Rewilding beavers in the UK - Zoe Neal, The Weald School

Rewilding beavers in the UK - Zoe Neal, The Weald School <i>(Image: Niklas Hamann, Unsplash)</i>
Rewilding beavers in the UK - Zoe Neal, The Weald School (Image: Niklas Hamann, Unsplash)

Why should we have beavers in the UK?

Beavers are known as a keystone species because of their large positive effect on the natural environment. Through the elaborate construction of dams and the digging of canals, beavers provide habitats that an abundance of species can inhabit. These include: water voles, frogs, toads, otters, water shrews, birds (such as teal), and a host of insects that occupy the dead wood that is created as beavers fell trees. Furthermore, in contrast to popular belief, beavers DON’T eat fish. They are actually herbivores that tend to feast on aquatic plants and grasses, as well as the bark, twigs and leaves of trees, so instead offer fish spaces to thrive in, rather than hunting them as prey.

Not only do dams provide habitats where a diversity of life can flourish, they also offer a natural solution to improving the function and health of river catchments. Studies have shown that beaver dams decrease the impacts of floods by up to 60% by reducing water speed and flow; this mechanism is also a solution for periods of drought where water in pools can be utilised. But the dams’ services don’t end there. As a result of agricultural run-off, harmful chemicals like nitrates and phosphates that are found in fertilisers, pollute the rivers and are carried along the rivers where they can have concerning effects on the health of organisms making use of the water. However, beaver dams can capture organic sediment, which would end up in the sea, and the damaging chemicals, decreasing their concentration and therefore improving the quality of water downstream.


Can we live peacefully with beavers?

In May 2019, Beavers were declared a native species to Scotland and they were also granted European Protected Species status, which meant that there were to be measures put in place to prevent the shooting or harming of beavers in any way. Similarly in England, following the success of the River Otter Beaver Trial in Devon, the UK government announced that the River Otter beavers could remain wild, and in October 2022 English beavers also achieved European Protected Species status, foretelling their stay won’t be short-lived. But despite the wonders of the beaver, there are some concerns from farmers and those with properties within close proximity to beaver territory, regarding their return to the UK and the impact it will have on their land in terms of upstream flooding and tree destruction. However, research reveals that humans are able to live harmoniously alongside beavers if the situation is managed well. For example, The Cornwall Beaver Project investigates how conflicts with humans may be resolved and how beavers affect water and other wildlife.

It can be argued that beavers may be a nuisance at times, but they should be considered in terms of their positive impacts on wildlife and landscapes; they are also environmentally responsible—a natural, sustainable solution to limiting environmental disasters.

So far, there have been a number of enclosed beaver trials and there are now free-living populations established on rivers all over the country. Therefore, we can only expect that the population of these elusive and unique mammals will continue to rise in the future, benefiting our environment and encouraging people to appreciate and interact with nature.