Beavers can help Britain fight the climate crisis – if we welcome them back

Beavers can help Britain fight the climate crisis – if we welcome them back

On Saturday 1 October, something remarkable happened. The Eurasian beaver was officially recognised as both a “native” and a “protected” species under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. In England, that means it is now illegal to deliberately kill, injure, or capture the world’s second largest rodent, or disturb their dams, lodges or burrows without a licence.

Essentially, the change is legislative wordplay, yet anyone with half an ear to the ground is heaving a sigh of relief. Instead of being classed as “no longer normally present” on the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, beavers are now “native”, placing them alongside the barn owl and the corncrake. Beavers in England join their Scottish cousins in the filing cabinet of animals under special protection – populations of which have been classified as European Protected Species (EPS) since 2019.

The decision follows a period of relentless campaigning across the environmental sector. The British public too, appear to be brandishing the beaver banner. More than 60% of people support beaver reintroductions. The fact is beavers are the hottest story in conservation, streaking ahead of the wolf and lynx in popularity. And we shouldn’t be surprised. Before they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century, Britain had beavers in many of its rivers. Had we engaged in a dawn promenade along the medieval River Avon, we wouldn’t have looked twice at a dismembered willow and its woodchip confetti, telltale signs of beavers at large.

Beavers are a keystone species, which means they exert a disproportionately important effect on the larger ecosystem. They engineer abundant river systems, the likes of which we haven’t seen for a lifetime. Studies show that active beaver wetlands can welcome up to a third more species across the food chain, compared to wetlands without beavers.

Established dams, complex living structures themselves, function as in-situ water filters, removing some pollution before the river reaches the sea. Dams slow the peak flow rate, absorbing and lessening the impacts of high water during flood events.

It’s plain to see why we’d want beavers to return in numbers and resuscitate our failing river systems. But this announcement isn’t a permit offering beavers free rein in British wetlands. For organisations such as the Beaver Trust and the Wildlife Trusts, wild releases of beavers in every English river is certainly the ultimate goal, but we are not there yet. Beavers will remain in enclosures for the foreseeable future while we await vital legislative action to accommodate them.

For beavers to restore Britain’s rivers to the humming, climate-resilient landscapes they must be, we need space alongside rivers, and we need more beavers to work within them. Landowners across the country are worried about the impact that these creatures will have on their land. Their dams and corresponding raised water levels can trigger undesired (albeit small-scale) flooding in nearby fields. But there are well-established methods for mitigating these conflicts. With the government’s help, coexistence is a reality we should come to expect and even embrace.

The government’s current licensing approach for beaver management activities (released in early September this year), although welcome, fails to offer the transparency and guidance needed to support landowners with beaver reintroduction at scale. Beavers will continue to be released into fenced enclosures until there is an ambitious national strategy in place to support their expansion.

The decision to protect beavers is welcome and overdue. But is it enough? It feels as though the government would prefer to continue to return beavers to England via discrete reintroduction projects managed by keen landowners and NGOs, versus an ecological inauguration as keystone residents of the river. The government should acknowledge the benefits beavers promise, and take the steps along our riverbanks needed to reintroduce them, while reassuring landowners, farmers, and others affected that future projects will be supported financially.

We need a timeline on wild releases and associated management programmes that is decisive, honest and adhered to. Looking to Scotland, we need a government-funded programme to establish and coordinate “beaver management groups” across catchments. We need a system of financial support that will encourage farmers and landowners to make space for rivers in the form of buffer zones: minimising the interaction between beavers and people, and maximising ecological dynamism.

A courageous approach makes political sense, falling in step with the 25-year environment plan and the target for nature’s restoration in the Environment Act 2021. And yet Beaver Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and other organisations remain concerned.

This year’s record-shattering heatwave and drought demonstrated the value of beavers in a world gripped by the climate crisis. A viral aerial photo of a beaver wetland in east Devon managed by Clinton Devon Estates showed a defiant wedge of verdant life. The beaver-tended land was still green amid a sea of desiccated farmland. Some may see an unnerving blurring of lines, or environmental disarray. Others may see an uncomfortable truth. But allow yourself to glimpse a more ecologically diverse and resilient England. We must see beavers as an integral part of shaping it.

This article by Sophie Pavelle was first published by The Guardian on 11 October 2022. Lead Image: A beaver in the River Otter in Devon. Photograph: Nick Upton/Alamy.

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