“Shoot beavers if they spoil our fishing, urge anglers” says Times article

David Parkyn - David Parkyn, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

A response to an article in the Times which tries to dredge up old stereotypes, pitting anglers against conservationists. We discuss the reality of the relationships shared in most catchments today.

Written by Martin De Retuerto, Director of Conservation Projects & Services

On the divisive article published by the Times on Saturday 20th February an apparent conflict was aired where undoubtedly there shouldn’t be one. Regarding chalk streams and the potential for beavers to return to these catchments the article sought to revive old stereotypes of conservationists v anglers, Ford v Ferrari, Bugs Bunny v Elmer Fudd (it was this sensationalist) and did not represent the typical relationships shared in most catchments today. 

The article drew upon a single case study of a new, enclosed beaver introduction into a chalk headwater as a basis to declare that the enjoyment of one’s ‘amenity rights’ would be imperilled. Without reference to peer reviewed science on the effect on fisheries or objective debate from anglers experienced in beaver presence, the article presented the assumption that chalk streams are different and inflexible to the uncertainty from an animal that has the potential to manipulate its environment . Of course, this draws the question of what a beaver might present to the hallowed aesthetic that we’ve come to expect of our chalk streams. 

We have been here before. The recovery (and reintroduction) of the otter on the River Itchen 30 years ago, was derided by a faction that didn’t represent the majority of riparian owners or fishery managers and sought to perpetuate views that a more natural chalk river was incompatible with the way one should manage a river [exclusively for] for game fishing and at the instruction of those in ownership or paying for the privilege. 

As the reality and greater understanding of otter ecology was proven we moved to new debates and divisions; river restoration and how far to go, woody debris, bankside grazing, single bank fishing, removal of impounding structures and more recently wild catch and release fisheries. 

Otter in a river

Otter © Luke Massey/2020VISION

Frustratingly, I have listened to opposition over the years from a minority of anglers who have used salmonid conservation as the reason not to question changes to the status quo. Such a minority, often with certain veto benefits have done a disservice to the knowledge and contribution of some exceptional anglers and riverkeepers, who I personally have learnt much from on chalk stream ecology. 

Often these arguments are as clear as the gin-clear metaphor associated with chalk streams, in that they are a distraction from the real fear of losing management control, a change to the visual aesthetic or indeed damage to the economic model driving the fishery. This further helps to perpetuate the romantic notion pedalled by one or two angling writers that chalk streams have been ‘bent to the will of man’, an accomplishment they revere.  

The reality against the backdrop of this article is that most fishery associations and Environmental NGOs, riparian owners and others find more common ground than that which divides them. There are effective partnerships as a result, tackling the many acute challenges facing chalk streams. The pioneering of river restoration techniques, particularly on the Hampshire/Wiltshire Avon is a case in point, where forward thinking approaches have been spearheaded by anglers and NGOs in partnership. 

Split level of the River Itchen © Linda Pitkin/2020 VISION

Split level of the River Itchen © Linda Pitkin/2020 VISION

Things are catching up on the Test and Itchen but a minority of old habits and views die hard. Articles such as the Times piece help to legitimise resistance of the need for change. It risks setting partnerships back on bigger issues such as acute levels of phosphate & sediment pollution, abstraction and climate change. 

If beavers were to one day return to our chalk rivers outside of enclosures, I hope that it would be as a result of recognising that our chalk streams are in peril now. As some continue to cry down the debate and disrupt decisions that take the long-term view, we all continue to rearrange the deck chairs on the proverbial Titanic. It's that bad, but those that properly understand the problem with their rivers, or indeed the financial viability of their fishery, probably do not see beavers as the problem. The beaver is not the elephant in the room. 

Leadership is desperately needed and openness to a courteous and objective debate that draws upon both robust science and practical expertise. A debate is needed where the presumed benefits to fisheries (and ecology) is the hypothesis and not the presumed damage. 

The Wildlife Trusts, Beaver Trust and others are working with government to set out a nationwide beaver strategy. There has always been the call for a management framework to be adopted and resourced. In the same way that it’s expected a farmer should be supported through stewardship schemes for the presence of beavers on their land, the same should apply to other riparian managers. Costs, as well as benefits, should be shared by all at a catchment level. This will come to be particularly pertinent on chalk catchments where modelling data suggest that their numbers would not be as prolific and animals more localised. 

In the Times article James Wallace, Director of the Beaver Trust, outlines many of the beneficial points to fisheries as to why an open minded and not fearful view is needed. This perhaps should encourage the reader to focus on the bigger picture, including that of climate resilience and water quality. The headline perhaps exposes the writer’s bias and steers the debate away from the real story. 

Of course, beavers will pose challenges as river managers learn and adapt. But this is a time to think about the future and the next generation of beneficiaries, anglers and conservationists alike. No beaver project is likely to proceed without consultation and genuine desire to build partnerships. This is the time to look back at how far partnerships between anglers and conservationists have come and what we have achieved together to the tune of ever-updating ‘new norms’. The beaver in chalk catchments should be part of this trajectory. 

beavers - Clare James, Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Beaver - Clare James, Cornwall Wildlife Trust