Lessons from a half century of human-beaver coexistence in an ecologically rich part of Germany
Beaver eating bracken - photo credit Elliot McCandless / Beaver Trust
A recent trip to Bavaria gave illuminating insight into how beavers shape the landscape at a greater scale – across both space and time – than anywhere in Britain. The trip included visits to beaver wetlands ranging from 5 to 20 years of age. Beavers were reintroduced to Bavaria over half a century ago, with beavers and humans existing in much closer proximity and far higher densities there than anywhere in Britain. This makes it a useful case study that allows us to take a future glimpse at what a beaver inhabited landscape might look like, what issues might be faced, and how human-beaver coexistence might be achieved.
One argument stated repeatedly is that the preservation of existing wildlife should be prioritised over seeking to reintroduce that which has already been lost. This is a limited and short-sighted view that is ecologically flawed and likely to partly stem from shifting baseline syndrome. Given a lack of direct experience with beavers due to their loss from our land centuries ago, we have forgotten what they are capable of.
We inhabit a highly manicured, homogenised and depleted landscape in Britain, and following the loss of keystone species such as the beaver, we lack awareness of the power they hold to shape and enrich the landscape we all inhabit.
With the return of beavers comes the return of the ecosystems they help create and maintain. Beavers create wetlands, which are the lifeblood of the larger landscape, and we have lost much of ours here in Britain. We must shift from our entrenched “Keep Britain tidy” mentality. We should strive for a land that is much more than merely tidy, and the ecosystems beavers create are messy, but life rich and resilient.
We are considered one of the most nature-depleted parts of the world, and continue to lose life from our land. If we hope to stem, let alone reverse this loss, we will need to be much more ambitious and think bigger.
5 year old beaver wetland - photo credit - Sam Gandy
Visiting these beaver wetland sites in Bavaria, it was made very clear that humans would be unable to replicate what beavers do. They create a rich and diverse mosaic of habitats, including open water, stands of marshland vegetation such as rushes, reeds and sedge, dead wood, wet meadow, coppiced willow scrub and wet woodland. Considerable variation exists not just within but also between sites. These habitats also change over time due to the effect of ecological succession, so beavers kindle diversity and dynamism not just in the spaces they sculpt, but over the time they inhabit them.
This structural complexity is the foundation which underpins biodiversity and the reason why these places support such a rich array of life. These observations are supported by scientific evidence, with research demonstrating that beaver wetland habitats support higher levels of biodiversity than wetlands lacking beavers, and this cannot be replicated by humans. Attempting to do so would take considerable ongoing time, energy and money for a job beavers do better and for free on an ongoing basis.
10 year old beaver wetland - photo credit - Sam Gandy
In the wake of a changing climate, we are more likely to face changes in rainfall and weather patterns. By enhancing the capacity of land to store water and slowing down its overland flow, beaver eco-engineering has the potential to buffer against flooding, drought and wildfires, creating more resilient ecosystems. Photos of a beaver wetland adjacent to agricultural land in Devon at Clinton Devon Estates recently went viral, clearly highlighting the effects of this beaver eco-engineering during a drought, revealing an oasis of green amongst a sea of parched vegetation.
Clinton Devon Estates beaver wetland
With recent announcements concerning the designation of beavers as a protected species in England, and a strategy to support the expansion of beaver populations in Scotland, it might seem like that the future of wild, free living beavers in much of Britain is more or less secured. This is far from the truth however, with Britain dragging behind the 25 other European nations where beavers have returned.
Without a national strategy in place to support expansion of beaver populations, their reintroductions to England are likely to be limited to enclosures for the foreseeable future. This will hugely impede their potential when it comes to engineering more life-rich and ecologically resilient landscapes.
Beaver at waters edge - Elliot McCandless
Given the range of well established benefits beaver presence provides, government funding to support their wider reintroduction and management is a no brainer. In addition to biodiversity and habitat provision and engineering more resilient ecosystems, beaver activity can clean water, trap eroded soil, cycle nutrients and recharge aquifers. It may also provide opportunities for recreation, allowing people to connect with nature-rich spaces which can benefit health and well-being, and beavers could act as a flagship animal, helping ignite a wider interest in nature while offering educational potential.
Financial support should be made available to landowners and farmers to encourage them to set a little land aside for beavers, and following in Scotland’s footsteps, a government funded programme establishing and coordinating catchment based beaver management groups is needed south of the border.
Like us humans, beavers are powerful ecosystem engineers that bend their surrounding environment to suit their needs, which is why we can occasionally clash, resulting in issues. However, none of these are insurmountable, and work on a wild free living beaver population living on the River Otter in Devon has demonstrated that the benefits beaver activity provides clearly exceed their negative impacts.
These impacts will require management and mitigation, particularly as their populations grow, with different people also tending to bear the brunt of beaver impacts from those who benefit. These people will need support, both practical and financial.
A wet beaver woodland - photo credit - Sam Gandy
There are some useful lessons that have been learned in Bavaria that could and should be applied here. Bavaria is a more forested landscape than Britain, but like Britain, much of the land is intensively farmed. There are two separate schemes in place, whereby those impacted by beavers can access compensation, and those implementing preventative measures to reduce impacts can access funding.
An important ‘hands off’ approach to managing beavers is to leave them a little space. Almost all human - beaver conflicts occur within 20 metres of water courses, and so by implementing buffer strips between these and surrounding agricultural land, much potential for conflict can be averted. In the words of Bavarian beaver management expert, Gerhard Schwab:
“If you give the river 20 metres breathing space, you will have solved 95% of beaver problems”.
Farmers are forbidden by law to farm within 5 metres of water courses in Bavaria, and other voluntary compensatory agreements supplement this. We should not be farming to the edge of waterways, and creation of river buffer strips would also yield a range of other important benefits. They can help reduce bank erosion from livestock and levels of agricultural runoff from entering our ailing waterways, while providing important habitat (including for pollinators), acting as wildlife corridors. Implementing these buffer strips along waterways and allowing beavers this space in which to dwell would offer us huge ecological and environmental bang for our buck.
Potentially, a network of interconnected public footpaths could be established in these areas which could allow for more public contact with nature, with all the benefits to mental health and well-being this could promote.
Another key aspect of beaver management learned through experience is that anybody bearing the brunt of beaver impacts always has somebody at the end of the phone who will be rapidly on-site assisting them, often on the same day. In Bavaria, state-employed beaver managers oversee a trained team of around 1,000 volunteer beaver consultants who are made up of community members in various districts of the state. They respond to issues local to them as and when they arise, and commit to rapidly working with the affected people to mitigate the issues in situ. These advisors have knowledge of the various mitigation options, and receive funding support from local authorities when these need to be implemented.
Beavers eating - photo credit - The Beaver Trust
There are useful lessons that have been learned and approaches that could be applied in Britain, and many fruits would be borne from working towards coexistence. Proactive management of beavers and their activities will be essential, but we will be hugely rewarded for our efforts. Learning to live alongside beavers will go some way towards fixing our broken relationship with nature in this country, while repairing some of the damage we have inflicted upon our degraded and depleted land.
Seeing the longer-term effects of beavers on wildlife and the ecosystems they help create has been a huge source of inspiration and hope for me, and witnessing it has done nothing to douse the flames of my enthusiasm for them and what they do. If we are truly committed to the vision of inhabiting a richer, revitalised and more resilient landscape in Britain, beavers will be vital allies in helping us achieve this. Perhaps one day in the future, the fences of the beaver enclosures will come down, and we’ll welcome back this animal to our wider landscape where it belongs, and a long forgotten orchestra of life will play out across the land once more.
Find out more at - The Beaver Trust
20 year old beaver wetland - photo credit - Sam Gandy