Beaver on the brain

Exploring the potential psychological benefits of nature enrichment through the reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver

The UK is considered one of the most nature-depleted parts of the world, and one of the most nature-disconnected nations in Europe. Lots of (appropriate) song and dance has been made about beavers, due to their powerful eco-engineering and biodiversity-boosting talents, and their unrivalled ability to breathe life back into depleted landscapes. They are capable of transforming degraded land into richer wetland habitat than anything we humans can replicate. With the very positive and long-overdue announcement from the Scottish government that they will support the expansion of beaver populations through favouring relocation of beavers within the country, we can only now look to the English and Welsh governments to see if they will follow suit.

While much of the discussion around beaver reintroduction has centred on the environmental and ecological benefits their activities can bring, an examination of the psychological implications of their rightful return to the British landscape is also important, which is why I decided to write this paper: ‘Potential psychological benefits of nature enrichment through the reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) to Britain’.

Beaver engineered habitat - credit - Roisin Campbell-Palmer

Nature connectedness has been defined as a “sustained awareness of the interrelatedness between one’s self and the rest of nature”. It is tied to the sense of belonging to the wider interconnected web of life that makes up the natural world. It has been referred to as a basic psychological human need, and it is strongly associated with psychological well-being, while also being a key predictor of pro-nature attitudes and behaviours. The 'extinction of experience', or the diminished potential for everyday nature interactions and experiences, is thought to be eroding our connection to nature.

Ecological degradation and the associated loss of life from our land is exacerbating this, but another insidious factor adding further fuel to the fire is ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. This is a psychological and sociological phenomenon where generational amnesia results in people’s perceptions of progressive ecological degradation and biodiversity loss at various scales being out of kilter with actual loss. This in turn results in accepted thresholds for environmental conditions being lowered successively over generations, with a growing apathy in environmental awareness and attitudes following in its wake.

Beaver on their dam - credit - Josh Harris

While this may seem like a pretty dire situation, there is hope. Baselines can also be shifted positively; ‘lifting baselines’. Reducing the extinction of experience, ecological restoration and education have all been proposed as means of lifting baselines, and beavers can lend a paw with all of these. Species reintroduction has been considered as one means of pushing back against the extinction of experience; beavers are a special case, however. Through their eco-engineering, beavers have been shown to increase biodiversity and abundance of wildlife at the landscape scale: including plants, insects, fish, amphibians, birds and mammals.

More biodiverse landscapes exhibit a richer sensorial tapestry, facilitating nature contact, and by extension, greater potential for enhancing nature connectedness. Research has shown that an increase in visible biodiversity and actively noticing nature within people’s vicinity is associated with enhanced nature connectedness, and this in turn predicts pro-nature behaviour. This suggests that through biodiversity increase at the landscape level and the associated implications this has for nature connectedness, it may be possible to push back against this intergenerational erosion of our wider natural community.

Beaver engineered wetland, Knapdale Forest, credit - SCOTLAND-The Big Picture

Reflecting on this capacity of beavers to boost biodiversity and inspire hope, Eva Bishop, Communications Director for Beaver Trust, as said:

“I've worked in climate action for 15 years and it is the first time I have felt hope that we can do something to reverse biodiversity loss in this country; standing in a beaver wetland with the abundance and wilderness they bring feels like nowhere else. Beavers are a gift.”

Beavers and their eco-engineering can also enhance mental well-being in other ways. Contact with natural settings is linked to a broad range of health boosting effects, and visiting wetlands in particular has been found to enhance mood and well-being and promote reductions in stress and anxiety. There is a diminished potential for the British public to engage in ‘quality nature experiences’, and we’ve lost 90% of our wetlands in the last century. Freshwater wetland habitats are incredibly rich, supporting around 12% of the world’s animal species, despite covering 1% of the planet’s surface. Natural settings such as these can act as health-buffering ‘equigenic environments’, those that can disrupt the usual conversion of socioeconomic inequality to health inequality: one study estimated that globally, protected areas in nature benefit the mental health of visitors to a value of US $6 trillion per year.

Beaver standing - credit - Gordon Muir

With the advent of Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) in the UK, there is greater potential for beneficial ecosystem service provision and increasing public access to nature, potentially through the establishment of buffer zones around waterways alongside beaver wetland creation throughout the wider landscape. Beavers themselves could also play a role as a flagship species, helping ignite a wider interest in nature, and make them great candidates for nature-based educational programmes.

This potential of beavers to ignite inspiration and interest was encapsulated by American naturalist and author Enos Mills over a century ago when he observed:

“A beaver colony in the wilds gives a touch of romance and a rare charm to the outdoors. The works of the beaver have ever intensely interested the human mind. Beaver works may do for children what schools, sermons, companions, and even home sometimes fail to do, develop the power to think. No boy or girl can become intimately acquainted with the ways and works of these primitive folk without having the eyes of observation opened, and acquiring a permanent interest in the wide world in which we live.”

Taken together, the overall psychological benefits of beaver reintroduction likely exceed that of any other single species’ reintroduction or conservation initiative of equivalent cost, and far outweigh the costs of their reintroduction and management. Through their potential to facilitate both broad scale ecological and psychological restoration, beavers may be considered a ‘super restorer’.

As gnawing feelings of hopelessness grow for many in the looming shadow of climate change and biodiversity loss, beavers may be viewed as totems of much needed hope in the wake of growing eco-anxiety. In the words of Theodore Roszak, one of the founding fathers of the field of ecopsychology:

“if the self is expanded to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of the world will be experienced as self-destruction”.

If this holds true, then surely the inverse applies: by restoring the planet’s ecosystems of which all beings are a part, by extension we restore the well-being of ourselves.