Beavers – nature’s engineers, architects, builders and plumbers – are back in Britain.
Today, Natural England announced that it has approved Forestry Commission plans to release a family of four beavers in the beautiful Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, next spring. The two adults and two kits will complement an exciting enclosed scheme in Devon and a trial reintroduction of beavers into the River Otter in 2015.
Until recently, beavers had been absent from England for over 400 years. They were hunted to extinction here (although not elsewhere in Europe) for their thick fur; their glands were also prized for use in medicines and perfumes.
Their release will transform the local environment. These industrious rodents spend their days excavating and logging, rapidly building dams to create deep-water canals and pools in which they hide from predators. The consequences of their work can be truly astounding.
When a beaver builds a dam, it creates extensive wetlands described as the ‘kidneys’ of our landscape. They filter water and improve its quality, clean the air and boost local biodiversity – because once a wetland appears, so will otters, water voles, water shews, dragonflies, kingfishers, woodcock and herons. The wider habitat is transformed, driving botanical and wildlife diversity through more food sources and better places to breed.
In this country, wetlands such as these have been in a state of decline for decades. Releasing beavers will help us reverse this damaging trend in a sustainable way, restoring the natural environment.
And beavers help transform not just their immediate environment. The ponds and intricate structure of dams built by beavers also act to hold back water after heavy rainfall, helping to prevent flooding further downstream.
In the Forest of Dean, this will benefit the residents of the village Lydbrook, deep in the Wye Valley. They have strongly backed the new scheme, having suffered terrible flooding in 2012 that devastated their homes and businesses. We know from similar schemes in Devon that a single family of beavers is capable of holding back enough water to help alleviate the risk of further flooding in a way that is both sustainable and cost-effective.
Of course, there are some who are concerned that, in lowland areas, the activities of beavers can cause damage to existing natural assets. I appreciate the sincerity and seriousness of those worries. I am confident that there should be significant net environmental benefits from reintroducing beavers. But in order to provide reassurance, the beavers reintroduced under these trial schemes will be tagged, recaptured if they escape, and returned to their designated areas.
And the reintroduction of beavers needs to be seen alongside our broader environmental ambitions. This government is determined to leave our natural environment in a better state than we found it. And that means reversing the decline in native species, as well as reintroducing animals who’ve vanished from our landscape.
In recent decades, the number of farmland birds has reduced by more than half, pollinators such as wild and honey bees have suffered a drastic decline in numbers, and our rivers and chalk streams have seen fish stocks decline and small mammals disappear.
Recent initiatives such as the go-ahead for a new forest in Northumberland to provide a habitat which can help red squirrel numbers grow – and action on neo-nicotinoids to safeguard the bee population – are driven by our desire to help the natural world recover from mankind’s past mistakes. The announcement, earlier this week, of a new marine special protection area off the Cornish coast is also intended to help seabird numbers return to health and in the New Year we’ll be saying more about safeguarding other habitats. These initiatives are ethical imperatives in themselves – acts of stewardship by which we discharge our debt to the natural world – but they are also economically sensible. You can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy environment and, more than that, wildlife tourism is one of the most effective ways of injecting more money and supporting new jobs in the rural economy.
The experience of reintroducing white tailed sea eagles in the Isle of Mull has proved hugely popular and I hope our reintroduction of beavers in the Forest of Dean will bring even more visitors to another beautiful part of Britain.