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Conservationists concerned that the government had unexpectedly shelved plans to protect beavers are breathing a sigh of relief after the legislation was introduced at the last minute before parliament’s summer recess.
The new law will provide new legal protections for wild Eurasian beavers in England and set out the control and management of the species as they are reintroduced across the country.
The legislation 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 licence. It is scheduled to come into force in the autumn.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trust, who this week said he was "extremely concerned" that the legislation didn’t go through as planned on Tuesday, said it was essential that new laws now introduced on Thursday are implemented quickly.
He said: “We’re delighted to see the 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 gamechanger for restoring lost wetlands, benefitting all kinds of wildlife, and helping people by holding back water in the landscape, reducing the risk of wildfires, and the risk of flooding downstream. Bringing back wild beavers isn’t just a dream, it is a critical part of addressing the climate and nature crises.”
The Wildlife Trusts describes beavers as being “critical for climate adaptation” in Britain, as their presence has been repeatedly proven to create thriving wetland ecosystems, which hugely boost biodiversity and lock up carbon and slow water run-off, preventing flooding.
The legislation comes despite opposition from the National Farmers’ Union – regarded as being highly influential on land use in the countryside – which had raised concerns over the future management of beaver populations.
The NFU’s environment forum chair Richard Bramley told The Independent earlier on Thursday – before the government announced their delayed legislative update: “The potential impacts that beavers can have on agricultural land are of concern to the NFU; undermining riverbanks, damaging trees, impeding farmland drainage, and causing low-lying fields to flood.
“Before beavers become a protected species, the NFU calls on Defra to ensure there is an effective and bureaucracy-free management framework in place. This needs to be accessible to farmers to enable them to maintain their productive capacity.
“The NFU will continue to work with Defra, Natural England and all interested parties, to ensure farmers are able to continue producing sustainable climate-friendly food, alongside caring for the environment.”
Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, said: “This is a significant moment for beaver recovery, as we see a return of this species to its natural places in England. Beavers play important roles in making ecosystems function properly, helping to store and slow the flow of water through the building of dams and creation of complex wetlands, which in turn can reduce the impact of both floods and droughts, thereby assisting with adaptation to climate change. Those wetlands also catch carbon and aid the recovery of a wide range of other species."
He added: “We are working closely with landowners, environmentalists and other stakeholders to develop practical guidance to ensure these wonderful animals are able to thrive in suitable habitats alongside people across England.”