This post is by Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet and parliamentary species champion for beavers.
Native to Britain, beavers once created and maintained a rich network of wildlife-rich habitats across these isles. They are both a keystone of ecosystems and a cornerstone of our natural heritage. Hunted to extinction 400 years ago, evidence from beaver reintroductions in recent years has been conclusive: the benefits significantly outweigh the limited and manageable costs. The government’s forthcoming strategy for managing wild beavers must enable this historic species to repopulate suitable areas and once again engineer life into the English countryside.
The government has an ambitious agenda to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. The Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme will replace the much maligned EU Common Agricultural Policy and pay farmers for the provision of environmental public goods such as clean water, flood prevention, thriving wildlife and carbon capture.
The Environment Bill, due to return to parliament imminently, will require ministers to set legally binding targets in four key areas, including water quality and biodiversity; and it contains provisions to create 500,000 hectares of priority habitat, informed by opportunity mapping undertaken by county councils in their Local Nature Recovery strategies.
Beavers improve the environment
Beavers can help the government to deliver these commitments. By paying landowners to set aside unproductive agricultural land close to rivers, through the new farm payments system, we can create the space for these ecosystem engineers to get to work, delivering essential environmental improvements.
By constructing dams, beavers slow the flow of water downstream and reduce flood risk, and the ponds which form upstream hold water for use in periods of drought. Beaver dams also filter out pollutants, such as agricultural chemicals, improving the quality of water flowing from their habitats. And by sculpting a mosaic of wetland habitats, they promote biodiversity and create natural carbon sinks.
What’s more, there are ways of managing the impact of beavers on the landscape so that they can coexist with local people. For example, flow devices can regulate the water level behind the dam to reduce flooding onto the surrounding floodplain and mesh guards can protect valuable trees from being coppiced by over industrious beavers.
The findings of the five year wild beaver reintroduction trial on the River Otter in Devon revealed that beavers had brought a plethora of benefits to local wildlife, including fish, and to the local community through reduced flooding, and that localised problems for neighbouring landowners were manageable. As a result, Defra decided the beaver population could remain there permanently and continue to grow. It has since consulted on a management strategy for wild beavers.
This strategy must harness the engineering prowess of beavers to improve our environment while mitigating any impacts on farmers. First and foremost, it must grant beavers protection as a native species in England. Trapping and translocation of beavers or dam removal rather than culling should be prioritised, to protect these precious animals.
Any conflicts with locals can be managed
Defra must also try to head off potential conflicts with local residents and landowners by only issuing licences for reintroductions in suitable areas, such as upstream of flooding hotspots, and where prior community consultation has taken place and local monitoring and management teams are in place.
And the ELM scheme should properly reward landowners who create beaver wetlands for the public benefits that these projects will accrue and will attract further, private, funding from the water companies, who stand to benefit from lower water treatment costs downstream.
The government has an ambitious agenda to improve our natural environment and animal welfare. A proper strategy to manage the repopulation of suitable river courses with wild beavers will turbocharge progress toward our environmental goals while enabling the return of an old acquaintance to the English countryside.