The Great British Beaver Debate
European beavers (Castor fiber) were once a common species across the UK; however following extreme levels of hunting during the 16th -18th centuries due to the value of their meat, fur and medicinal properties, the species was gradually hunted to extinction. Since then, conservation efforts and recovery programmes have striven to allow the return of the European beaver across the UK, despite being met with some adverse reception, particularly from the government and associated environmental bodies.
Beavers can be considered as an important species for the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem, so much so that they are regarded as a ‘keystone species’. Their dams, burrows and branch-moving behaviours enable the creation of new water habitats for many other species. It is also suggested that their dams can slow down rivers, reducing erosion and scouring issues, and improving the quality of water by holding back silt that may also contain contaminants. There is even a suggestion that during flooding, beavers could play a role in helping to mitigate the severity of water-caused damage in the UK.
The first clear cut evidence that wild beavers had returned to the UK, for the first time in 500 years, occurred in February 2014, when a family of wild beavers were filmed together on the River Otter in east Devon. The footage was captured by a local retired environmental scientist named Tom Buckley, who with help from landowner David Lawrence, installed three motion sensor cameras along a stretch of the river where they had noticed some trees had been felled. Other reports from the area suggested that beaver individuals had also been spotted on the river itself, and on a local farm.
‘We’d seen bits of trees chewed and cut down and I was starting to think that it was a sign of beavers even though I couldn’t believe it’
The captured film showed evidence of the beavers grooming, playing and gnawing tree bases. Beaver expert Derek Gow personally reviewed the footage, and confirmed that one of the individuals was a juvenile; this was considered to be an exciting advancement for conservationists, as it suggested that a small breeding population of beavers had been able to establish itself outside of captivity.
Devon Wildlife Trust has had a Beaver Project set up since 2011, when a male and female were introduced to a secure compound in the north-west. However, these beaver individuals have since remained in the compound indicating that they are not related to the small population that was discovered along the river.
Steve Hussey from the Devon Wildlife Trust said:
‘In principle, we would like to see the European beaver reintroduced to England but recognise that a great deal of work needs to be done before this can happen.”
“This group of beavers provides us with a unique opportunity to learn lessons about their behaviour and their impact on the local landscape … [the group] could contribute to this process if they are subjected to thorough scientific study.’
Conversely however, representatives from Defra have now confirmed that the beaver individuals discovered in to be living in the wild on the shores of the River Otter are to be recaptured and re-homed. The release of beavers in England is actually against the law; it is believed that beavers could be a source of diseases not currently present in the UK, and due to their prolonged absence, could also potentially have negative impacts on landscapes that have since developed without their influence. George Eustace MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Marine Environment, and MP for the constituency of Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall) has however confirmed that the beavers will not be culled, and decisions will be entirely made with the welfare of the individuals regarded as a matter of utmost importance.
However as expected, this decision has proved hugely unpopular with the UK public. Many people believe that the wild beavers should be allowed to stay, and could be studied to see what effects they have upon the environment, especially given that the Devon population were living harmoniously and unnoticed alongside native UK wildlife until their discovery. Some have also argued that it is possible to determine whether beavers have the disease in concern (Echinococcus multilocularis) through a DNA analysis of faeces, meaning that if appropriate tests were carried out, the beavers could potentially be allowed to continue to live in Devon. In terms of landscape concerns, thriving beaver populations in other European countries such as Sweden demonstrate the ability of the species to coincide peacefully with native species and potentially even bolster both local species variety and abundance.
Recent developments on the matter explored by the UK’s health watchdog have also indicated that even within Defra documents on the subject, it is acknowledged that the actual risk of humans contracting the tapeworm illness from beavers is very low; a much greater threat comes, in fact, from the international movement of pets. This was confirmed by Public Health England, who have also indicated that they do not perceive the Devon beavers to be a risk to human health.
The recapture of the beavers would also be very costly; trapping, containing and re-homing the beavers is estimated to cost the government nearly £50,000. The infant beavers born to the wild Devon population are also set to be captured, even though it is impossible for these English-bred individuals to be carrying the disease.
Documents suggest that one of Defra’s main concerns is that if the beavers are allowed to stay, this might encourage further illegal releases to be carried out, as exhibited by this quote:
“Release is not a preferred option when there is an uncertainty around disease risk. It also sends an unwelcome message that government will take no action where illegal releases occur, potentially encouraging further illegal releases.”
“The beavers may carry a disease which could pose a risk to human health – although this risk is low, we cannot ignore it. That is why we are taking precautionary action to test the beavers. Their presence could also have a negative impact on the surrounding environment and wildlife.
“Once captured and tested, we intend to rehome them in a suitable location, and all decisions will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind.”
However Alasdair Cameron, of Friends of the Earth, goes as far to claim that trapping the beavers would be unlawful under European legislation. He says:
“EM from beavers is not the main risk for EM in the UK. There’s a huge trade in smuggled pets, smuggled puppies, that’s a much bigger risk. This [risk of EM] also doesn’t apply to any beavers born in the wild, so trapping the kits would be completely disproportionate.
“At a time when biodiversity is in freefall, we should be looking to protect these species, not trap them.”
Another argument against the capture of the beavers is the successful population of 100 free-living beavers in Scotland along the river Tay.The beaver remains to be a popular mammal with British inhabitants; one poll discovered that 86% of Scottish respondents were in favour of reintroducing the species, another discovered that 60% of Scots support the reintroductions whereas only 5% were opposed. The Argyll five year beaver project has now ended, but is said to have been an ‘outstanding success’ with the original four groups of beavers going on to produce the 13 individuals now living in Argyll lochs. Not only have these individuals supported and adapted the local landscape for the better, but they have also been a popular source of tourism, boosting the local economy in the process. There have also been some efforts to reintroduce European beavers in Wales, which are currently underway.
So what do you think? Should beavers be allowed to continue living in the wild across the UK, or is the risk to landscapes, native biodiversity and human health too great?
You can learn more about the debate, Scottish beaver trials and more from the following links:
BBC: Cwm Einion project may introduce male for breeding
Scottish Wildlife Trust
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