ECOS 40(6): The beaver’s tale

Ambushing the return of beavers

The beaver’s advocates and foes include occupants of leather benches of the highest authority in the land. Though protagonists such as the former Environment Secretary Michael Gove have influenced their prospects positively, other more devious characters, without stepping into the limelight, have acted in a less creditable fashion. Under their direct instruction the hounds of hysteria have been unleashed to create interdepartmental dogfights of such confusion that those caught up in the resultant whirlwind have been blinded.

It’s a cunning tactic. For a time it worked well. But times are changing.

In the dark depths of gamekeeping media medieval ignorance still lurks, while the blousy women from Edwardian country sets protest over pink gins that “beavers are just giant rats, darling”. Both camps are out of time. The old politics of land-use are no longer certain in a post-Brexit landscape. The money is draining away and despite a disappointing tendency for government to kow tow to the bullying beef of farmers, their past allies are now trotting off to seek the fresh fields of the future. The insistence of the NFU in its multifarious national forms that beavers must not be considered as a sustainable provider of flood management solutions when it is quite clear that they do is just plain stupid.

Tweedy anglers stridently insist that beaver generated environments pose insurmountable barriers to the migration of dwindling salmon stocks. This nonsense stems from a faith based on ignorance and fuelled by shrill canard. Even if it were credible, which given that Atlantic salmon and beavers have a 40 million year old relationship is unlikely, their view to deny beavers would be to deny the right for the complex ecosystems they create to refill to the brim with future life for a much larger guild of imperilled creatures. To water voles; to coarse fish; to otters; to lampreys; to amphibians; to insects; to eels; to vascular plants; to mosses; to bats; to birds. To migratory game fish. It would deny the ability of Nature to repair, to recover and to heal.

Back to the future

Our land remembers the beavers. At a recent meeting to consider yet another fenced beaver trial a site manager from the Peak District flagged up a remarkable image. In a wet valley mire on a stream called the Barbrook he showed us unwittingly a beaver generated landscape. The ‘bar’ came from Old Saxon for beaver and although they may have outlived those times in the sunken valley they remain nevertheless now – long gone. What is not long gone is the amazing, intricate warp of the pattern they left of their dams. A multiplicity of bell-shaped structures, bowl like depressions on a meandering stream system in a sheep shorn-naked, treeless environment.

According to the site manager when the brook is in spate these structures still fill rapidly and completely with water. Here is a case of beavers still slowing the flow perhaps 600 years after their deaths.

Beaver custodians?

We have killed beavers for so long it’s normal. The ancients understood them better. Clearer than us with greater purity. In Iran beavers were known as water dogs. It was believed that their death would result in drought and that the corn and grass would not grow until the killer was punished. A fine of 60,000 dirhems and an obligation to kill 10,000 snakes and tortoises to compensate for their sin was required.

There have been no 21st century fines to date for their assassins in Scotland. As I write in Autumn 2019 their theoretical guardians in government are preparing to sign more official death warrants to placate the wrath of the high priests of the potato.

Return of the beaver – where are we now?

The reintroduction of beavers to Britain was once a pipe dream advocated by a tiny band of evangelicals. It is now being supported quite publically by politicians for ecosystem resilience. Beavers have emerging allies everywhere. The considerable body of modern scientific study which surrounds the species indicates quite clearly that their beneficial impact upon biodiversity, water purification, carbon storage, flood and drought alleviation is considerable. The mild mannered and considered ecologist Kent Woodruff from the Methow Valley Beaver Project in Washington State describes them as “a natural force”. Without them and the landscapes they create whole ecosystems desiccate, complete species guilds disappear and ancient relationships wither and waste.

As we survey the ruination of our once rich natural environment and balk at the magnitude of its costly desecration, beavers offer a positive way forward. As social unease mounts worldwide at the level and speed of ecological devastation, the obvious need to restore their return more than that of any other lost species offers an elemental, precious, fragile commodity.

Early plodding progress in Scotland     

In 2009 after more than a decade of rancorous debate and the political sabotage of the first attempt in 2007, a licence for the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, Argyll was approved by the new Scottish National Party executive. The project proved that beavers manipulate  trees and don’t build dams on lochs. The Knapdale landscape was dislocated in the sense that the water bodies the beavers were introduced into did not easily allow them to move freely to meet new mates. As a result when they bred many of the two year olds migrating out of their natal families went out into the Irish Sea and an uncertain fate. Although reinforcement of this population with captive bred and wild captured individuals from elsewhere is now underway, its future would without exceptional event have remained unclear. How could this have happened?

Scottish Natural Heritage and its partner organisations contorted themselves into hernias in their efforts to placate a tiny number of grumpy opponents who despite three public consultation exercises demonstrating widespread support for beaver restoration were determined that their flimsy minority view should prevail. A simpering willingness to appease the unappeasable – a familiar nature conservation psalm – ensured the events that followed. Although much better connected habitat existed elsewhere in Scotland, Knapdale as a trial was a politically acceptable location. Initially at least no substantial reinforcement of numbers to ensure the successful survival of an establishing beaver population was allowed and a burdensome bureaucratic process of decision making was designed to ensure that nothing moved faster than a glacier.

Stasis in England and Wales

In England despite a Natural England commissioned study in 2009 which recommended that beavers should be reintroduced, nothing happened other than independent, enclosed populations being formed by private individuals or organisations. While the earliest in the Kent Wildlife Trust’s Ham Fen Nature Reserve was required to have a licence this burden faded for a time when it was revealed by the promoters of another enclosed project in the Cotswold Water Park that Defra had no legal basis to seek a licence. Defra had to publish three public apologies for threatening his venture. In Wales despite another independent study commissioned by the then Countryside Council for Wales a process of consultation which began in 2003 has achieved less than nothing to date.   

Beaver uprisings

Then everything changed. Beavers from elsewhere sprung an unexpected surprise.

In Scotland on the River Tay in the east populations of Eurasian beavers appeared and began to breed in increasing numbers. Being on main river systems, these easily spread out to colonise every main stem of the catchment. The initial official response was to exterminate these interlopers but this approach swiftly capitulated when people opposed this action and the media noise was sympathetic to the beavers. The Tayside Beaver Study Group was formed from the local interest, and surveys were undertaken of the beavers’ distribution and numbers. Worthy committees pondered their fate. In the end in May 2019 the Tay and Knapdale populations were awarded the right by the Scottish Government Executive to remain while a tiny population elsewhere on the River Beauly in the north was captured to demonstrate ministerial commitment of “no more populations elsewhere” to assuage farmers.

Most of the captured animals from Beauly died. Bedraggled, pitiful martyrs extracted from a landscape where they were doing no harm. To please a politician and an industrial lobby.   

It is now possible that the expanding Tayside population will soon meet the Knapdale beavers on the west coast. Although beavers exist on other Scottish river systems the current official policy is that no further populations will be allowed or licenced which are not part of a process of natural dispersal. Scottish Natural Heritage after a tight steer from ministers has agreed that this is reasonable and that as beavers now exist in Scotland in a population which demonstrates “good conservation status” (at a rough estimate of c.500) that this species protected throughout the European Union should be shot in sole response. At a recent beaver symposium at Battleby the presentation from the Cairngorms National Park on their beaver reintroduction strategy was titled ‘Ready, Steady Wait’. This pretty much summed up the cumulative voice of the independent nature conservation sector. No pushing against this foolery, no alternative plan, no drive, no ambition.

SNH points out that the lethal control of beavers is a legitimate population management tool but elsewhere such as Bavaria beavers are present in every major water course. They are tolerated in farmlands where possible and enjoyed by people in villages, towns and cities. For years beaver managers avoided culls by shipping thousands of surplus individuals to vacant habitats in countries such as Croatia, Rumania, Hungary and Belgium. But when there is no option left they do kill, but under licence by approved beaver managers. Reluctantly and without rancour.  

A not so quiet revolution in Devon

On the River Otter in Devon more or less the same situation as the Tay arose in 2014 when interested observers filmed adult beavers with kits feeding on the river bank. Owen Patterson the then Secretary of State for the Environment at the behest of a single letter from the Angling Trust after seeking the views of no other organisation agreed swiftly that they should all be killed. Press and local opposition to this was such that within a week this position was rescinded to one whereby they would be caught and contained in Zoos. Zoo homes proved hard to find and opposition rose. Moving public meetings attended by hundreds of individuals from all backgrounds were held. Parish councillors, car salesmen and shopkeepers met to discuss. Farmers spoke in support of the beavers’ retention and refused access to their land to government trappers. Voices never heard, never previously listened to in secret land-use debates sounded strident and clear. In the end they became overwhelming when the people spoke: the young and old, poor and rich, landed and landless all combined to say no.

Politicians then leant their effusive support and when a change of Environment Minister occurred, Devon Wildlife Trust was granted a licence for a five year study trial. That project is now over and its conclusions are broadly the same as Knapdale. It shows that beavers can with a degree of intervention live in a British natural environment without significant issues for the landscape’s features and structures.

The force of nature – a calling

As I write this essay on a sun-strobed porch over-looking an agricultural landscape of cornfields, hedges and scattered oak woodlands I know that down deep in the valley beneath there are beavers. On a gravel pit to the east is a lodge. On its exit stream many dams. In England, Wales and Scotland despite the inertia of the weak conservation agencies, in defiance of their failure, beavers are coming back. They have many more supporters now than enemies. In all classes and walks of life people, landowners, farmers, field-sportsmen, fishermen, friends are prepared to assist. Without government action to exterminate on a landscape-scale these free-living populations combined with enclosed trial sites are likely to both expand and endure. As courage gathers, other much larger official releases may occur in time to ensure their successful return. The restoration of beavers to a river system near you, wherever you may be in Britain, is likely to be a case of when rather than whether it happens at all.  

One teenage girl speaking at a consultation meeting on the River Otter gave the most moving presentation I have ever heard about beavers. She expressed her hope for a better future with recovering nature which had been inspired by the beavers which were living at the bottom of her grandmother’s garden and felling her shrubs. At a time when the Amazon is burning and the last Malayan rhino stands dull in a concrete cell waiting for no more than death, her simple words epitomised the reality that returning the beaver to Britain is the right and just thing to do.  


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Cite:

Gow, Derek “ECOS 40(6): The beaver’s tale” ECOS vol. 40(6), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-406-the-beavers-tale/.

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