A new era for beavers

© David Parkyn/ Cornwall Wildlife Trust

A quiet wildlife renaissance is happening, spearheaded by an animal that once defined the entire function of our wetlands and waterways. Hunted to extinction for its pelt in the 16th century we have forgotten how to live alongside this ecosystem engineer or indeed how to enjoy the benefits they provide to modern society. But their quiet return to many waterways and enclosed sites has caused a chain reaction with a groundswell of public support, and wildlife is showing a remarkable recovery.

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For many years our approach to river restoration has been guided by the principle of ‘What MUST be done, not what can be done’. We haven’t shied away from questioning the status quo, where perceptions and practices have often prevented the natural recovery or sustainable futures for our celebrated rivers and wetlands in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight.

Having known the problems facing our rivers for many years and worked tirelessly to protect them, we now find ourselves at a tipping point for their future resilience and the wildlife they support. Both science and our own experiences upholds the fact that we are in a climate and biodiversity crisis. To our horror, as a nation, we warrant the title of being one of the most nature depleted countries on earth. There is no doubt that had it not been for the determined efforts of conservationists and many others, the state of play would be far worse.

However, we’re now seeing the signs of a positive, new surge of determination to bring about nature’s recovery. Bottom up, with overwhelming public support for a bold vision, it is giving the conservation NGO’s the confidence take forward this mandate. Protection is a given but we’re entering an era driven by restoration.

Beaver - Nick Upton, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Beaver - Nick Upton, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Through our Missing Species Programme we’re looking at our two counties in the form of an incomplete jigsaw; one which has a glaring omission and a piece which underpins so much of the picture for our wetlands; the beaver – an animal that helps to put nature back in charge of its own recovery.

Who would have thought that the flagbearer for the conservation movement would be an industrious semi-aquatic rodent? Yet our two counties our strangely behind the curve in terms of efforts to establish new beaver populations. The science and experience from Europe, and within the UK, makes a case for support that sees the return of this missing species to our waterways as something that MUST be done. The many previous arguments against doing so are gradually being exposed as untenable or easily addressed.

Critically the evidence is clear that the beaver will help to address the impacts of climate change, both during times of drought and during periods of flooding. The complex habitats they construct mitigate the effect of diffuse pollution, while the abundance of wildlife, including fish, is substantially enhanced. Carbon storage in rejuvenated wetland habitats is also accelerated.

Beaver © David Parkyn, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

David Parkyn - David Parkyn, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust is not wavering in its enthusiasm to return the beaver to the two counties. Exeter University, national experts in beaver research, have been commissioned to lead a feasibility study looking at the Isle Wight, with a particular focus on the Trust’s Newchurch Moors nature reserve.

The published report by Devon Wildlife Trust on the findings of their five-year River Otter beaver trial is timed perfectly. A comprehensive and wide-ranging study the report is an enticing read. The evidence supporting socio-economic and wide-ranging wildlife benefits is robust, while pre-held concerns about beaver impacts, particularly to fisheries have been adequately addressed or disproven. For example, flood risk reduction through the presence of beaver dams (1 million litres of water retained across 13 dams) significantly reducing the energy from peak flows. Fish populations in beaver pools 37% higher while brown trout numbers were greater in beaver modified reaches (up and down stream). No impacts on fish migration was detected. This is of course only a five-year study, but the wealth of evidence both scientific, practical and anecdotal across Europe mirrors the findings from Devon. Much of Europe has a head start on the UK in that an entire generation there has grown up knowing the presence of beaver as a normal occurrence.

Beaver - Nick Upton, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Beaver - Nick Upton, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

In preparation for our own Trust’s journey much evidence gathering and discussions with experts from across Europe and north America has been sought. We are pursuing this with our eyes open and with plans to engage all people with an interest or who may play a role in managing the effects of beavers.

A recent fact finding trip to the Cornwall Beaver Project provided an eye-opening and inspiring insight into the effects and benefits that may be acquired from introducing the beaver into a waterway. A partnership with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and hosted by dairy farmer Chris Jones, this opportunity also helped to ‘test’ some of the perceptions surrounding the objections to beaver introduction. Chris, the perfect host and generous with his time, is also part of the new and effective Beaver Trust, who are working with a network of beaver projects, practitioners and policy advocates to see the widespread return of the beaver to the country.

Although part of an enclosed trial and occupying approximately 200m of waterway, Chris has nearly four-years of close observation to draw upon while also being conscious of managing a busy farm enterprise alongside. It is clear that Chris grows with enthusiasm and resolve each day as he learns from his beaver’s pursuits, which is enabling engagement with farmers, landowners and community groups across England.

David Parkyn - David Parkyn/ Cornwall Wildlife Trust

David Parkyn - David Parkyn/ Cornwall Wildlife Trust

From our perspective seeing how the beavers had transformed a two hectare site in less than four-years was probably the most impactful thing we’d witnessed. A narrow -headwater stream, unremarkable in character and unable to retain water in drought conditions, had been transformed into a complex of terraced wetland habitats, bypassed by a series of newly created streams. At the upstream end the main beaver pool was ‘popping’ with fish rising to an early morning hatch of midges. A few chiffchaffs joined in with the feeding frenzy above the water. The intermediate terraces were reverting into an interesting mix of tall rushes and swamp, while the lower end returned to faster flowing stream with riffles.

It was clear to see how the series of habitats were consolidating sediment and nutrients received via the river from land management far afield. It was being recycled into the new habitats and cleansed before the crystal-clear water discharge at the downstream end. These were sustained by the engineering feat demonstrated by their dam building, which compartmentalised each habitat terrace. Chris pointed out how early neolithic settlers must have learned the physics and engineering principles from the beaver's construction habits. There can be no doubt in this.

The observations in Cornwall drew much comparison to the Trust’s aspirations for the Isle of Wight, but also drew thought to the chalk streams of the mainland. It provided complete context to how beaver activity might transform and ultimately sustain these heralded waterways. For our chalkstreams, the impact from abstraction and diffuse pollution is causing an acute web of problems and the beaver could be the heavy artilary from the armoury; something in the tool kit that can support the shared interests of landowners, town residents and conservationists at a catchment level.

beavers - Clare James, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Beaver - Clare James, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

As the River Otter Trial has been clear with, a beaver introduction should be supported by some system of management response and parallel engagement. This is common pace in Europe and ensures that the few problems that arise can quickly be dealt with. It is clear that river managers would need to learn how to work and live alongside beavers and that this should be supported. The new Agriculture Bill is a wonderful opportunity to incentivise farmers to embrace the marginal impact of beavers as part of the ‘public money for public goods’.

But it will be the many knowledgeable and practically excellent river keepers in Hampshire who have the skills to rise to the challenge and become the beaver’s biggest ambassador. The cultural heritage of our rivers, especially the chalk streams, shouldn’t be seen as a reason not to look to the future. The climate crisis coupled with the acute problems of diffuse pollution means thinking bolder and taking control of the problem. The beaver is available for bookings and the public are giving it a voice as part of a wildlife renaissance.