Government urged to let beaver populations expand in England

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Beavers should be allowed to stay on a number of English rivers where they are already living wild, the government has been urged.

The semi-aquatic mammals, which are making a comeback after being hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago, should also be given legal status as a native species, as part of a national strategy for the animals.

And plans should be drawn up to license the release of beavers to other suitable rivers, including from where they are currently living in enclosures, proposals drawn up by wildlife charity Beaver Trust and other groups say.

The call comes after a population of the dam-building rodents living wild on the River Otter in Devon was given permanent right to remain following a trial which showed they delivered benefits for wildlife and people.

The focus has now turned to the wider issue of beavers in England, including other populations living on river catchments including the Stour in Kent, the Tamar and the Wye following unofficial releases, and those in enclosures in the countryside under licensed schemes.

The Environment Department (Defra) has promised it will consult later this year on the management of beavers in the wild in England and a national approach for any further releases.

Ahead of that consultation, Beaver Trust has gathered 39 organisations ranging from conservation groups to farming and countryside representatives to try to establish consensus on the future for the animals.

Organisations including the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Thames Water, National Trust, and the RSPB are part of the working group.

Not all of the groups back the “English beaver strategy” proposals that have been drawn up and submitted to Defra, but Beaver Trust said all agree collaboration is the key to restoring and managing England’s rivers.

Conservationists support the return of the animals, whose dams create wetlands that boost wildlife, prevent flooding downstream and improve water quality, and say negative impacts on the landscape can be managed.

But others, such as some farmers and anglers, have raised concerns about damage to farmland and other species such as fish.

The proposals include the call for beavers already living wild on rivers to be allowed to remain and expand their range naturally, backed by local management groups, plans, and monitoring.

Eurasian beavers should be recognised as a native species with legal status in England and there needs to be a national framework for managing impacts and funding to support the animal’s return.

And the proposals call for plans for new licensed releases, including from enclosures, into suitable rivers as part of measures to restore catchments, with community support and with funding to incentivise landowners to make space for water and pay for impacts.

James Wallace, a director of Beaver Trust and convener of the English Beaver Strategy Working Group, said: “It is critical for people with different views to collaborate on how to coexist with this remarkable, if sometimes troublesome, species.

“To many, these ecosystem engineers could help us tackle issues across river catchments like water security, floods, pollution and loss of wildlife.”

But he said: “Understandably, some people are concerned about beavers returning to heavily-managed land and rivers.

“We recognise the need to help mitigate risks of negative impacts on farmland, watercourses and infrastructure.

“So, we are convening diverse interest groups to create a strategy that works for everyone.”

Harry Barton, chief executive of Devon Wildlife Trust which led the trial on the River Otter, said it showed how beavers can thrive and co-exist with people and conflicts managed through engagement, landowner advice and support.

“This groundbreaking work should now form the basis of a national strategy and management framework so that communities across the country can benefit from these amazing animals,” he said.

Shaun Leonard, director of Wild Trout Trust, said: “Research shows the impact of beavers on trout and salmon can be both positive and negative.

“English rivers and their fish populations are already suffering from fragmentation of habitat due to tens of thousands of weirs and culverts.

“Beavers’ habitat engineering activity, including building dams, could be problematic for fish in many rivers.

“We can’t support the proposals at this stage, but by participating in the working group we will be able to influence the future strategy for beaver introductions and their management.”

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