Separating fact from fiction: beavers in the UK

With the beaver release in Cornwall, it’s easy to believe that the species is back in Britain for good, but much needs to be done to secure its future, says Derek Gow.

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Beavers were recently introduced to Cornwall

Beavers were recently introduced to Cornwall © Jack Hicks

 

Are beavers being reintroduced to Britain?

Yes and no. In most cases, beavers are being placed in large enclosures with natural habitat so their impact on the environment can be studied. It's hoped this will provide scientific evidence to reinforce the case for their widespread restoration here.

 

What’s being studied?

Scientists are interested in how beaver dams affect the way water is retained in a landscape. Beavers were recently released into an enclosure in Cornwall, and farmer Chris Jones estimated that the 15cm dam they built in the first five days had held back 400m3 of water.

 

The moment a beaver entered Cornish water for the first time in hundreds of years © Jack Hicks

 

Why does this matter?

Extreme rainfall events in recent years have led to frequent flooding in towns and cities. It’s believed that, by slowing down the flow of water, beavers could help to reduce the scale of these floods. By filtering water too, dams purify it, and the creation of diverse wetlands increases biodiversity.

 

Are there any wild beavers in Britain?

Yes – three recognised populations. One in Knapdale, on the west coast of Scotland, is the result of the only official trial and numbers about 12. There are several hundred on the River Tay catchment on Scotland’s east side and some 30 on the River Otter in Devon – both these populations came from unlicensed releases. Other groups of unsanctioned wild beavers exist elsewhere, too. 

 

What about the future?

Beavers are so well established it would be almost impossible to eradicate them. But if they are to be more widely reintroduced, we need a programme of pragmatic beaver management, based on systems in other European countries, one that takes into account the interests of landowners.

 

This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine

 

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