Somerset floods. Credit: Getty

Credit: Getty

Beavers: an icon of climate change mitigation?

In the weirdest springtime of my and many others’ lifetimes, I think it is fair to assume that many people are looking forward to a post-Covid world and are wondering what that might look like. Currently, in the midst of the lock-down, that is difficult for anyone to imagine but it is important to ask ourselves, what do we want to see in a post-covid world. Going forward, many experts around the world are calling for a greater focus on sustainability in all aspects of our lives. If you cast your mind back to 2019, climate activism was in its peak – children worldwide were demanding the attention of world leaders and they were (in some cases) starting to listen! Fighting climate change is not the priority right now, but still it remains the biggest threat to humanity this century, and when we come out of this pandemic, we must be ready to take some serious climate action

In 2018, I completed my master’s degree in Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the University of Strathclyde. I think some people consider sustainability to be a bit of a ‘fun blocker’ – it asks us to reflect on our lifestyles, consider what we are doing and how we are doing it, and how we can change this for the better. But for me, sustainability is exciting! It is creativity at its best, it is opportunities, it is caring and learning, and at its heart, it shares my greatest passion – the natural environment. 

Climate change mitigation is the act minimising the effects of climate change. While we should, and are making efforts to reduce our carbon emissions, the effects of climate change are already been felt across the globe, and so it is important that we take sustainable, sensible and effective measures to minimise these effects. Flooding, and all the secondary impacts, is the biggest climate change threat in the UK.

Shrewsbury Flooding

Shrewsbury flooding, February 2019. Jenny Pearson

Last February, I took a work trip to Shrewsbury. I woke up on the morning of the trip excited, I had never been to Shropshire! As I always do, I turned on the BBC morning news as I ate my breakfast to find them broadcasting from the beautiful, historic Shrewsbury town centre. To my dismay, the broadcaster stood in the middle of the street, in a pair of waders with flood water almost up to his knees. Battered by storm Dennis, the River Severn had, quite severely, burst its banks and the broadcaster termed it a ‘danger to life’. I got on the train anyway as it was still running, and when I arrived, I could not believe what I was seeing. I stood on a bridge that should have had the river flowing calmly below it. Instead, below me was an ocean of murky water that had engulfed an entire car park, main street and walk-way.

Shrewsbury flooding, February 2019. Jenny Pearson

Tall floodgates held the water back from other streets. I stood for a moment, completely astonished, to take it all in. I am without a doubt, that climate change had some role in this flooding. I understand that it is important to consider climate as a whole and not single weather events when looking at the effects of climate change, however, the sheer scale of this flooding seemed impossible and almost dystopian. I am fortunate to live in Scotland where inland flooding is rarely an issue (we have lots of hills), but I am afraid that the southern half of Britain is likely to see many more of these intense and catastrophic flooding episodes in years to come. 

Now you might be thinking, where do beavers come into all of this? As I mentioned before, sustainability holds the natural environment at its core. Climate change mitigation innovation and action must involve nature, we cannot win this fight without nature. That is not to say that technology and other methods are not also important, but often it turns out, that natural remedies are the most cost-effective, beneficial, strong, resilient and most charming of these methods. So, if flooding is our issue, we need a natural flood defence. 

And of course, that is the beaver. Beavers have had a hard time in the UK, persecution by land-owners drove them extinct and now a few locations across the UK are trying to bring them back. Unfortunately, not everyone is as delighted about the return of the beaver and we have a fight ahead of us to have them nationally recognised as the iconic hero that they are! However, I think we stand in good stead considering the beaver benefits. 

Beavers are dam-builders and brilliant ones at that! They tend to focus on smaller, upstream rivers and this is where they can have the best effect.  We know that beavers create miniature floods, places they can store their food items and generate biodiversity havens. This slows and steadies the water flow of streams and tributaries (and can even reduce pollution levels!), in turn, the downstream river has far significantly less fast flowing water. In times of storms and heavy rain falls, beavers can reduce flood risk by reducing the volume of water reaching downstream town centres. Studies support this, this year the River Otter Beaver Trial report demonstrated that beaver dams upstream of properties at risk of flowing, reduced the flow rate at peak times reducing flood risk. 

Properties, livelihoods and lives could be protected all over the country by these magnificent animals. Beavers are the true icon of natural climate change mitigation action. I hope that in times to come, we will see a shift in attitudes towards natural climate change mitigation and the benefits will be more widely recognised. Conserving beaver populations not only supports biodiversity; it supports the people of Britain.

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   Jenny Pearson

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Jenny is a passionate zoologist and conservationist with a master’s degree in Environmental and Sustainability Studies. She works in environmental education on the Isle of Cumbrae, a small island in the Clyde estuary, Scotland. She writes regularly about sustainability and environmental advocacy in her blog:

Beaver Believer

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© Jenny Pearson 2020