Beavers have been a hot topic at Connecting the Culm, especially since last year’s landmark decision by the government to allow the beavers of the River Otter, one of our neighbouring catchments, “leave to remain”. We’ve explored in our meetings what this means for the Culm and how these engineers of nature could help the river become more resilient – and what the downsides could be.

Now the government is consulting on a proposal to permit wider reintroductions into the wild in England and anyone with an interest in beavers and their reintroduction and management is being encouraged to have their say on this subject. The government have outlined their approach and a 12 week consultation period has now started, closing on 17th November 2021.

We asked Mark Elliot, Devon Beaver Project Lead for Devon Wildlife Trust, to give us his thoughts, and here’s what he told us.

At the consultation’s launch Environment Secretary, George Eustice, spoke of a ‘cautious approach’ to beaver reintroduction in England, and the tone of the consultation document reflects that.

Beavers have unrivalled capacity to revitalise and transform the health of our waterbodies. However they also bring conflicts and risks which need to be managed, and so integrating them back into the landscape is not straightforward.

It is proposed that licences will be granted for wild releases into rivers only where there is long term support and advice for landowners and an established Beaver Management Group. This mirrors the approach taken by Devon Wildlife Trust and its partners on the River Otter Beaver Trial. Here it was shown that advice on beavers and their management needs to be readily available, pragmatic and straightforward, whilst also science-based.

In August 2020 Defra declared that the River Otter Beaver Trial had been a success and that the beavers could remain and spread naturally into neighbouring catchments. Over the past decade, beavers have also been found living wild in other areas in England, including throughout the River Tamar catchment, and the consultation proposes that these will be permitted to stay and be managed in the same way.

The significant public benefits provided by beavers should justify the use of public funds for this engagement work, both for new projects and for those catchments where beavers have established themselves. However the proposal is that new projects will need to guarantee funding for up to 10 years, and this is likely to be prohibitive for most charities and partnerships. Responses to the consultation should make this case clearly – there is a clear public benefit, and so public funds should be supporting the more widespread reintroduction of this species.

Probably the most important thing that we can argue for is funding for buffer strips alongside streams and rivers to encourage landowners to provide watercourses with a bit more space. In themselves these buffer strips provide habitat and protect our waterways from pollution, but when beavers are back in the landscape they can transform into these complex wetland corridors providing huge benefits to fish and other wildlife, and to communities living downstream. However, if we are farming right up to the riverbank, the presence of beavers can cause problems. Our responses to the consultation must argue the case strongly that our streams and rivers need a bit more space, and the funding for that needs to be readily available.

The announcement that beavers are likely to be given legal protection is interesting, but not actually part of the consultation process. There is no doubt that we need to safeguard these small vulnerable beaver populations as they start to recolonise our landscape, but any regulation needs to be straightforward and pragmatic, and enable the management of conflicts.

Please take the time to have a look at the consultation, and respond to it. There will be some arguing that we can’t live alongside beavers in our heavily managed landscapes. Not only has this been shown to be untrue, but in these times of ecological collapse, the reintroduction of this ecosystem engineer would breathe life back into our watercourses, and help reverse the downward trends for much of our wetland wildlife.

Beaver image: David White