This post is from Claire Hamlett. She is a writer focused on human and wildlife co-existence. She tweets @HamlettClaire and blogs at All These Puny Sorrows. Whilst this article talks about the political leadership required in the restoration of beavers to the wild we recognise that the COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented challenge for all of us and is naturally taking up most of the attention of ministers and government departments right now.

Beaver. Photo credit: Paul Stevenson.

When Devon Wildlife Trust and the University of Exeter released the report of their five-year beaver reintroduction trial in February, the newspapers filled up with stories repeating the report’s key message: that beavers are hugely beneficial to other wildlife and, for the most part, to people. The case for bringing beavers back to the wild in Britain seemed to have been made, and with huge public support for their reintroduction, there was an air of optimism among commentators that the government is poised to approve wild reintroductions in the near future.

But what will this mean in practice? There are already wild-living beavers in England and Scotland, but these populations are small and will take decades to grow significantly given the slow reproduction rates of beavers. Yet Britain could do with a lot of these animals. We are a severely nature-depleted land that is increasingly susceptible to intensifying floods and droughts due to climate change. As the Devon trial has amply shown, these animals are an environmental Swiss Army knife. Alone, they cannot solve every ecological ill, but there is nothing else in our toolbox that can so rapidly bring about some of the changes our landscapes sorely need.

‘Something that struck me is that although lots is happening around the beaver space, all of it is being done by NGOs and private landowners, and generally well-heeled landowners,’ says Chris Jones. He has been living with beavers on his farm since 2017 in the Cornwall Wildlife Trust trial and is on the management team of the Beaver Trust. ‘What this amounts to is piecemeal direct action.’

He worries that this will continue to be the case even if licenses for wild releases become available. Although there has been a surge in applications for enclosed reintroductions recently, particularly from those wealthy landowners Jones mentioned, it is not a given that granting licenses for wild releases would add up to enough to bring the beaver back at a substantial scale at speed. Furthermore, it may not be the best approach to ensure that large-scale reintroduction is actually a success. So, what are some of the obstacles standing in the way?

‘Small thinking’

Reintroductions into enclosures have so far involved small numbers of beavers – only a pair or two. According to Derek Gow, an ecologist who has worked on several beaver reintroduction trials, the scope of wild reintroduction licenses looks like it will be equally limited. ‘It’s British small thinking,’ he says. ‘We’re not good at taking action at scale.’

This means that even if there is an uptick in the number of applications for licenses should wild release ones become available, there may simply be too few beavers scattered about in the wild to bring about substantial change.

‘If you want the beaver to retain water for dry seasons or to hold water back in heavy rains, you should start with lots of beavers, not just a family,’ says Gerhard Schwab, who is one of two ‘beaver managers’ in Bavaria, Germany, there to oversee the management of the region’s wild beavers. ‘The problem is if you just have a few beavers here and there you don’t have much results. If you released not two families but thirty families in the area, you’ll have completely different results.’ But this doesn’t mean we should necessarily be conducting further trials involving more beavers, as it is already known what beavers do to the landscape. ‘Politically it might make sense to do trials, but you won’t learn anything new,’ says Schwab. Moreover, we could always look to close neighbours such as Germany and the Netherlands for some further insights into what happens when there are many beavers living wild.

Licensing difficulties

There is no guarantee that licenses for wild releases would be getting handed out left and right once they become available. Gow points out that obtaining a license, even for release into an enclosure, is not for the faint of heart. ‘What it means is, you the applicant have to find the beavers and come up with a beaver management plan,’ he says. ‘It’s a bloody hard thing to do.’ Gaining approval can be a slow and bureaucratic process. Both Gow and Jones suggest that having money and time are a great help for the would-be beaver warden.

Risk of conflict

In Scotland, the beaver has been granted protected status, yet farmers are able to obtain licenses to shoot them if they are finding them to be a nuisance. Ecologists and conservationists like Gow and Jones are opposed to this means of control, as there are other ways to mitigate and manage damage caused by beavers, including translocation as a last resort. In Bavaria, for instance, legal protections of beaver habitat, a compensation scheme for farmers and landowners, and the presence of a ‘beaver consultant’ in each district to deliver swift and practical help to landowners troubled by beavers, ensures more harmonious co-existence. Schwab explains that the beaver consultants are now called rarely, as the farmers learned how to implement measures such as ‘beaver deceivers’, where a pipe is fed through a beaver dam to reduce local flooding, on their own. Not all of these measures can be provided by NGOs alone, and may put effective management of wild beavers beyond the means of even well-resourced landowners.

But minimising conflict must begin at an even earlier stage in the process. Problems can arise in communities if beavers are reintroduced to the wild without the proper engagement of other people in the process from the beginning. Based on findings from studying Scottish beaver reintroductions, a recent paper in People and Nature argues that ‘reintroduction processes require engagement in effective discussions which involve all actual and potential stakeholders to agree on broad and long‐term conservation plans at the landscape scale.’ It is not a given that NGOs and landowners who wish to release beavers into the wild will be in a position to carry out this kind of work and, as the study found, there can be trust issues between conservation groups and farmers. Leaving reintroductions up to NGOs and individuals thus also risks the government responding to conflicts in politically expedient but ecologically damaging ways, as is the case with it being legal to shoot beavers (with a license) in Scotland.

Beaver deceiver being assembled. Photo credit: Alex Derr.

Sourcing beavers

Beavers for new enclosed trials starting this year are being translocated from Scotland. But although there is a burgeoning wild population there, ensuring genetic diversity could become a problem if most beavers released in England or Wales in the future were to come from the same place. Though beavers are much more numerous in Europe (there are at least 23,000 in Bavaria alone), there is a risk that imported beavers could be carrying the dangerous tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis, which can spread to dogs and humans and is not present in the UK.

Why beaver reintroductions need political leadership

These hurdles are far from insurmountable. What is lacking at the moment is political leadership around bringing beavers back to the wild in Britain. ‘There is no apparent vision within government for the restoration of this species,’ says Jones. ‘And my contention is that if you don’t have a vision you cannot have a strategy.’ The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan only mentions ‘providing opportunities for reintroduction of species such as beavers’. This is hardly reaching the levels of ambition warranted by how beneficial beavers are to the environment.

If government were to seize the opportunity presented by beaver reintroduction, to take charge of it and lead the way forward, this could go some way to addressing the issues outlined above. This is partly because it would then allow agencies such as Natural England, Defra, and the Environment Agency to earmark pots of money to fund the work that needs doing to ensure wild beaver reintroductions are a success, including adopting similar management and mitigation measures to the ones used in Bavaria. Compensation schemes and legislation to protect beaver habitat in particular cannot be done without government action, and these would help significantly with reducing potential burdens on farmers and other landowners who would be learning to co-exist with beavers but would not themselves seek to reintroduce them locally.

Sourcing beavers from beyond Scotland also requires the government to actively seek to expand the beaver population in the UK. A blood test can determine whether a beaver is carrying the tapeworm found in Europe and treatments are available for it, but the expense of doing this, along with complications caused by Brexit, creates hurdles that can only be overcome by political will. Without this intervention, the number of wild beavers in the UK will remain relatively small and will take a long time to spread throughout the country.

But perhaps the biggest reason that political leadership is needed is because of the sheer urgency and acuteness of the climate and ecological crises we are in. The government has a responsibility to protect communities from flooding, for instance, and is doubling the flood defence budget to £5.2billion do so. Yet beavers are absent from its plans, despite being known to successfully reduce large-scale flooding, and doing so at a fraction of the cost of other flood defence mechanisms, even if training beaver consultants were included in the expenses. This is not to say that no other defences should be employed as well. But why leave out beavers, which simultaneously bring other great benefits too, such as their creation of biodiverse wetland habitats? ‘I just suspect that at government level, no one has done the costing,’ says Jones.

It is hard to think of another means of restoring ecosystems, storing carbon, and reducing the impacts of extreme weather with so many pluses and so few drawbacks – which can managed with the right mechanisms in place – as beavers. This is, as Jones puts it, ‘a good news story’ for Britain. Now we just need enough government ministers to recognise it as one.