Beavers in Great Britain
The Eurasian beaver Castor fiber was once widespread across Great Britain but was hunted to extinction in England and Wales by the 12th century and in Scotland by the 16th century. The beaver’s pelt (fur) and scent glands were prized, and the meat was also used, leading to severe declines of the species across Europe.
In 2009, the Scottish Beaver Trial (run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust in partnership with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland) released the first wild beavers in Scotland in over 400 years. The project, in Knapdale Forest, Argyll, was supplemented by further releases of beavers in 2017 and 2018. Unofficial releases in Tayside have led to a population of around 400 beavers in that area. Their diet comprises aquatic plants and grasses, as well as tree bark and cambium (the soft tissue under the bark) of broadleaved trees, especially willows, birches, aspen and alder.
In England, beavers of unknown origin have been present on the River Otter in Devon since 2008. After initial plans for their removal, Devon Wildlife Trust successfully proposed that this become a five-year trial to monitor the beavers’ effects on the landscape. Beavers have also been introduced to a site in the Forest of Dean as part of a trial to reduce flooding. The Wildlife Trusts in Wales are also researching the feasibility of reintroduction.
Beavers are considered to be ‘ecosystem engineers’ and provide numerous ecosystem services. By felling trees and creating dams they create new wetland habitats and increase habitat complexity, benefitting biodiversity. They typically build dams in watercourses of less than 3 metres in width, in order to create aquatic habitat for the family group. The dams created in streams can absorb diffuse pollution from agriculture. They can slow water run-off during flood periods, and reduce flooding downstream. Human engineers have mimicked this activity in some areas to reduce flooding of towns and villages in the UK, but perhaps not as successfully as beavers!
In Scotland, beavers have been given native species status by the Scottish Government, and populations will be allowed to expand naturally. However, beavers are not yet classed as European Protected Species (EPS) in Scotland, meaning there has been some unregulated culling and destruction of dams. This has sometimes led to conflict between landowners who have experienced loss of productive agricultural land and conservationists who believe beavers should receive strict legal protection and see culling as a last resort. The Scottish Government pledged to protect beavers as EPS under the Habitats Directive, and in February 2019 the Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced that from May 2019 it will be an offence to kill, injure or capture beavers. There will a licensing system in place and any such control measures will need to be licensed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). It also means that beavers will need to be considered as part of ecological surveys in areas where they occur, to prevent impacts from development activities.
Ellendale Environmental can provide a beaver survey as part of a site assessment or as a standalone survey. The below video is camera trap footage from Perthshire recorded during monitoring by Ellendale Environmental.