Lucy Jones, with art by Phoebe Christian
The reintroduction of Beavers to our UK waters brings with it the promise of boosting diversity in our wetland habitats, reinvigorating local populations of freshwater species and reducing flood risks to towns downstream of dams. Wetlands habitats are also natural carbon sinks and they are vital for slowing the process of climate change. The return of this charismatic rodent is being heralded by conservationists as a new, natural and cost-effective attempt at restoring the UK’s wildlife biodiversity, whilst also being a method used to mitigate the impact of natural disasters and flood risks increasingly experienced in the UK. The successful return of these lovable creatures signals a new age in rewilding and conservation methods used in the UK, however, it also introduces a broader debate regarding the reintroduction of species and rewilding as a whole. Specifically, is reintroduction for the individual species or the ecosystem and is rewilding more for the benefit of humans than the animals?
The UK saw Beavers go extinct in the 16th century, driven by humans hunting them for their fur, meat and scent glands. With their decline came the loss of fundamental wetland habitats engineered by their dam building, including mosaic lakes, meres, mires, tarns and boggy wetlands. River ecosystems rely on beavers to remove old or dead trees along a riverbank to encourage new and healthier tree growth. In turn, the beavers build dams which divert the waterflow in rivers, leading to the creation of new wetlands which provide a variety of animals and plants with a habitat to then thrive in. The essential role beavers play in shaping their environment means they are referred to as a keystone species. Without them, their ecosystem fails to adapt to environmental change and gradually becomes unrecognizable from what it once was. Thus, the ecosystem beavers are being reintroduced in UK today will be significantly different to what their ancestors left behind 600 odd years ago.
Beaver populations have been being established all over the UK over the past 2 decades. Wild or “illegally” introduced populations of beavers have been thriving since the early 2000s, with one population of over 200 beavers being recorded along the banks of the River Tay in 2001. From these small and secluded pirate populations, breeding pairs have been relocated along banks all over Britain, with the UK Wildlife Trust managing reintroductions of beavers to over 15 different sites. In 2009 beavers were released in a trial area of 44 square kilometers and monitored over the course of 5 years in Knapdale forest, Argyll. This population became fully established and now has over 300 individuals ranging across the reserve. The success of the trial led to the decision of the Scottish government to allow beavers to remain in Scotland and in 2019 they were granted official legal protection. Other reintroductions of beavers followed this victory, with locations ranging as far north as Lowther Estate in Cumbria to as south as Knepp Castle Estate in Sussex.
The impacts of the addition of beavers to various environments have been stark, as seen in the case of The River Otter, Devon. Since their reintroduction, the beaver populations have created dams and ditches, encouraging the formation of new wetland areas. This has reduced flooding of local farmland whilst also improving water quality as wetlands filter silt and harmful biochemicals from agricultural run-off. As a result of this improved water quality, sightings of river species such as otters and kingfishers sky-rocketed in numbers. New wetlands cropping up also increase the capacity of carbon sequestration in within the area as they act as carbon sinks, contributing to the mitigation of climate change.
Despite the numerous positive impacts beavers can have in the places they are reintroduced to; their return has faced opposition from various different stakeholders. Concerns regarding the impact of beaver presence on fish populations and flooding are often the first to crop up, with the National board for UK Fisheries releasing a statement saying they strongly opposed all future reintroduction attempts for fear of damage to fish populations in local fisheries. Beavers are herbivores and feed on plants and shrubbery, so pose no threat to fish populations.
Other criticism exists not just in landowners and farmers but from conservationists, challenging rewilding as a conservation technique. Critics highlighted the debate between rewilding and reintroduction as being concerned with the interest of the individual or the ecosystem as a whole. Reintroduction of species which had been previously hunted to extinction could mean placing the species in the same situation which led to its demise before. In Scotland, licenses have already been given out to over 35 landowners by Nature Scot, in response to beavers being blamed for increased flooding and crop damage. So far, 115 beavers have been shot and killed along the River Tay and a further 85 beavers trapped and moved to other locations. Should it be okay to continue to introduce a species solely to improve the health of an ecosystem when they themselves still face hunting pressure from the same species driving their reintroduction?
This brings with it another question, is it morally right to introduce an animal to a habitat in order to rectify problems caused by humans in the first place? Rewilding is defined as a method to conserve and restore current ecosystems to protect and sustain rich biodiversity for future communities. Yet this definition portrays the natural world as something which only deserves to be conserved for the health of humans, not specifically the animals themselves.
The reintroduction of beavers provides a vast array of benefits to the species in the ecosystems they shape. But is this only realized in light of the more long-term benefits this will have on humans, such as reduced flooding risks and increased numbers of wetlands acting as carbon sinks?
The reintroduction of beavers to the UK is an exciting new development in conservation methods. The widespread success has seen reduced risks of flooding further downstream of reintroduction sites, improved water quality and beneficial effects on other wetland species such as otter and kingfisher populations. This success is clear and generally their reintroduction has been well received, despite backlash from landowners and farmers regarding crop damage. Their return has opened up a broader debate on the growing trend of rewilding and the ethics driving its objectives, challenging whether it is the beaver’s priorities we are more concerned with, or our own as humans.
For now at least, both humans and beavers are thriving in their newly shared habitats, and hopefully beavers will continue to expand their reign of wetlands across the rest of the UK.