Beaver reintroduction in the UK
We're working with other organisations to see Eurasian beavers re-established across their former range in Britain. We endorse their reintroduction through well planned and licensed releases.
The return of the beaver
The Eurasian beaver is native to Britain and used to be widespread in England, Wales and Scotland, but was never known from Ireland.
They became extinct in the 16th century, mainly because of hunting for their fur, meat and 'castoreum', a secretion used in perfumes, food and medicine.
The RSPB support the re-establishment of beavers where they used to live in Britain. The beaver is known as a 'keystone species' because of its significant positive influence on its environment. We endorse their reintroduction through well-planned and licensed releases. We do not endorse the unlicensed translocation of beavers. We’re currently working with other organisations to develop our technical expertise and assess the suitability of various river systems to support beavers.
Beavers in the wild
In Scotland, there are currently two populations of beavers. In Argyll, where the successful Scottish Beaver Trial ran from 2009-2014, a small population continues with help from some further licenced releases. In the east of Scotland there is an expanding population of beavers, from unauthorised escapes or releases from captivity, which currently inhabits the Tay and Forth catchments.
In November 2016, Scottish Government announced that beavers were to remain in Scotland as a protected species with an active management programme and that further releases would need a licence. We publicly welcomed this announcement.
In May 2019 the Eurasian Beaver was added to the Habitats Regulations in Scotland as a European Protected Species, with the instruction from the Scottish Government that they should be allowed to expand their range naturally rather than through further reintroductions. Scottish Government has published a Management Framework and runs a Beaver Mitigation Scheme.
In England the River Otter Beaver Trial (ROBT) is the only licenced population of free-living beavers, although other groups of beavers exist in the wild, as a result of escapes. The ROBT is led by Devon Wildlife Trust, working with Exeter University, and the beavers have been studied for five years from 2015-2020. The trial appears to have been successful with few conflicts reported. In 2020 NE will use the results of the trial to present options to Defra resulting in a Ministerial decision on the future of beavers in England.
In Wales, the Welsh Beaver Project, led by the Welsh Wildlife Trusts with support from Welsh Government, is consulting on plans for a trial of free-living beavers in the Dyfi catchment and RSPB is represented on the stakeholder group.
Why should we reintroduce beavers?
Beavers have a positive effect on their environment through their behaviour.
By gnawing on stems, they 'coppice' trees like willow, hazel, rowan and aspen. The regrowth provides homes for a variety of insects and birds.
The wetlands in which beavers live are valuable for many other species too. They provide homes for animals like otters, water voles, common frogs and toads, water shrews and birds such as woodcock and teal. Craneflies, water beetles and dragonflies in turn support breeding fish and insect-eating birds like spotted flycatchers and warblers. Woodpeckers, bats and a host of beetles use the standing dead wood.
Beavers can also offer a nature-based solution to improving the health and function of river catchments. Beaver-created wetlands can act as sponges, resulting in more constant flows and retaining water during droughts. A series of leaky beaver dams can reduce the speed of flow and help reduce the chance of flash flooding. Beaver dams can capture organic sediments, and reduce the effects of agricultural runoff and harmful chemicals such as pesticides, helping to improve water quality downstream.
There is a legal requirement to consider restoring beavers to their former range under the EU Habitats Directive and to protect them under the Bern Convention.
There have been more than 200 formal beaver reintroduction projects (plus numerous unofficial releases) in more than 26 European countries and their ecology and management is well-studied.
Do beavers build dams?
Beavers are well-known for their habit of damming streams, but if the water is deep enough, they have little need for dams.
Beavers construct homes called 'lodges'. They need water at least a metre deep outside their lodges so they can swim in, providing protection against predators. They prefer to swim, rather than walk and like to transport branches through water, so will make narrow canals to enable this. The dam creates water deep enough for them to swim in.
Beaver dams are temporary structures and generally quite leaky. By building new dams in different places, the beavers bring a changeable mixture of habitats into the landscape, with streams, pools and bare mud.
Beaver dams also hold water in dry periods, help to lessen flash-flooding downstream and reduce erosion, improve water quality by holding silt and catch acidic and agricultural run-off.
Beavers can have both positive and negative effects on migratory fish like trout and salmon, but this varies according to conditions and requires further study.
What do beavers eat?
Beavers eat only plants and do not eat fish. They feed on aquatic plants, grasses, herbaceous plants and shrubs during the summer months and woody plants in winter. They will often store food underwater so that they can access it if the water freezes over in winter.
What is the RSPB doing to help?
- We’ve been actively promoting beaver reintroduction through published articles, talks and blogs
- We’re advocating further reintroductions in Scotland and are seeking to influence decisions through our membership of the National Species Reintroduction Forum (NSRF)
- We’re advocating that beavers are allowed to remain in England and allowed to expand their range. We support the development of a management programme operating within a legal framework
- The RSPB is a member of the Beaver Advisory Committee for England (BACE) and is working with a consortium of organisations co-ordinated by the Beaver Trust
- We’ve assessed the suitability of several of our reserves in Scotland and England to support beavers and are working with the Cumbria Beaver Group to inform local communities about beavers and their benefits
- We’re supporting the Welsh Beaver Project as a member of the stakeholder group.
What happens if beavers come into conflict with humans?
- Through their activities, there’s the potential for beavers to come into conflict with land management, flood defence and fisheries interests
- Many of these problems can be managed using techniques that are well-tried and tested throughout Europe and increasingly in Britain, and this has been summarised in a beaver management handbook. These can be very effective in reducing localised flooding, protecting individual trees or woodland and preventing burrowing into banks
- There will be situations where these techniques aren’t enough and beavers may have to be relocated. We support this, so long as it is properly regulated and within a legal framework.)
- Management decisions must take into account the conservation status of the beavers, as well as the perceived problems they are said to be causing. Many reintroduced beaver populations in mainland Europe continue to thrive under such managed conditions.
How you can help
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