Is the time right to reintroduce beavers across Britain? Maybe, but it must be done carefully

Country Life's leader article from the June 17 issue takes a look at the benefits and pitfalls of bringing beavers back into the wild across Britain.

A lot of water has flowed downstream in the 500 years since the beaver disappeared from the UK countryside, but does this mean it’s right to reintroduce an animal into an environment that has dramatically changed since the rivers it inhabited meandered through a relatively unpopulated landscape? The growing expectation that beaver reintroductions on a grand scale will help restore some depleted ecosystems may be correct, but they must be carried out sensitively and within the law. 

Official trials have revealed results that anyone who cares about Nature cannot refute: beavers bring increased biodiversity, cleaner water, slower flow, carbon capture and the sheer joy of spotting such a captivating mammal. The fact that this large, secretive, industrious animal is out there ‘beavering away’, engineering all these good things, shows that, with agreement, we can reintroduce animals to the modern environment in appropriate situations.

However, the beavers that were illegally released on the River Tay in Perthshire about 14 years ago have caused conflict between conservationists and farmers, who complain that the animal’s infamous dams, excavations of flood defences and blocking of drains have hampered farming operations.

The beavers, of course, were simply getting on with their lives, because that’s what beavers do. 

In 2017, there were an estimated 450 of them in 114 locations in lowland Scotland. Releasing them on some of the country’s most productive land without consent was not the best way to promote the beaver and, consequently, has jaded views on the reintroduction of other species. It may also result in beavers suffering from inappropriate culling methods — an example of why the conservation status of any species should be continually reviewed through the decades.

The best-case scenario is to operate in a big enough area with all parties agreeing to a long-term management plan; beavers can work more than 500 yards away from their main lodge and the river may run through many landholdings, affecting flow both up and downstream. 

Without regulation, beavers released by well-meaning landowners could have a detrimental effect on their neighbour’s land. And there will be negatives: in Poland in 2010, major flooding was attributed to beavers, which resulted in a cull of 150 animals.

It will be incumbent on Natural England — the Government body responsible for licensing any reintroduction — to come up with a straightforward, long-term plan that doesn’t hinder positive releases, but can adapt to accommodate realistic solutions to any problems that may arise. They should also come down hard on anyone perpetrating illegal releases, because they are unfair on everyone, especially the beavers.