The future of beavers in England

Could wild beavers soon return to England’s waters? A landmark consultation has been launched by DEFRA to set the course for the future of Eurasian beavers in England.

What’s all the fuss about?

Beavers are a keystone species. They have a far greater impact on biodiversity and the environment than you might expect from a somewhat dumpy rodent. These industrious mammals are renowned as masters of wetland engineering, a reputation earned through their impressive architectural abilities, the leaky dams and networks of winding canals they create, and their impressive work ethic. If you’re ever fortunate enough to spend a dawn or dusk watching beavers, you’ll see where the phrase “as busy as a beaver” originates. Each beaver has an important part to play in the continuous monitoring, maintenance and development of their wetlands, taking care to fortify dams in response to rain, and building efficient, green transport networks to access food and building materials. 

For this reason, when we talk about the reintroduction of beavers, there is often little focus on the rodents themselves; we focus more on the impressive impacts they make – and the speed and efficiency at which these benefits appear. Beavers create complex wetlands for themselves, to raise families in the safety of water, but in doing so, they support an outstanding diversity of other life too. Their dams provide shelter for freshwater invertebrates, fish shelter under woody debris and beneath pool-side shade, and amphibians breed in the ponds; all of which in turn support predators such as grey herons, otters, bats and so much more that can be discovered in this blog.

So, to imagine a future with beavers is to visualise the restoration of dynamic, aquatic habitats rich in biodiversity, and a more resilient landscape better able to withstand the tremors of a changing climate.

It’s important that the vision for a future with beavers is a shared one. How we achieve a happy coexistence with beavers is what the new consultation on beavers in England is all about.

Beavers in England today

To describe why this consultation is so important, let’s first look at the current state of beavers living in England.

There are currently two categories we can sort England’s beavers into: wild (free living) colonies, and enclosed trials. Many beaver reintroductions that you might have spotted in the news during these recent years of Beaver Fever in England will most likely be ‘licenced enclosed beaver trials’. These are where a pair or family of beavers is introduced to a suitable site, allowing them to work their wetland engineering magic within the confines of an enclosure.

Up to now, this has been the only realistic, legal way to return beavers to England, and has been a great way to start discussions about the species returning more widely with local communities. One such example of this is the Lowther Estate beaver trial, part of the Cumbria Beaver Group of which RSPB is a key member. Further south, Cornwall Beaver Project’s Woodland Valley Farm, gained notoriety by featuring on recent BBC Springwatch episodes.

Wild beavers are those which are living in and around our waters without a barrier. The River Otter colony in Devon, is the best known of these, and is currently the only licensed free-living population in England. There are however other wild colonies establishing in England which are considered to be escapees from beaver trials. The Beaver Trust’s online map shows their locations.

The launch of DEFRA’s new beaver consultation is therefore a cause for cautious celebration, because it is the first positive step toward restoring wild beavers on a much wider scale in England; for the benefit of biodiversity, climate resilience and people.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the consultation contents.

A national approach to reintroductions

The “Consultation on approach to beaver reintroduction and management in England” can be viewed on the DEFRA website here, but here’s a very brief breakdown of some of the contents.

Wild beaver licences

Defra propose that licences for the reintroduction of beavers into the wild will be available for ‘high-quality’ projects to apply for, which will need to follow the Reintroductions Code and meet certain criteria. This includes hosting substantial stakeholder engagement, appointing a Local Beaver Officer and assigning a Project Steering Group. All very sensible precautions to ensure people and beavers can live together.

There are however a number of points here that we would like more clarification on, such as the extent of engagement that would be required. We are concerned that the requirement for projects to have secured funding for up to 10 years to cover all costs including the employment of a Local Beaver Officer would likely rule out several potential projects.  The licencing system must have realistic expectations of timescales and geographical range if applications are to be successful, and to ensure project costs aren’t too challenging.

Existing wild populations

Under the government’s suggested approach, all currently free living beavers in England would be permitted to remain, and would fall under the suggested management hierarchy (detailed below). We are pleased that DEFRA encourages existing wild living populations to remain, but would like to see support, funding and resources available for communities to mitigate any issues that may arise and so enable these colonies to expand successfully.

Current and future beaver enclosures

At the time of writing there are around 20 sites with beaver enclosures in England. Defra’s proposed approach would enable new sites to apply for enclosed trial licences, with stricter conditions. We would only envisage fences and enclosures being appropriate in a very limited number of situations, and only being required in the short to medium term, up until such time as wild beaver populations become fully re-established.

Legal protection

In May 2019 the Eurasian beaver was added to the Habitats Regulations in Scotland as a European Protected Species (EPS). In England, beavers are not yet afforded this level of protection but must be assigned it, as discussed in the consultation. If beavers were given EPS protection in England, this would mean some aspects of beaver management would require a licence – helping to protect the welfare and growth of colonies, whilst encouraging coexistence with people. DEFRA have suggested a ‘management hierarchy’ for this, which we largely agree with, however the wording needs to be accurate to avoid the risk of personal interpretation.

What next?

The consultation closes on 17th November 2021, and we would encourage you to participate. You are very welcome to contact us for impartial advice about completing the consultation or would like access to reports and studies on beaver ecology/ impacts to assist you.

In the meantime, we will be finalising our response to the consultation and continuing to speak with organisations and landowners about the return of the beaver, and how – with support – the future will be one where beavers and humans can thrive together.

In England, RSPB is a member of the Beaver Advisory Committee for England (BACE) and we are working with a consortium of organisations co-ordinated by the Beaver Trust. RSPB is also a key partner in the Cumbria Beaver Group. Find out more about RSPB’s involvement in returning the Eurasian beaver to Britain here.

– Heather Devey (heather.devey@rspb.org.uk)

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