Return of the wild beaver

Jean Beaufort
Wildlife campaigners welcome new legislation and call for a 'sensible' beaver re-introduction to British waterways.

Bringing back wild beavers isn’t just a dream, it is a critical part of addressing the climate and natural crises.

The UK Government has announced new legislation that will provide legal protections for beavers in England and could pave the way for the animals to be released into the wild under license.

The Wildlife Trusts has welcomed the protections for “nature’s engineers”, calling for sensible management guidance and incentives for landowners to make space for beavers on their land.

Beavers are key to creating thriving wetland ecosystems – which are critical for climate adaptation –and provide a wealth of benefits for nature and people. 

Uproar 

The government had promised the legislation would be laid in Parliament last month, but pulled the plug at the eleventh hour, causing uproar among nature charities and the wider public.

The change in legal status will make it an offence to deliberately capture, kill, disturb, or injure beavers, or damage their breeding sites or resting places, without holding the appropriate license. The legislation is scheduled to come into force in the autumn.

In parallel, Natural England is developing guidance on the management of beavers, setting out which actions will or will not require a license, and where people can go for advice.

Restoration 

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “We’re delighted to see the UK Government give beavers the vital protections they deserve.

"It is important that guidance is now developed quickly to bring farmers and landowners on board with reintroductions of these brilliant animals, providing reassurance and, crucially, incentives to make space for beavers on their land.

“The widespread return of wild beavers can be a game changer for restoring lost wetlands, benefitting all kinds of wildlife, and helping people by holding water back in the landscape, reducing the risk of wildfires, and reducing the risk of flooding downstream."

"Bringing back wild beavers isn’t just a dream, it is a critical part of addressing the climate and natural crises" he continued. 

Wetlands  

Beavers are a ‘keystone' species and have a highly positive impact on their environment.  The industrious herbivores are native to mainland Britain but were hunted to extinction in the 1700s by people who wanted their fur, meat, and scent glands.

The end of beavers led to the loss of the mosaic of lakes, meres, mires, tarns, and boggy places that they were instrumental in creating.

Harry Barton, the chief executive of Devon Wildlife Trust, said: “The legal framework must complement practical and sensible approaches to management.

"Landowners must also be given the right support and financial motivations to make space for beavers and the valuable wetlands they create.”

Ambitious

The Wildlife Trusts have urged the government to support ambitious and carefully targeted reintroduction projects, and reward landowners who make space for wetlands created by beavers. 

Bringing back wild beavers isn’t just a dream, it is a critical part of addressing the climate and natural crises.

Developing management systems that protect beavers and resolve issues effectively and support local beaver management groups to deliver advice and assistance is another key request made by the charity. 

Sandra King, chief executive of the Beaver Trust, said: "A huge relief for the restoration of beavers in England that the government have seen sense and that this is going ahead as planned.  

"We look forward to working with our colleagues in The Wildlife Trusts to welcome these fantastic ecosystem engineers back to our land as soon as possible."

Tools 

The Wildlife Trusts are at the forefront of beaver reintroductions in the UK and released a record number of beavers in 2021, with seventeen beavers released into fenced areas.

This came twenty years after Kent Wildlife Trust brought the first beavers back to Britain at Ham Fen near Sandwich in 2001.

In Scotland and Devon, Wildlife Trusts pioneered licensed trial releases of beavers into the wild, backed by extensive scientific research and strong partnerships, which demonstrated the many benefits of beavers and the most effective tools for managing them.

Success 

Due to the success of both trials, beavers have been allowed to remain and spread naturally in the River Otter catchment, Devon and in Knapdale, Scotland.

In July 2022, news of the birth of beaver kits was announced by Derbyshire, Cheshire and Dorset Wildlife Trusts at enclosed projects on nature reserves. There are now more than 20 wild beaver territories on the River Otter catchment, monitored by Devon Wildlife Trust.

Five kits arrived in 2022 to one of the original females in the River Otter Beaver Trial. The Welsh Beaver Project, led by Wildlife Trusts Wales, saw its first kit born at an enclosure on Cors Dyfi nature reserve. 

This author 

Yasmin Dahnoun is the assistant editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from The Wildlife Trusts.  

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