species in question. Insufficient extent or quality of habitat to maintain a viable population is another common cause of failure.
Beavers are a little different in that they are powerful ecosystem engineers - as long as the basic ingredients are accessible (such as flowing water and vegetation) they are capable of creating the habitat they need (although this may also cause issues for people).
Beavers understandably have a big fan base due to being recognised as a keystone species, and there is a growing body of evidence to highlight their benefits, including boosting biodiversity and creating habitat, cleaning water, and buffering against flooding, droughts and wildfires. Their ecology and management have been well-studied so the changes that are likely to result from their reintroduction are predictable.
Beavers were part of the British landscape until they were hunted to extinction around 400 years ago. Their populations in Europe were also greatly reduced to a few small, isolated fragments, reaching their lowest ebb around the turn of the 20th century. In recent decades however there have been over 200 officially sanctioned beaver reintroduction initiatives undertaken in over 26 European countries. Guerrilla beaver bombing has also been undertaken in Belgium, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland.
In England, the only beaver releases that are currently legally sanctioned are confined to enclosures, and there have been no licences granted for wild releases. It is unclear when this may change. Arguably, this does not constitute a true reintroduction at all as the animals are in captivity and not wild. While a cautious approach to reintroduction is sensible, by making the official route towards it so complex and challenging, there is little hope of restoring this species to the wild in England through official channels.
In rare instances, governmental authorities can be supportive, and doing things “by the book” can lead to positive steps forward. One such example is Greece, where earlier this year, authorities stated that they would support the reintroduction of 120 beavers to the north of the country, spanning over five years until 2027. This appears to be the exception rather than the norm, however.
Consider Belgium as a contrasting case. Beavers went extinct in Belgium as recently as 1848, and Belgian environmental campaigner and activist Olivier Rubbers was committed to seeing what he felt was their rightful return to the country. Attempted dialogue with the Belgian authorities had gotten nowhere, and so together with a band of co-conspirators he headed to Bavaria where they picked up 100 beavers. These were then released in a synchronised fashion early one morning at several pre-selected sites in the Ardennes, in the southeast of the country.
The feathers of governmental authority were unsurprisingly ruffled, and he was taken to court and issued with a 500 Euro fine for the transport of a protected species without a licence. Beaver believer and expert Derek Gow described this as “making his reintroduction the cheapest of all time”. Despite governmental grumblings, the dams the beavers constructed were found to prevent flooding of communities and infrastructure, and beaver presence boosted tourism in the area.
In 2003, beavers were discovered living on the River Ebro in Spain, the result of an unauthorised release. The regional authorities were initially set on eradicating the animals, resulting in criticism from conservation groups. During the bureaucratic contemplation about how to proceed, beavers spread into the Basque Country, where the authorities had no intention of joining a cull, making effective control all but impossible in the region. After consultation with the EU, these eradication plans were scrapped, and in 2020 the beaver was designated a protected species in Spain.
A similar trajectory may now be playing out in Italy, where authorities - namely the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) - have recently stated that they plan to eradicate a beaver population in Tuscany, due to their presence there having resulted from an illegal release. However, removing the beavers may itself be an illegal act, with beavers protected under the EU’s Habitats Directive and the Bern Convention. This intent also appears to be at odds with the stated aim of the ISPRA, which seeks to protect biodiversity and the environment, and is made up of conservationists and ecologists.
Beaver wetland - photo credit - Paul Ramsay
Britain has lagged behind Europe with sanctioned beaver reintroduction, but here on home turf, Scotland took the first tentative steps towards the reintroduction of the species. The five-year Scottish Beaver Trial ran from 2009-2014 and involved the monitoring of a population of beavers introduced to Knapdale forest in Argyll, with beavers initially sourced from Norway, and subsequent reintroductions of Bavarian stock. It is considered one of the largest initiatives of its kind undertaken in Europe. It is estimated to have cost in the region of £1.5 - £2 million, with over £150,000 spent on the reinforcement of the population there.
Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) who were heavily involved with the reintroduction felt that without this population supplementation, the population was at risk of decline. This was partly due to the site selection itself - the geography of the site kept the beavers naturally contained, but also isolated from surrounding habitat. This was foreseeable, as an important determinant of reintroduction success is connectivity of suitable habitat to allow populations to disperse and expand. Indeed, according to those behind the trial, the beaver population at Knapdale was never intended to be self-sustaining, which was a measure to placate certain stakeholders.
Aside from this, further east in Scotland, a population of beavers became established on the River Tay, possibly through a combination of an accidental escape (from a private collection) and an intentional release. In contrast to the contained Knapdale site, the Tay is the largest river in Scotland, providing the animals with access to extensive habitat. While the Knapdale beaver population has stagnated, the population on the Tay has undergone a sustained expansion, moving along the river and its tributaries, in time also moving into the River Forth catchment. In spite of the cost of the official Knapdale reintroduction project, the reinforcement of more beavers from Bavaria - and from those sourced from Tayside - was necessary to supplement the population there.
A beaver dam - photo credit - Paul Ramsay
Unfortunately, Tayside hosts some of Scotland’s prime agricultural land, and its flat topography means the impacts of beaver damming activities are maximised. This led to inevitable conflicts with farmers in the region, where land was flooded, and as a result, beavers were widely culled. This led to a growing public outcry, and demands that problem beavers be relocated rather than killed as a ‘go to’ solution for resolving conflict. Beavers were recognised as a protected species in Scotland in May 2019, five years after completion of the Scottish Beaver Project. While the latter initiative no doubt contributed towards this change in the law, it is likely that the pressing issue of the expanding Tay population had more direct influence overall.
Initially, the Scottish government stood firm and stated that while beavers were a protected species and their populations would be allowed to expand naturally, no relocations would be considered. However, growing public pressure eventually precipitated a radical change in policy, where translocation of beavers (including groups of beavers) would be allowed outside their present ranges. Once again, there is little doubt that it was the free-living beavers in Tayside that precipitated this radical shift in policy, rather than the sanctioned Knapdale reintroduction.
South of the border in England, progress towards official reintroduction resembled a beaver out of water - slow and lumbering. Aside from a small spattering of officially endorsed beaver enclosure projects at the time, a free-living population of beavers of mysterious origin was discovered on the River Otter in Devon.
After photographic evidence of the beavers breeding on the river emerged in 2014, the government in the form of DEFRA hatched plans to remove the beavers. This resulted in a public outcry and push back from the Devon Wildlife Trust and other conservation groups. After some negotiation, DWT was given the green light to embark on a rigorous five-year monitoring project, assessing the impacts of the beavers on humans, wildlife and the wider environment from 2015-2020. Public support for the beavers persisted, with DWT partially funding the project through crowdfunding.
A beaver swimming - photo credit - Gordon Muir
Despite hailing from an unsanctioned release, beaver presence was found to be beneficial overall, enhancing biodiversity, cleaning water and cutting flood risk. Ecological and social benefits generated by beaver presence were found to be greater than any financial costs incurred, although it was highlighted that those individuals who benefit from beaver reintroduction may not be the same as those who bear the brunt of their impacts.
In August 2020, the government in England announced that the free-living beavers on the River Otter could remain. England finally followed in Scotland’s footsteps in designating beavers a protected species in October 2022. This, together with the Scottish designation, constitutes pivotal and defining moments for British conservation, comprising the first ever legally sanctioned return of an extinct native mammal. This decision appears to have been largely precipitated by this unsanctioned free-living population, more than any of the various official enclosure-bound beaver projects. This shift is likely to create ripples beyond the scope of beaver reintroduction alone, and help pave the way toward restoration of other lost species.
There are now thought to be around 1,000 beavers in Scotland, and around 500 in England. Aside from the population on the Otter, in England there are now wild populations of beavers living on the rivers Taw, Exe, Tamar, Wye, Stour and Frome, with an estimated population of 50 recently reporting living on the Avon, populations likely seeded by beaver bombing activities.
Professional conservationists who strongly advocate for only undertaking licensed and sanctioned species reintroduction do lament the huge barriers currently in place, including the vast costs, effort and under-resourced agencies which make such valuable work very challenging to undertake. Efforts are made harder by some landowners feeling that the only animals on their land should be livestock or game. Some also feel that unlicensed reintroductions can escalate existing tensions between landowners and conservationists - relations which can be strained at the best of times.
There is a colossal imbalance in the current system, evidenced by the ease of releasing non-native pheasants and partridges in their tens of millions each year into the wild, compared to the great difficulty of reintroducing lost native species. Until there is systemic change on this front, it seems likely that cutting corners and side stepping some of the issues associated with a government endorsed approach will prove too tempting for some. But some fear that a free-for-all will likely result in more animal/human conflict than is necessary.
Beaver bombing and guerrilla rewilding are likely symptomatic of these systemic issues, a side effect of a system that refuses to invest properly in good conservation, and an indictment of the current licensed approach. The unfortunate and, for some, uncomfortable truth is that on both sides of the border, it was the unsanctioned guerrilla releases of beavers that led to them being designated protected species, with wild populations given the free rein to expand. One thing is for certain - due to these unsanctioned releases, beavers are once more part of our wild fauna here in Britain. This is something we should be grateful for, as the return of beavers to our countryside heralds the hope of living in a wilder and richer land.
Would you like to sign this? Petition calling on the Italian authorities not to cull the population of free-living beavers in Tuscany