We need to talk about beavers

Anyone not awake to the severe environmental pressure our landscapes are under needs to take a long hard look at themselves. We’re now many months on from the COP15 Biodiversity Summit, striving to reverse severe species and habitat decline and loss. For the Beaver Trust team it’s the off-season, taking a breather from the flurry of beaver releases that happens between autumn and spring.

So what is left after that press-packed moment when the crate door is opened and you see a relieved and delighted wild animal scurry into the water, and disappear with a hearty tail slap? Media coverage might seem to be all about their return, but what happens next is the real magic and why we should be paying these creatures more attention.

Beaver wetlands are the wet, wild and diverse habitat resulting from their activities, sometimes taking just days to develop. Daily toil will then nurture, and grow them over months and years into a complex of living dams and wet woodland. The embodiment of transformation, the habitat is modified to hold much, much more water. Beavers give us the restoration of wetlands, a vital habitat in Britain, where 90% of native wetlands have been lost or destroyed in the last century. And with this come significant benefits for all life: from meaningful flood risk reduction, to drought resilience for the surrounding landscape, enabling plant species to increase in number and diversity, and space for plentiful freshwater and terrestrial species to exist.

But this June, the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Therese Coffey, urged business leaders and financiers to ramp up investment in nature, commenting “I think there is more important things than beavers right now… We’ve got lots to do and habitat for me is the key”. I politely beg to differ. We ignore these animals at some cost to our quest for habitat recovery. 

Although financial support is a fundamental need (business and financiers cannot deliver on nature alone) economic dominance has failed to date. Now? We need to work with nature herself, and loosen the attachment to dominance over natural processes. An ENDS Report article this month, “revealed that hundreds of millions of taxpayer pounds have been poured into failing green farming schemes in national parks, while the protected sites in them have continued to degrade. Despite the money going in to improve nature, why is it on its knees?” 

Yes, habitat is the key, and we desperately need more funds available for conservation and restoration work, but translating these statements into action needs more than just money. It needs action outside planting, coppicing, building, rewetting freshwater habitats. Something has to do this work, and the reintroduction of beavers is one mechanism to make good progress on the ground. They will create important habitat very naturally and, more importantly, maintain that habitat over the long term, fixing leaks, managing flow, expanding water storage and plant and wildlife species.

The UK Government has a 25-Year Environment Plan for England, with a commendable but pretty steep nature recovery ambition by 2030. Beavers can help us deliver against four out of the six key goals;

  • Clean and plentiful water; beaver dam complexes slow the flow of freshwater off the land and out to sea, reversing decades of drainage, as well as improving water quality by acting as filtering systems for sediment and pollutants.
  • Thriving plants and wildlife; Extraordinary species abundance and diversity figures found by the science undertaken at beaver wetlands, plus fact that all plants and life need fresh water to exist.
  • Reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards like flooding & drought; while only a small proportion of the solution, beavers are one solution and have been shown to bring increased resilience to communities downstream.
  • Enhancing beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment; beaver wetlands are stunningly wild places, buzzing with sounds, smells and wildlife. To me that is unsurpassed beauty, though others may still like straight clean edges to their manicured landscapes. Regarding heritage there can be no doubt, beavers remain a key part of our natural heritage story, having been widespread across Britain until only 400 years ago (or possibly less) – a drop in the ocean in evolutionary terms. So restoring this species is highly relevant and engages increasing numbers of people with the natural environment. You have only to visit a car park near a beaver wetland one spring or summer evening to get a sense of the scale. People are fascinated by them. 

Beavers deliver on international targets too; UN Sustainable Development Goals 11, 13 and 15; Half the COP15 biodiversity agreement goals; and within this our much-discussed 30 x 30 ambition, in the case of beavers, on freshwater. If beavers can contribute in any way to the aim of halting human-induced extinction of threatened species, or offering sustainable use and management of biodiversity to ensure that nature’s contributions to people are valued and enhanced, why is this Government sidelining them?

There is a crucial layer in all this on the reintegration of beavers into the farmed landscape, which occupies 71% of UK land area. There is rightful concern about the impacts they can have on existing operations in some circumstances, such as flooding or bank burrowing. Arguably, [agri]business-as-usual won’t survive the climate crisis anyway, we need to see a shift to agroecological and regenerative practices, but whichever your philosophy, we can’t keep beavers out completely – they are already here. What we can (and must) do is give beavers space to operate, in order to minimise agricultural conflict and potentially guard against drought impacts on agriculture. As well as talk openly and practically with farmers and land owners to determine the support (financial or otherwise) needed to coexist with beavers.

When we wrap the above considerations within the knowledge that beavers are back, in the wild and in many enclosures, it is clear that ignoring their presence will leave many people with unanswered questions and insufficient support. Now is precisely the time to talk about beavers and deliver on the long-awaited wild release licensing framework for England.

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