Beavers and Us
The move to reintroduce beavers to the UK has unleashed controversy and generated conflict between conservationists and landowners. Rod Sturdy believes anglers should be aware of what is happening.
In Britain beavers are at the moment, for practical purposes, restricted to a time-limited reintroduction trial taking place in Knapdale Forest, Argyll, under the auspices of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. The number of animals involved is small and the EU’s Habitats Directive requires governments to consider (note this: only consider) reintroductions of extinct native species.
Beavers have for practical purposes been extinct since the 16th Century; although it is claimed that a colony or two lasted until the early 18th. Beavers are classified as a ‘keystone species’, which is defined as one which has a disproportionate effect on an ecosystem in relation to its numbers, one which transforms its territory, and also alternatively (and this does not apply to beavers) as one which predates on another (unwanted) species and keeps its activity to a minimum, such that the ecosystem would collapse without this predation.
So, that’s the technical bit out of the way; now for the controversy…
Clearly the beaver falls into the ‘disproportionate effect’ and ‘transforms its territory’ categories. This has prompted opponents of reintroduction to point out that things have moved on since the beaver became extinct; the landscape has changed enormously. Widespread reintroduction would adversely affect woodlands, prevent fish movement, damage river banks, increase the risk of flooding, and damage crops. There has also been some concern that beavers will interfere with future planning applications so that, unlike badgers and otters, they should not receive statutory protection.
One factor which has altered since the 16th Century is the size of the human population. Many of the areas once occupied by beavers more than 400 years ago are now highly urbanised and human control of the environment is so much closer. Rivers are now managed by us, rightly or wrongly. Enhancement of river habitats is carried out by humans and I am thinking here of people like the Wild Trout Trust and similar organisations who carry out precisely calculated, targeted and refined improvements for the benefit of fish and wildlife and do so to fit in with human settlement and activity.
It would make no sense, in my view, to let beavers loose to do as they wish then have to undo their work, or cull them, because someone’s back garden is underwater… There is no question, by the way, of beavers eating fish as they are totally vegetarian.
Critics of the reintroduction of extinct species have quite rightly also asked: if beavers, then why not wild boar and wolves?
The pro-beaver reintroduction lobby, a notable member of which is Chris Packham of television fame, argues that the existence of beavers will bring greater biodiversity and be of great benefit to the environment. The more extreme in this lobby talk about the way beavers will alter the landscape in a ‘natural’ manner, without humans having to worry or manage anything: ‘Just let them get on with it!’ seems to be the general message from this quarter. ‘Natural habitat management’ is a phrase which has often been used.
This message is, of course, highly questionable. If there is one thing the countryside now is – and clearly needs to be – it is properly and scientifically managed – and this means by humans. There is virtually no part of the British Isles which is not subject to human intervention. Farming is the obvious example with crop protection, flood prevention and predator control. Forestry is another, not to mention such things as marine catch quotas, tagging and the like. To put it in modern jargon, we don’t do ‘natural’ any more.
Given that a colony of beavers can fell up to 300 trees in the course of one winter it is not surprising that there is a strong anti-introduction lobby, which includes the National Union of Farmers and the Country Landowners’ Association. No doubt the Forestry Commission has a view as well, although it is recognised that beavers benefit woodland by their coppicing activities.
Beavers, if allowed to roam and settle freely, will alter riverbanks, remove trees and flood areas. Clearly, there is a risk here to homes and businesses, not the least of which is farming.
Governments in Scotland and Poland have before now sanctioned culls of wild beavers which have escaped captivity and in 2010 record flooding in Poland was blamed on beavers.
With specific reference to angling beavers damming streams will make it difficult, if not impossible, for salmon to ascend to spawning sites and to migrate as they need to. But please do not dismiss this as a minor irritation which does not concern you because you have no interest in salmon: all fish move and colonise other areas regularly, and the presence of dams will make this much harder.
The pro-beaver lobby claim that damming benefits breeding fish and creates better habitat for juvenile fish; they also recognise that otters are definitely one species which are attracted to dams. Further claims are that beavers can regulate water quality (by holding back silt) and catching agricultural run-off. Personally I find this all very dubious: silt which is held back will be deposited upstream, and need to be removed; run-off will eventually get into any watercourse it is near, even if only at times of high flow.
Once more, it seems to me, we are largely dealing with the emotion-based obsession with furry mammals of the whiskery type. This is frequently used to sell conservation campaigns. It is currently being exploited by the WWF - and who can blame them? – in their drive to raise money to save the tiger. A leaflet which came through my letter box recently carries the photograph of a lovely female staring at us appealingly and doing a more than passable imitation of an adorable, cuddly pussy cat. We are told that just £3 a month will make ‘the purrfect (sic) gift’. The message is clear, and the appeal certain.
The same soppy element can be seen clearly in the BBC’s television wildlife programmes; anyone who has followed ‘Springwatch’ will know how Mr and Mrs Public at Large will coo and drool over a baby otter… Another programme I recall spent some time on the wasted efforts of a very well-meaning lady to have the broken wing of a juvenile kingfisher repaired by surgery. Clearly the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ was not on her radar. But such programmes tend to be the domain of those who know virtually everything there is to know about wildlife - and virtually nothing about the countryside.
(Who is it that said – quite correctly - that if fish had fur coats instead of scales their future would be secure? No doubt if they had appealing little faces as well, people would be queuing up to donate towards their welfare. )
My own view of this issue is now much clearer for having done a bit of research. First, it is a virtual certainty that beavers will be reintroduced. The lobby in favour is numerically very strong and contains some authoritative voices. Polls conducted among the general public – of people with presumably little or no specialist knowledge of the pros and cons - suggest that most people would be in favour of general reintroduction - and many will be prepared to give money to make this reality.
The only limiting factor might, in these financially challenged times, be the one of cost. Critics of the Scottish trial have described it as a ‘costly luxury’ and the beaver website recognises that the trial has been funded by ‘generous donations’.
The real issue as far as anglers and other affected parties are concerned is to my mind the area(s) and scale of reintroduction and what safeguards can be built in to avoid conflicts of interest. The solution I and many others would prefer is that beavers should be limited to certain areas and kept under a high degree of control. They could then legitimately be the lovable objects of eco-tourism and this is clearly desirable in built-up and intensively farmed lowland areas.
But the trouble is that you simply cannot prevent beavers spreading along watercourses and such a high degree of control is not possible. This is one of the reasons why the Angling Trust is campaigning on this issue and this is also why numbers of wild beavers have had to be controlled by culling in North America, as their activity has too often conflicted with other land uses.
The idea of beavers spreading unrestrained across the Weald of Kent, building lodges unchecked and felling trees left, right and centre and damming rivers personally fills me with horror. Unlikely? Well, it just so happens that the Weald of Kent has been identified as a suitable lowland area for beaver reintroduction. So gird your loins…
Please note that the Angling Trust is campaigning actively on behalf of all anglers on this issue before it is too late and we are faced with another ‘otter’ situation and have to deal with a repeat of the damage done to fish and fisheries by yet another species which has been introduced without the concerns of the largest group of recreational water users being taken into consideration beforehand – that’s you and me – us anglers.
Please see the Angling Trust website HERE for more details.
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