1789 was a bad year for British wetlands and wildlife. That year, the last bounty was paid for a Eurasian beaver skull in Britain. This entirely vegetarian animal, native to Europe and Asia, plays a vital role in shaping our landscape. Lost from Britain once, we need it back.
1. Our wetland species evolved alongside beavers
Ever since the last ice age our wetland plants and animals lived in wetlands created by beavers and adapted to rely on them - look at the way trees like willow, alder and aspen regenerate when cut. Beavers coppice trees to stimulate fresh growth, and so open out our river banks and wetlands for other species to thrive. They are remarkable water engineers and create an amazing mosaic of dams, ponds, and canals.
2. Two thirds of all British wetland species are supported by ponds
Almost all ponds are now man-made – because all the beavers have gone. In the Devon Beaver Project site, our family of beavers have made over 10 ponds in 3 years benefitting a wonderful array of dragonflies, birds and amphibians. The 10 clumps of frogspawn laid in 2011 increased to 370 clumps this year!
3. Our rivers and wetlands are sick
They have been drained and over-engineered to get the water off the land and out to sea as quickly as possible. We suffer floods when it rains and dry rivers during droughts, and our wetland wildlife is massively depleted. Beavers are the medicine. They reinvigorate these wetlands, and hold water back in the headwaters, reducing the risk of flooding and ensuring a more constant flow of water during drier periods – better for mayflies, dippers and fish. And the rivers are cleaner as the dams filter out the sediment and other pollutants.
4. Natural rivers are best for fish
Across most of Europe and North America, beavers are generally considered beneficial for fish like trout, and the science appears to support this. They create braided meandering rivers, with clean and extensive spawning gravels for fish. The evidence suggests that young fish grow faster and return to sea healthier if they live in beaver ponds. Despite this some British anglers seem concerned that re-introduced beavers will dam rivers so securely that salmon will be unable to migrate up to their spawning gravels – despite the fact that our native fish evolved alongside beavers.
5. People want them back
Many other countries in Europe have now reintroduced beavers, driven in part by the great affection that people feel for this large charismatic plant-eating rodent. In the Knapdale area of Scotland, one local hotelier has reported that 20% of his 2013 guests were there because of the reintroduced beavers. And we have absolutely nothing to fear. Beavers are slow to spread, and stay within a few metres of rivers and streams. They are also easy to control and any disease risks and adverse impacts can be managed. Devon Wildlife Trust is seeking to use the small wild and breeding population now living on the River Otter as an opportunity to study these impacts in a real life lowland British landscape.
Mark Elliott is the Working Wetlands Project Manager at the Devon Wildlife Trust.
Read the other side of the debate: Mark Lloyd of the Angling Trust's five reasons why beavers should not be reintroduced in Britain.
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