Beavers are back! After having disappeared from the UK riverbanks, a family now flourishes down in Devon in the South West and a couple of growing populations reside up in Scotland. Considered a pest to some in the States, here they have shown to be valuable keystone species to their woodland homes and the ecosystems they help maintain. So should we welcome the beaver to our backyards?
Where did all the beavers go?
The Eurasian beaver was once thought to be widespread across Britain with fossil records dating back two million years.Their numbers fell towards the end of the 16th century due to unsustainable hunting for fur, castoreum and meat. On the edge of extinction, only 1200 individuals were recorded in 1900 in Europe.
Why bring them back?
Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers, having a massive impact upon the habitats around them. This is through coppicing and cutting down trees and bushes, digging moats and canal systems to disperse water throughout the landscape, damming and maintaining wetland ecosystems. This in turn provides a rich diverse network of habitats significantly benefiting birds, mammals, invertebrates, amphibians and fish. As well as this, the flooded landscapes they create help to alleviate flooding by channelling away water and decreasing siltation, which increases the water retention capacity of the land upstream and lowers the likeliness of flooding. Riparian buffer zones also purify our water of pollutants, and can have major impacts upon the water quality and hydrology of our streams and rivers. Economically, they have the potential to be very cost-effective solutions to improving our natural flood defences and meeting our water quality targets under the Water Framework Directive.
ReBeavering Britain and the concerns
Reintroductions and translocations in the 1920s began across 24 European countries with the majority of cases showing positive impacts and population growth. Currently, there are several trials underway across England and Scotland, where individuals are being thoroughly studied and monitored. So why is there such concern? In Scotland, local tourist numbers have increased, biodiversity has strengthened and the land is more flood resilient. However, they have been shown to affect land use, in particular forestry and agriculture by burrowing and damming which impacts crops and agricultural yield. Migratory fish are also blocked by their felling activities and the movements of other species important for recreational fisheries, such as the native pike, roach and perch ,have also shown to be impacted. As well as this, concerns have been raised over the possibility of transferring and hosting disease and parasites, which may have further ecosystem-wide impacts. These are the main reasons so such prolonged and vigorous trialling in the UK, to ensure all issues surrounding their reintroduction are fully understood. Furthermore, these trials have demonstrated their local impacts to the environment and at a larger scale their impact is still largely unknown. In particular, an increase in beaver-woodland may affect the already declining old-woodland habitats of some of our most important tree species.
So for now we will keep studying these cute little critters until the trial period is up. In Scotland, delays in deciding their fate has led to some recent conflict between conservationists and landowners, and sadly some cullings of beavers. Hopefully a decision can be made soon and the appropriate protective legislation can be actioned, to protect this important species in Britain once again.
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