In Depth

Are beavers bad for the environment?

Farming and fisheries industries voice concern about reintroduction of wild species

Environmentalists may be pleased that beaver populations are on the rise, but some farmers and land owners have voiced concerns about the impact the animals have on natural landscapes.

Beavers “were once widespread in the UK but were hunted to extinction by the 16th century” in England and Wales, said The Guardian. But within the past decade, Eurasian beavers have been “slowly returning to Britain”, said the Natural History Museum (NHM). 

Since a group of up to 200 wild beavers was spotted on the River Tay in Scotland in 2001, the country has set about reintroducing the species, which is now recognised as native to the country, and has been afforded European Protected Species status.

It was believed wild beavers had died out for good in England, but in 2013 a family of three was seen in the River Otter in Devon. The government’s plan at the time to capture and re-home the family in a zoo or wildlife park “was met with passionate resistance from local residents and campaign groups”, said the NHM. 

Instead, “after being given a clean bill of health”, they were returned to the river in 2015, said the BBC.

Since then there have been several more sightings of the wild animals. Monitoring programmes have seen record numbers of beavers reintroduced in the UK, with many more to come. 

“Naturally, there are some concerns” about the species’ reintroduction, the NHM continued. Generally, “environmentalists love them and land managers don’t”, said farm owner Tom Bowser in The Scotsman.

“Apart from humans, no other species alters its environment more,” said National Geographic. They’ve been called “‘ecosystem engineers’ for their ability to benefit other species, reduce flooding, increase water retention and reduce silting”, said The Guardian

But while they can prevent flooding, by building dams, they can also cause it. In Scotland, Bowser said that the animals have been killed in “shocking numbers” since 2019, with farmers and estate owners able to apply for licences to cull problem animals creating floods on their land.

Bowser argued that this is down to “institutional failings”, and the government should do more to facilitate the relocation of beaver species to areas where the benefits of their presence will be better felt. Holyrood promised to do more to support the translocation of beavers last year.

And researchers are learning from other communities where beavers live harmoniously alongside humans. In Bavaria, Germany, “undesirable tree felling was solved simply by sandpainting the trunks or wrapping wire mesh around it”, and “unwanted floods were assuaged” by devices that allow some water to flow through them, said NHM.

“Simple solutions” can allow beavers and humans “to share the same space amicably”, the NHM site continued. Though they can be a “nuisance”, beavers “limit environmental disasters in a natural, sustainable and cost-effective way”.

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