River Otter Beaver Trial news

Photo credit, Mike Symes

On Valentines Day 2020, while couples across the country were celebrating the passing of another year together, something momentous quietly happened in east Devon. The five year River Otter Beaver Trial – the only legally wild population of these animals in England - came to a conclusion.

Five years of studying these animals, gathering evidence, building partnerships and working intensively with landowners, social scientists, flood experts, biologists, geneticists, government bodies and fishing interests.  In the world of species reintroductions, this has been as thorough and comprehensive as it gets.  

Perhaps the most important thing about the trial is just how the beavers have thrived in their new surroundings.  The population has grown to at least 8 and possibly 13 family groups.  There have been few casualties, and only three that we know about.  Some argued that the novelty factor of beavers would soon wear off, but far from it.  The popularity of the beavers among all groups has grown and grown.

Beaver

Photo credit, David Plummer

It’s extraordinary how beavers have captured our imagination.   Apart from their obvious visual appeal, there is something special about bringing back a creature that has been lost for centuries.  One that seems more linked to our primeval past than to our modern high tech present.  But then beavers are no ordinary beasts.  They have the power to shape the environment around them, coppice trees, redirect the flow of streams and connect floodplains with watercourses.  We sometimes underestimate just how much we’ve shaped every part of the landscape, especially rivers.  Beavers challenge our control, that sense of “my stretch of river with my bank, my trees, my fish”.

And yet walking along the bank of the River Otter, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was all a pretence.   Where are the dams?  The acres of flooded field? The rows of fallen trees?  You need to look out for the subtle signs of chewed bark, willow branches nibbled off, or the untidy pile of sticks – the lodge - that shelters the beaver’s living quarters.  You have to venture into the side channels and headwaters to see more obvious impacts.  And when you do, the transformation is amazing to witness.  Networks of ponds, lakes and snaking rivulets, interspersed with marshy grassland and wet woodland buzzing with insects and flowers. Compare this with the regimented field structure of straight lines of planted monocultures, clipped hedges and rectilinear drainage ditches that surrounds.  It’s as if the landscape and river has been given back its freedom.

The results of five years of intensive scientific work are laid bare in the final Science and Evidence report. The report’s findings are clear. Wildlife richness increases where beavers have an impact, as they diversify the structure of habitats and make room for wildflowers, insects and a range of colourful wetland species.

Much has been written about the wonders and horrors of introducing an animal like the beaver back into the UK.  A confused reader could be forgiven for believing that beavers were either the answer to every river’s problems, or that they will destroy the landscape and gorge on every remaining fish (beavers are in fact entirely vegetarian).  As humans we like to think that we make decisions on hard evidence.  But this is seldom the case.  We are far more comfortable with our beliefs, and we will accept “facts” that support them and reject those that don’t.  What we have lacked is real evidence of how these animals behave in a lowland English river, how extensive and intense their real impacts are and how we can work with them to accentuate the good and minimise the problematic.  This is one of the key things that the Trial has sought to do.

The results of five years of intensive scientific work are laid bare in the final Science and Evidence report. [download here].  The report’s findings are clear.  Wildlife richness increases where beavers have an impact, as they diversify the structure of habitats and make room for wildflowers, insects and a range of colourful wetland species.  Beavers’ industrious engineering activities such as dam building slow the flow of water, reducing flood risk downstream and keeping streams flowing during droughts.  They improve water quality downstream, and their wetland creation helps to sequester carbon.  Fish benefit too, with the ponds being ideal habitat for the young fish fry and the gravels exposed below washed out dams proving ideal spawning habitat.  Where problems have arisen, such as a specimen tree being gnawed, a crop being damaged or a dam blocking a culvert, these have been dealt with quickly and without any great difficulty.

Beaver

Photo credit, Mike Symes

Of course, the Otter is only one river, the trial has only lasted five years and the population of beavers is still relatively small.  There are areas where more research would be helpful, particularly with fisheries.  No doubt new challenges will arise in the River Otter and different river catchments and when the population of beavers is much larger.  But there is enough here to give us a huge amount of reassurance.  And surely we have to ask ourselves, when is enough evidence enough for us to make a decision?  Are we really going to change our minds on the basis of another piece of research, or is this just a tactic for delay?

The government has extended the licence for another six months while it makes up its mind about the future of the River Otter Beavers.  In fairness they have a lot to think about.  It’s not just whether the beavers can stay.  They need to decide whether they can naturally spread to neighbouring catchments like the Axe and the Culm.  They need to decide on its level of protection, what kind of interventions such as removing obstructive dams will be allowed and on what terms.  Beaver populations and their impacts will need some form of management, so who will be responsible for this and how will that work be resourced?

Five years ago a somewhat unlikely group of organisations sat around a table to see if we could make a beaver trial on work.  Some were wildly enthusiastic, some deeply sceptical, others waiting to be convinced one way or the other.  Five years later some of the differences still remain.  But nobody doubts that the trial has been a success.   

2020 will be remembered for many things – leaving the EU, the Covid 19 virus, some of the worst floods and storms in living memory and the warmest winter on record.  I hope we also remember it as the year when we were brave enough to put something back that we had lost and relinquish some of jealously guarded control of our natural environment in doing so.  If we do, it will be a giant step towards turning the tide of environmental destruction and giving future generations something better than we inherited.