Beaver Reintroduction In The United Kingdom: A Success Or Failure?

By Benjamin Elisha Sawe on February 16 2020 in Environment

Beavers are complex creatures and are considered ecosystem engineers.
  • The beaver population was diminished in the UK centuries ago due to hunting
  • Beavers are considered ecosystem engineers and have a strong influence on the environment
  • Trials have been taking place across the UK to try to reintroduce beavers into the ecosystem

The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) was once widespread throughout the United Kingdom. It is believed that the species was hunted to extinction for its fur and castoreum oil (used for flavoring and scents). The beavers were last recorded in Wales and England in the 12th century. In Scotland, populations held on until the 16th century. Since the mid-20th century, reintroduction programs throughout Europe have led to the return of beavers in over 25 countries. There is no evidence of past beavers in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, beaver populations are currently found in two areas. While in England, several reintroduction trials are taking place in both fenced and unfenced areas. There are also proposals for the reintroduction of beavers in Wales. Beavers are preferred candidates for reintroduction due to their ability to manipulate the environment to create wetland habitats that support greater biodiversity. Their ability to change the environment can have both positive and negative effects on agriculture, flood management, and freshwater fisheries.

Reintroduction of Beavers in Scotland

Feasibility studies on the reintroduction of beavers in Scotland began in 1995. The findings from the study were published in 2015 in the Beavers in Scotland report. It was produced by the Scottish Natural Heritage on behalf of the Scottish government. There are currently two populations of beavers in Scotland. At Knapdale in Argyll, there is a population of about twelve animals (as estimated in 2017). The population was reintroduced into the area as a result of a licensed beaver trial project that ran between 2009 and 2014 on Scottish Ministers’ National Forest Estate. Organizations involved in the project included the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). A larger population of beavers is found at the Tay and Earn catchments (Tayside). The population at Tayside is as a result of illegal or accidental release. A survey conducted in 2012 put the population at 146 animals. Tests done by RZSS vets showed that the animals were healthy and free of disease. The Minister for Environment decided that the population at Tayside should remain in situ until a decision was made on the future of the beavers in Scotland.

The Devon Beaver Project

In 2011, a pair of Eurasian beavers were introduced into three hectares of fenced private land in northern Devon. The objective of the project was to use the animals to restore the wet grassland habitat of national importance. Besides, it also helps to understand the effects of the species on the environment. Findings from the projects will help inform future decisions on the potential reintroduction of the species into a wider area. The effects of the animals are monitored through water quality tests, fixed-point surveys, and surveys on flora and fauna. So far, the effects of the project have been positive. The dense willow canopy is finally opening up and allowing culm grassland beneath to thrive. A diverse habitat has been created, and limited amounts of water that used to flow through the site have been transformed into an amazing series of waterways. Beaver activity has also improved the land’s ability to hold water and reduced sediment load in the water.

The River Otter Beaver Project

In 2014, a beaver population was discovered living in the wild in east Devon. The beavers presumably escaped into the wild or were as a result of an unsanctioned release. The beavers were initially supposed to be rehomed due to a perceived disease risk posed by the animals and their potential undesirable impact on the wildlife and landscape. Following unprecedented support from the local community, the Devon Wildlife Trust was granted permission by Natural England to commence a five-year monitoring program. In 2015, the new-born beavers, which were part of England’s first wild beaver trial, were recorded on film on the River Otter. In 2018 beavers were observed moving into new areas and creating dams to form wetland habitat. Over the years, beaver activity in the area has helped in the filtering of agricultural chemicals and silt out of the water.

The Ham Fen Beaver Project

The Kent Wildlife Trust introduced two families of Eurasian beavers to 30 hectares of enclosed land at Ham Fen in 2001. The project was necessitated by challenges faced in the restoration of the last fenland in Kent using machinery. Restoration using beavers proved very successful with ancient fenland and wet grassland, now thriving thanks to the beavers. The project is praised for is its sustainable approach to maintaining wetlands and various wildlife species.

The Welsh Beaver Project

The Welsh beaver project is currently working to reintroduce beavers into the Welsh landscape. Feasibility studies that have been carried out have determined that there is suitable habitat in Wales for the beavers.

The Cornish Beaver Project

Eurasian beavers were introduced to Cornwall by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and local farmers in 2017. The objective of the project was to show that beavers can help in the formation of new habitat, reduce flooding, and make streams cleaner. The beavers were reintroduced into a fenced area upstream of Ladock Village. The village had experienced severe flooding in the past before the introduction of the project, which was aimed at helping mitigate the challenge.

Gauging Success or Failure 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines on the reintroduction of a species state that the anticipated impact of such programs has to be considered, including the impact on humans before initiating such schemes. Besides, such projects can be inhibited by human-wildlife conflicts and human-human conflict. Therefore, identifying the perceptions of the public and stakeholders is critical. In addition to evaluating the health and reproduction of reintroduced animals, one can also gauge the success or failure of the program by evaluating stakeholder perceptions and environmental impact.

Stakeholder Perception of Beaver Reintroduction

In various parts of the world, human-wildlife conflicts have been experienced, particularly due to land-use change and human population growth. Such conflicts occur when wildlife is perceived to have an undesirable impact economically or on human wellbeing. Human-human conflicts occur between groups holding differing perceptions on wildlife and management solutions. Human-human conflicts are, in most cases, polarised, with complex debates framed as distinct opposing arguments. For example, conservationists believe that the reintroduction of the animals into river catchments is a sustainable technique that makes the landscape more resilient to climate change. Beaver dams hold water during the dry period and reduce the impact of flash flooding downstream. 

Beavers also create complex river systems that slow water flow, reduce erosion, and improve the quality of water by holding silt. Farmers, however, have concerns over the reintroduction of beavers with the National Farmers Union, saying that it could have a massive impact on farming and the countryside. The farmers are worried that the species which has not been in the country for hundreds of years could affect several benefits obtained in their absence. Some of the concerns include land drains potentially being blocked in lowland arable areas. Others are concerned that their dams will block the migration of salmon and sea trout. The perception gap indicates that the reintroduction program has not had much success in aligning perceptions and expectations among stakeholders, therefore, living room for future human-wildlife or human-human conflict.

Environmental Impact

Beavers are considered ecosystem engineers (organisms that cause physical environmental changes that influence ecological community structures) due to their roles that include dam building and tree-felling. Beaver activity provides several ecosystem services or benefits to humans. For example, beavers play a role in natural flood management by attenuating water flows during periods of high rainfall. Some specific habitats and species of high conservation importance can, however, be adversely affected by beaver populations if appropriate management is not done. Beavers are likely to have a detrimental impact on certain woodland habitats such as aspen (Populus tremula) woodland and the Atlantic Hazelwood climax community. A lack of woodland regeneration, especially when there is high deer abundance could lead to habitat degradation. 

So far, beaver reintroduction has not harmed the environment. In Scotland, a positive effect on biodiversity is expected. For example, beaver activity is expected to provide an important habitat for the great crested newt (Triturus cristatus), the otter (Lutra lutra) and water vole (Arvicola amphibius). Studies that have been conducted on the environmental impact of beavers, including those examining beaver-salmonid interactions, have confirmed that beavers have a positive influence on biodiversity. Beaver reintroduction can, therefore, be classified as a success in this regard.

Conservation of Beavers in the UK

Scotland recently introduced legislation making it illegal to kill beavers or destroy their dams and lodges without a license. Wildlife campaigners have hailed the move as it prevents a repeat of the beaver’s historic demise in Great Britain. The Scottish government has described beavers as having a huge significance to Scotland’s biodiversity and farming hence the need for a licensing system when culling is needed. Experts have also advocated for active land management to deal with the localized negative impact caused by beavers. Educating local communities living around areas occupied by beavers is also encouraged to prevent human-wildlife conflict.

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