The impacts of beavers Castor spp. on biodiversity and the ecological basis for their reintroduction to Scotland, UK

In Scotland, UK, beavers became extinct about 400 years ago. Currently, two wild populations are present in Scotland on a trial basis, and the case for their full reintroduction is currently being considered by Scottish ministers. Beavers are widely considered ‘ecosystem engineers’. Indeed, beavers have large impacts on the environment, fundamentally change ecosystems, and create unusual habitats, often considered unique. In this review, we investigate the mechanisms by which beavers act as ecosystem engineers, and then discuss the possible impacts of beavers on the biodiversity of Scotland.
A meta-analysis of published studies on beavers’ interactions with biodiversity was conducted, and the balance of positive and negative interactions with plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals recorded.
The meta-analysis showed that, overall, beavers have an overwhelmingly positive influence on biodiversity. Beavers’ ability to modify the environment means that they fundamentally increase habitat heterogeneity. As beavers are central-place foragers that feed only in close proximity to watercourses, their herbivory is unevenly spread in the landscape. In addition, beaver ponds and their associated unique successional stages increase habitat heterogeneity both spatially and temporally. Beavers also influence the ecosystems through the creation of a variety of features such as dams and lodges, important habitat features such as standing dead wood (after inundation), an increase in woody debris, and a graded edge between terrestrial and aquatic habitats that is rich in structural complexity.
In Scotland, a widespread positive influence on biodiversity is expected, if beavers are widely reintroduced. For instance, beaver activity should provide important habitat for the otter Lutra lutra, great crested newt Triturus cristatus and water vole Arvicola amphibious, all species of conservation importance.
Beavers are most likely to have detrimental impacts on certain woodland habitats and species of conservation importance, such as the Atlantic hazelwood climax community and aspen Populus tremula woodland. A lack of woodland regeneration caused by high deer abundance could lead to habitat degradation or loss. These are also of particular importance due to the variety of associated dependent species of conservation interest, such as lichen communities in Atlantic hazelwoods.

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