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Why reintroduce beavers?


Norfolk Rivers Trust has worked hard to reintroduce beavers to Norfolk, and supports the wider return of these animals to the British landscape. But these rodents are certainly not without controversy, so why reintroduce them?


Beavers were a part of the Norfolk landscape until around 500 years ago when they were hunted to extinction, for their meat, fur and castoreum, the latter being a secretion from their anal glands that formed the basis of perfumes in times past. Beavers are viewed as perhaps the prototypical ecosystem engineer and keystone species. They are water gardeners, creating a mosaic of wetland habitat such as ponds, riffles, marshes and wet woodland through their dam-building and tree-felling activities. This has clear benefits to a wide variety of plants, invertebrates, fish, mammals of conservation concern such as water voles and otters, and a number of wetland and hole-nesting birds – this is all the more important as the UK has lost around 90% of its wetlands in the last few centuries, these being the lifeblood of the wider landscape. This beaver wetland creation and the wildlife boost it supports offers hope at a time when much of our wildlife is in decline, with the UK considered one of the most nature-depleted parts of the world.


A propensity for ecosystem engineering is a trait they share with us humans, and a reason why we occasionally clash. While it is true there can be human-beaver conflicts due to their eco-engineering activities, none of these issues are insurmountable, as shown by other parts of Europe such as Bavaria where humans and beavers manage to coexist through a proactive management strategy.


Beavers’ propensity to build dams is an important aspect of their eco-engineering that yields a number of benefits. Beavers use sediment to shore their dams up, and by doing this they create ponds. While ponds are, or were, primarily man-made habitats, they are important havens for wildlife and are increasingly scarce now in Britain. Having a natural pond builder back in our landscape would help push back against some of our wildlife declines tied to the loss of ponds.


Beaver dams been found to filter sediment and to trap fertiliser and soil runoff from fields, reducing levels of nitrates and phosphates entering waterways downstream of them. This is important, as many British waterways are in an ecologically degraded state, and fertiliser runoff and pollution is a major widespread issue presenting a persistent threat to the life of our waterways.


Their dams also dramatically slow down overland water flow, while markedly increasing the water storage capacity of the land. This, in turn, buffers peak flow following rainfall events, and this can help avert flooding, and beavers could play an important role in natural flood management in river headwaters. This same eco-engineering capacity can also buffer against the effects of drought. Given that we likely face more extremes of weather in the wake of climate change, the return of a creature that can build ecological resilience into the landscape should be a given serious consideration.

The return of beavers to the British landscape may also have less tangible and quantifiable but still important benefits by helping facilitate connection to nature, with the UK considered among the more psychologically nature-disconnected nations in Europe. Through their ability to increase diversity and abundance of wildlife, and capacity to act as flagship animals, potentially igniting curiosity and interest in nature, beavers and their wetland habitats could add to the psychological benefits people can obtain from spending time in nature.


In our ecologically degraded landscape, it is easy to overlook the effect that species can have on shaping the wider environment. In terms of bang for one’s buck for biodiversity and environmental gains, it would be hard to top the reintroduction of beavers, and if their wider return was given the green light, it would be one of the most important steps in English conservation history.Norfolk Rivers Trust has worked hard to reintroduce beavers to Norfolk, and supports the wider return of these animals to the British landscape. But these rodents are certainly not without controversy, so why reintroduce them?


Beavers were a part of the Norfolk landscape until around 500 years ago when they were hunted to extinction, for their meat, fur and castoreum, the latter being a secretion from their anal glands that formed the basis of perfumes in times past. Beavers are viewed as perhaps the prototypical ecosystem engineer and keystone species. They are water gardeners, creating a mosaic of wetland habitat such as ponds, riffles, marshes and wet woodland through their dam-building and tree-felling activities. This has clear benefits to a wide variety of plants, invertebrates, fish, mammals of conservation concern such as water voles and otters, and a number of wetland and hole-nesting birds – this is all the more important as the UK has lost around 90% of its wetlands in the last few centuries, these being the lifeblood of the wider landscape. This beaver wetland creation and the wildlife boost it supports offers hope at a time when much of our wildlife is in decline, with the UK considered one of the most nature-depleted parts of the world.


A propensity for ecosystem engineering is a trait they share with us humans, and a reason why we occasionally clash. While it is true there can be human-beaver conflicts due to their eco-engineering activities, none of these issues are insurmountable, as shown by other parts of Europe such as Bavaria where humans and beavers manage to coexist through a proactive management strategy.


Beavers’ propensity to build dams is an important aspect of their eco-engineering that yields a number of benefits. Beavers use sediment to shore their dams up, and by doing this they create ponds. While ponds are, or were, primarily man-made habitats, they are important havens for wildlife and are increasingly scarce now in Britain. Having a natural pond builder back in our landscape would help push back against some of our wildlife declines tied to the loss of ponds.


Beaver dams been found to filter sediment and to trap fertiliser and soil runoff from fields, reducing levels of nitrates and phosphates entering waterways downstream of them. This is important, as many British waterways are in an ecologically degraded state, and fertiliser runoff and pollution is a major widespread issue presenting a persistent threat to the life of our waterways.


Their dams also dramatically slow down overland water flow, while markedly increasing the water storage capacity of the land. This, in turn, buffers peak flow following rainfall events, and this can help avert flooding, and beavers could play an important role in natural flood management in river headwaters. This same eco-engineering capacity can also buffer against the effects of drought. Given that we likely face more extremes of weather in the wake of climate change, the return of a creature that can build ecological resilience into the landscape should be a given serious consideration.

The return of beavers to the British landscape may also have less tangible and quantifiable but still important benefits by helping facilitate connection to nature, with the UK considered among the more psychologically nature-disconnected nations in Europe. Through their ability to increase diversity and abundance of wildlife, and capacity to act as flagship animals, potentially igniting curiosity and interest in nature, beavers and their wetland habitats could add to the psychological benefits people can obtain from spending time in nature.


In our ecologically degraded landscape, it is easy to overlook the effect that species can have on shaping the wider environment. In terms of bang for one’s buck for biodiversity and environmental gains, it would be hard to top the reintroduction of beavers, and if their wider return was given the green light, it would be one of the most important steps in English conservation history.


Written by Sam Gandy. Illustration below used with permission of Jeroen Helmer.



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