Beavering away to find natural solutions

The reintroduction of this semi-aquatic rodent, hunted to extinction in the UK by the 16th century for its pelt, is the subject of keen interest and debate amongst conservationists, landowners and decision-makers alike.

A concerted effort over the past decade to reintroduce this once native species has driven the news headlines for a number of reasons, and opinion is divided. But the spotlight on this gnawing natural engineer looks to stay, as they now join a growing list of opportunities to put nature back in charge of its own recovery.

They can help solve some of the environmental challenges of a warming world, such as managing increased flood risk, improving water quality, enhancing the resilience and biodiversity of key habitats and reversing species decline.

So what if? If we reintroduce beavers to get busy in our wild spaces in Somerset and beyond what exactly would, and could, these natural landscape engineers do?
Four-spotted chaser and swans, Somerset Levels

Four-spotted chaser {Libellula quadrimaculata} dragonfly on Somerset Levels- Ross Hoddinott

Over the past decades, the country’s precious natural wetlands have been re-engineered primarily to get the water off the land and out to sea as quickly as possible to enable agriculture alongside other development. We suffer floods when it rains and dry rivers during droughts, and our wetland habitats have declined by 90 per cent in the UK since Roman times - so the fact that breeding water and wetland birds have declined by 6 per cent since 1975 overall is of no surprise. 

We need our wetlands both for biodiversity ie. a wide range of species, and to capture carbon (Peat is the single biggest store of carbon in the UK, storing the equivalent of all UK CO2 emissions), so keeping them healthy, and wet, is absolutely vital.

The majority of evidence suggests that beavers can play a part in helping reinvigorate (and create, in some instances) our wetlands significantly - and relatively quickly.  There’s a reason the phrase ‘busy as a beaver’ exists.  The world’s second largest rodent is definitely not work shy - they can very rapidly alter the hydrology and biodiversity of the landscape they occupy.

David Parkyn - David Parkyn/ Cornwall Wildlife Trust

In creating their networks of dams, ponds and channels they can increase the capacity of land to hold water, as a result slowing the flow of streams and rivers and reducing the risk of flooding during storm events and heavy rain fall (of which we will see more) also ensuring a more constant flow and availability of water during drier periods.  Evidence shows that small scale, unplanned, localised flooding in the upper catchment of rivers in areas with beavers is uncommon yet is an issue that seems to weight the debate.

Pete Burgess from Devon Wildlife Trust’s beaver trial has seen their success in action.

By constructing 13 dams within the area of our project, the land will now hold up to 1 million litres of extra water. This has been shown to dramatically slow the flow of water coming out of the site, potentially reducing flooding downstream.
Pete Burgess
Devon Wildlife Trust

The Agriculture Bill currently going through Parliament might well help mitigate any lack of beaver enthusiasm, as its main thrust is to switch to a subsidy system where money for landowners is available for ‘public goods’, that is things that do not have a value or a market in the traditional way. Natural flood management approaches, such as that which might be enabled by reintroducing beavers, could fit this category.

Slower water also means sediment, nutrients and pollutants can sink and settle, particularly carbon and nitrogen. The ‘cleaned’ water slowly continues, but without the ‘load’ brought from land upstream thus improving overall water quality and contributing to preventing soil degradation – a longer term benefit of high significance.  The UK has worryingly lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850, with the erosion continuing at a rate of 1cm to 3cm a year so this is a clear benefit of their presence. (The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report (2015).  A 2015 study also found that beavers are beneficial in boosting fish populations by helping to improve water quality and create wetland habitat - a more recent 2018 study has backed up these claims.

River

River Haddeo in Somerset - Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

The introduction of beavers becomes particularly challenging when looking at the Somerset Levels and Moors – where many of the county’s key wetlands exist and thrive. The area has been highly managed on a large scale since the 16th Century when the beavers had already gone. Balancing lower catchment benefits of improved soil and water quality and slower water flow, against the potential disruption of the many man-made water control structures in the area is complex. 

But how could we support upper and middle catchment reintroduction and expect them to stay put?  To some degree the presence of beavers in the area will become of less significance, given the alarming rate at which sea levels are expected to rise and the scale of the broader challenges this area faces from changes in the climate. The UK Climate Projections 2018 (UKCP18) by the Met Office Hadley Centre show Somerset is facing a probable sea level rise of 0.27m - 1.13m by 2100.

Beaver

David Parkyn - David Parkyn at Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Their diligent approach to riverside coppicing, alongside the presence of their burrows some perceive as contributing to riverbank erosion. But on balance, their activity can be hugely beneficial.  Trees such as willow, alder and aspen need to be coppiced – a traditional practice carried out throughout history to manage bankside trees and to stimulate fresh growth.

In going about their everyday life they are actually opening out our riverbanks and wetlands for other species to thrive.  And in the mosaic of muddy edges, pools and ponds they create, whole communities of species can exist, such as otters, water shrews, water voles, birds, dragonflies, breeding fish and rare freshwater plants and invertebrate life – food stock for fish populations and birds. Their positive impact on biodiversity mustn’t be overlooked at a time when it is declining at a faster rate than we can repair it.

It’s acknowledged that the presence of beavers can lead to disturbance.  Like many things in nature, they are unpredictable, and areas where they live can look ‘untidier’ than the ordered countryside that we are used.  However farmers as an example are accustomed to the unpredictable. As custodians of the land, they have been agents of change for centuries; working in tandem with the seasons, adapting to changing weather, changing markets, Government schemes and modifying their practices to reflect these changes. 

Providing a model for supporting, empowering and incentivising them and other landowners to adapt and work with nature and embrace natural solutions, however, is now vital if we are to address the catastrophic imbalance that exists in the natural environment and secure resilience for a changing climate.  Being more in tune with the rhythm of the land must now prevail over our ability to consume it - and our desire to control it to the same degree.

Beaver

Beaver - David Parkyn at Cornwall Wildlife Trust

So we need to move beyond thinking the answers lie in a series of tick box questions; should we introduce beavers YES/NO or do we need to rewild more land YES/NO.  All that does is polarise the debate on these and other issues further, and arrests ambition to embrace broader thinking at a political and economic level about how we go forwards, how we find the right balance for people and wildlife, and how natural solutions can play their part in a bigger, more cohesive approach to nature’s recovery.

So in principal does the Trust support beaver reintroduction?  You’re ‘dam’ right we do. But to some degree it is already out of our hands. They are here already and most likely here to stay.

Learn more about The Wildlife Trusts' beaver projects