If you have enjoyed watching the beavers in Cornwall on Springwatch, you can read more about them in this blog by Heather Devey, Project Officer with the Cumbria Beaver Group. Below, Jane Sears, RSPB’s Species Lead for Beaver, and Jen Smart, Head of Species for England, describe how RSPB is working towards a return of beavers to more English waterways.

2020 is a key year for the future of beavers in England. Beavers living in the wild on the River Otter, in Devon, have been studied for the last five years as a trial to understand the effects they can have on the environment, surrounding habitats, other species and on our communities.

During the trial the number of beavers increased from 2 to 7 breeding pairs. Devon Wildlife Trust and Exeter University have recently submitted their Science and Evidence report to Natural England. This report shows that beaver dams are effective at reducing the flow of water during peak times, decreasing the risk of flooding downstream in areas that are prone to flood. The pools they create increase fish abundance and enhance the habitat for water voles, water birds and amphibians such as frogs.  What’s more, very few conflicts were reported and there is widespread support and enthusiasm for beavers amongst the local communities who have lived with them for the last five years and would like them to remain.

What has the RSPB been doing?

 Credit: Jane Sears

RSPB has been publicly promoting beaver reintroduction into the wild for many years and we would like to see beavers restored to their former range in England, Scotland and Wales (they were never known from Ireland). 

We initially focussed on Scotland, where they were first reintroduced, and advocated for them to be accepted as a native species with full protection following the end of the Scottish Beaver Trial in 2014. It took several years but they were finally granted protected status in 2019 with Scottish Government saying they should be allowed to expand their range naturally rather than through further reintroductions.

We currently have beavers on two of our Scottish reserves; Loch of Kinnordy in Angus and Loch Lomond in West Dunbartonshire. Beavers are not welcomed everywhere and there are places where beaver populations require active management to reduce conflicts where they arise. Scottish Natural Heritage oversee a management scheme which includes lethal control as a last resort. The recent SNH report stating that 87 beavers, around a fifth of the Scottish population, have been killed under licence between May and December last year has shocked and angered many people who have been working hard to re-establish beavers in the wild.

Beavers are not protected in England, creating a situation where a species with European Protected Species status is only protected in one part of its range in the UK.  The River Otter Beaver Trial is the only licenced wild population in England, but licences have been given for trials where beavers live in large enclosed areas. There are 9 such trials across the country with at least 3 more granted licences but awaiting beavers.

They involve lots of organisations and partners from private estates, Wildlife Trusts, Forestry England, and the National Trust. Some of these enclosed trials are testing the important ability of beaver dams to ‘slow the flow’ in areas prone to flash flooding whilst others are part of wilding projects. Beavers can be escape artists so there are now a few free-living on rivers in Kent, Devon and on the Wye.

We have assessed the suitability of several of our nature reserves to host beavers and have been working with partners to develop plans. Beaver reintroduction will only work with the support of local communities. Working with the Cumbria Wildlife Trust we helped establish the Cumbria Beaver Group and through Heather Devey’s work as the Cumbria Beaver Project Officer we are helping local communities to understand more about beavers, their ecology and their amazing ability to engineer their surroundings to the benefits of people and wildlife. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure beavers are brought back to such areas in the future…

What Next?

 Credit: Heather Devey

Right now, the mammal and wildlife management specialists at Natural England are reviewing the evidence from the River Otter Beaver Trial. They will then advise Defra over the future protection, management and licencing of beaver reintroductions in England which will influence a ministerial decision on the future of beavers in England expected later this year. We really hope that this decision will include:

  • Beavers remaining in the River Otter catchment with support for natural colonisation.
  • The adoption of a fully regulated management programme operating within a legal framework, with beavers designated as a European Protected Species in England under the Habitats Regulation (or afforded the same level of protection post Brexit).
  • Further well-managed reintroductions of free-living beavers into suitable river catchments, following best practice in reintroductions and with consultation and mitigation at the heart of those projects.
  • Approval for disease-free beavers from other European countriewoods to be imported to increase the genetic diversity of British beavers.
  • A long-term strategy for the licenced enclosed beaver trials, whereby beavers are either allowed to be released into the wild or where this is not feasible, are retained within enclosures and used to provide a source of beavers for other reintroduction projects.

Returning beavers to the wild in England will be a hugely exciting prospect that will only be possible if all parties work together to deliver a shared vision. RSPB England are committed to working alongside the Beaver Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and the Woodland Trust to achieve this. Through sharing expertise and experience we hope to persuade Defra that beavers are here to stay and make 2020 truly the Year of the Beaver, but we need your support too. You can help by spreading the word, participating in public consultations and by supporting the Wildlife Trusts’ call for a Government Beaver Strategy.

- Jane Sears and Jen Smart