Conservationists are celebrating the trial reintroduction of the European beaver into parts of Scotland and Devon. But can our countryside support these new animal populations?
Extinct in Britain since the 16th century, the European beaver is one of the largest rodents in the world, and much larger than you may think. Adults typically grow to well over a metre in length, and weigh an average of 40lb, the same as a medium-sized dog.
Their reputation as strong swimmers and prodigious engineers is not an understatement. Their large incisors and clawed front feet enable them to construct dams and lodges that can extend for hundreds of metres, as well as burrows of up to 20 metres into the riverbank.
A beaver dam
“Any species introduction, particularly if it has not been in this country for hundreds of years, can have a massive impact on the many benefits that the countryside delivers,” Mark Pope, an arable farmer from Somerset who has instigated numerous initiatives to provide habitat and food for birds and insects and encourage diverse plant species on his farm, said.
“In the case of beavers, the NFU has concerns about the damage to farmland and the landscape caused by their physical activities." Mark, who is also chair of the NFU Environment Forum, added. "Farmers and the public must have the tools to manage the impacts beavers will have to farmland, the countryside, flood defences and urban areas.
“Beavers can add biodiversity, as well as the interest, enjoyment and socio-economic benefits they can provide to many people. What the NFU is very clear on is that in some locations there is a clear need to manage this species to minimise undesirable impacts on agriculture, forestry, inland waters and other land uses.”
There is increasing interest in the beneficial role beavers could bring to habitats. The natural activities of beavers could help to regulate flooding and improve water quality, if managed properly. The Devon trial on the River Otter, led by the Devon Wildlife Trust in partnership with Clinton Devon Estates, the University of Exeter and the Derek Gow Partnership, has been exploring the role of beavers in managing and creating wetland habitats, the impacts on water quality, and influence on water flow and flood risk.
Tree felled by beavers
On the other hand, beaver burrows near watercourses can weaken river embankments and flood defences. Material felled and gathered by beavers for dams and lodges can create flood risk downstream and block drains upstream. The potential consequences of this for farmland and the rural economy is a cause for concern.
It is estimated that the costs of the 2007 and 2013-14 floods on agricultural businesses alone were £50m and £19m respectively, not to mention the wider economic impacts on local employment, infrastructure and utilities and the damage caused to people’s homes and communities.
The knock-on effects can be wide-ranging. The loss of productive farmland, for instance, would have a detrimental effect on food production and supply.
The Scottish Beaver Trial was a five-year project between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Forestry Commission Scotland to undertake a trial reintroduction of beavers to Knapdale, Mid-Argyll. The trial concluded in 2014 and as a result the Scottish government is considering recognising the European beaver as a native species.
A change in the legal status of beavers raises additional concerns. This is because beavers have no natural predators in the UK so it is important that populations can be managed, particularly if they are present in extensive low-lying areas such as East Anglia, Wiltshire and the Somerset Levels where their activities could block field drains leading to waterlogging (known as ‘wetting up’) of productive farmland.