Beavers are set to be reintroduced to England, four centuries after being killed off in the country — but will their presence be purely beneficial, or are there negative consequences to be wary of? Carla Passino looks at the arguments on both sides.
The jury is out on the Government’s plans for the reintroduction of beavers in England, announced last week. A native species, they were hunted to extinction about 400 years ago, but the results from recent trials, most notably along the River Otter in Devon, have inspired a consultation on countrywide releases. ‘The cascade of consequences that comes from them being in the landscape is pretty positive,’ explains Natural England’s chairman, Tony Juniper. As well as improving water quality and reducing flood peaks, ‘beavers engineer our riverscapes in ways which have very positive knock-on effects for birds, insects and amphibians,’ with some fish also benefitting.
The changes wrought by beavers are also quick, according to Mr Juniper, with one ‘bleak stretch of upland stream’ on Dartmoor transformed ‘into a vibrant wildlife habitat full of birds and amphibians in a couple of years’. Plus, adds Rob Stoneman of Wildlife Trusts, dams help river valleys to store carbon in wetland soils. ‘Reintroducing beavers means our wetlands will be healthier, wildlife will benefit and local economies will be boosted through eco-tourism,’ he enthuses.
However, the extent and speed of beavers’ impact that appeals to some is the reason others — such as farmers, landowners and fish conservationists — are wary. The NFU points out that beavers can affect farmland drainage, cause fields to flood and damage trees and riverbanks, whereas Nick Measham of Salmon & Trout Conservation expresses concern for endangered salmon and trout.
‘The precautionary principle that says “If in doubt, don’t” has been ignored,’ he laments. ‘In many ways, beavers may benefit river ecology, including fish, but not in all circumstances… we need to be careful. Beavers are in no risk of extinction. Salmon and sea trout are.’
Mr Juniper responds that the Government strategy hinges on minimising downsides through careful management. To be licensed, a beaver release would have to demonstrate benefits and ‘widespread stakeholder support’. Tools would be in place to manage problems, from protecting ‘trees or moving dams, through to the relocation of beavers… [then] potential lethal control, as a very last resort’.
Robust evidence and management suggestions come from John Varley, estate director for Clinton Devon estates, part of the River Otter trial: ‘We have seen how beavers in the right place can bring about major benefits for wildlife, the environment and society… However, we have also witnessed negative impacts when beavers are in the wrong place: farmers’ fields, private property and roads flooded, as well as trees damaged.’
For Mr Varley, two factors must underpin any wide-scale releases. ‘The first is having a pragmatic and responsive management policy, which has the confidence of land managers and the public. The second is having the resources to implement it.’