Beavers are back - after a 400 year absence. Lush Times columnist, Miles King, explores their history, what they can do, and why it’s so important that we can welcome them back, even to some surprising places.
Summer, nearly six years ago, and I was doing a lot of walking. That day, Chesil beach, with the long thin lake of the Fleet behind, was sunny and I found myself thoughtlessly kicking a large lump of peat. Peat? What was that doing on the beach? As I looked more closely, I noticed that there were some bits of wood sticking out. I prised the wood out and looked at them. They were thoroughly squashed, like a bit of old leather, but distinctly woody - the largest was a couple of inches in diameter. Curious as to where the peat had come from, I put them in my pocket and took them home.
The internet revealed that these lumps of peat had been washed up by the sea - and that the peat had been created five or six thousand years ago when the Fleet was larger; and there were beavers present. A beaver skull had been found in one peat block nearly 20 years ago. Looking again at my pieces of peat-interred wood I realised they were the young stems of an Alder tree, a tree that was growing, perhaps having been chopped down by some very sharp, yellow incisor teeth. It almost looked as though one had a very clean cut across one end. Had I stumbled on those tree remains, the ghost of a beaver’s activity, left from the very long distant past?
Eurasian beavers - Castor Fiber - have been around for millions of years. That means that they were here, in Britain, the whole time (except when we were under an ice sheet). During that time they made a big impact on how our Islands would have looked, before we transformed everything.
Beavers chop down trees (which grow again). They make dams, and the dams form pools behind them. beavers also make burrows - and their excavations move earth around. beavers literally transform landscapes. But their influence on our landscapes disappeared when they became extinct, around 400 years ago. They were certainly hunted, for their pelts and their glands, from which a highly prized waxy material called Castoreum was extracted. Castoreum was used in the making of perfumes, as well as Salicylic acid (for pain relief). But also, perhaps, they were finding it more difficult to survive, as humans slowly infringed on their wetland homes.
Back from extinction
And now they are back - first in Scotland, and now in England. The first beavers appeared on the River Tay in Scotland nearly 20 years ago, thanks to an unauthorised release. That population has continued to grow, and now numbers perhaps four hundred. Not everyone is happy, but the general view is that it is good that Scotland has one of its native mammals back, from extinction.
Similar things are happening in England. Another unauthorised release saw beavers appear on Devon’s River Otter in 2013. Although the Government originally planned to catch these beavers, a successful campaign, by Devon Wildlife Trust and Friends of the Earth, led to their being allowed to stay on in the wild, at least temporarily. Since then, further authorised Beaver introductions have taken place in Cornwall, Devon, the Forest of Dean and Essex; as well as a long-established population in Kent, which appears to be spreading. There may be others.
It is undoubtedly a good thing that beavers are returning to Britain - we should welcome back species which were here and should be here again; this is a basic tenet of rewilding, and while controversy may surround bringing back Lynx or Wolf, beavers are relatively benign, since as vegetarians there is no risk of them eating livestock for example.
Beavers also do all manner of beneficial things - as well as creating the conditions for a myriad other species to thrive. They can help reduce water pollution and downstream flooding. And they can provide the conditions for fish to spawn, potentially helping threatened fish populations to recover - fish that some people enjoy trying to catch which makes it something of a mystery as to why the Angling Trust became so agitated about beavers returning.
So far all the proposed and active reintroductions have taken place in wetlands or on rivers. But perhaps we are missing a trick. Because it’s becoming increasingly clear that, at least as far as our Beaver’s American cousin is concerned, beavers are just as happy in coastal habitats, like salt marshes and grazing marsh, as they are inland.
Think of Poole Harbour, a jewel in Dorset’s natural treasury. Poole Harbour is internationally important for wildlife, but is suffering from various problems, not least too much sediment and Nitrogen flowing into it, primarily as a result of intensive agriculture in the catchment. Could free-living beavers in the harbour itself help to capture that sediment and Nitrogen before it enters the waters of the harbour? Could beaver-created pools along the edge of the harbour help fish to spawn, and birds to feed?
Could beavers help our beleaguered estuaries and coastal wetlands? These would be places where there were far fewer conflicts with other land-uses, such as agriculture. Indeed, in some places, like coastal grazing marshes, agricultural management is becoming increasingly unrealistic. These could be given over to the beaver to transform, to rewild.
Perhaps even the Fleet, where this story started, might benefit from a family of beavers, living contentedly behind Chesil Beach. That would certainly surprise the holiday makers.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10
Image credit: Skeeze, Creative Commons