On or off the fence (or dam)?
A recurring theme in modern debates of all kinds seems to be polarisation. OK, Brexit would be a bad example here as the very nature of debate was either ‘in’ or ‘out’. But when it comes to some of the other recent topical debates there is often nowhere to go for those looking for the middle ground. It’s either veganism or meat-eating, with those more thoughtful voices calling for ‘less and better meat’, for example, often not heard. Organic vs conventional agriculture is another. The recent flooding is a further example: many pinned the blame on a lack of river maintenance & dredging, while plenty of others argued that improving river-floodplain connection was the only way forward. And, as ever, those arguing for a considered, site-by-site approach were drowned out (excuse the pun).
I suspect it’s the same with the concept of reintroductions of native animals. This debate is becoming well established, with people and organisations taking, as is the nature of debates, a position on one side or other. And as the debate continues, especially when viewed through, for example, the narrow perspectives of Twitter, the debate may become uglier as attitudes become entrenched and unmoving. Much of this polarisation may be fuelled by the media. Looking at the earlier reference to the organic / conventional agriculture debate, no-one can deny that ‘Organic vs Conventional: Which is better’ makes for a far more compelling (and sellable) headline than ‘Depending on what you’re looking for, there are a range of benefits and drawbacks from both organic & conventional farming.’
Not aligning oneself either way is seen as weak; ‘sitting on the fence’. But actually this shouldn’t be: for many of the issues we discuss today there is no right or wrong, and it would be so much more constructive if protagonists could take a considered view. So, “In some situations, and with the right management approaches, that might be OK,” is far more productive than a wholesale “No!” or a potentially-alienating “We’re looking to adopt this one approach everywhere” (even though such attitudes will often be perceived rather than real).
Let’s talk about beavers
Which brings us neatly onto beavers. For many, the very idea of reintroducing an animal which can have such an impact on the landscape is anathema. Many have very strong views against such moves on the basis that our landscape is virtually entirely manmade, and animals from another era such as the beaver have no place here. Anxieties persist over impact on water courses, irrigation, drainage, floodplain management, roads, fisheries, freshwater ecology, angling, flood management… The list goes on.
These views reflect genuine fear felt by many involved in farming and land management, the great majority of whom will have a genuine interest in nature conservation and boosting wildlife. It’s likely that for many in agriculture who oppose the reintroduction of beavers, entirely legitimate concerns over land use and food production, political uncertainty following Brexit, environmental change, input cost and availability, market challenges, water availability and flooding – to name a few – are dominant. The idea of reintroducing a species which can potentially have such an impact on agriculture, through landscape engineering, changing water levels, compromising drainage, represents one further challenge, and one step too far.
And this gets us back to my original point. Framing this debate in terms of ‘should we reintroduce this species – yes or no’ is unhelpful and will always lead to a polarised debate. Instead, through both sides of the debate initiating a discussion based on what the impacts – positive and negative – might be, of beaver reintroduction or activity in a particular site, should present a more constructive approach. Having an open and honest discussion about beaver management alongside this will help to allay fears and reinforce the commitment to working with all.
Ultimately, there are a huge number of benefits to beaver reintroduction, in the right places, and where the pros and cons are fully understood and suitable mitigation approaches are in place. And it’s just because they offer potential solutions to many of the environmental, ecological and agronomic problems we all face today, that this debate is just far too important to be framed as ‘yes’ or ‘no, ‘for’ or ‘against’, ‘should we’ or ‘shouldn’t we’.
Alex Dinsdale lives in rural Suffolk, a few miles south of the river Waveney from where he grew up in south Norfolk. Having studied countryside management and rural development at Wye College, he has worked for a number of agricultural organisations and businesses over the past twenty years. Alex is particularly interested in ways in which modern, progressive agriculture can help address the challenges presented by the biodiversity emergency. He is married with two children.