They are on the march again – those eco-crusaders, as I call them.
This time they are going on a mission to re-establish beavers in the UK; they have been conducting their campaign for some years in fact, but recently things have really taken off. I suspect that their ultimate aim, apart from re-establishment as part of a re-wilding programme, will be to establish the beaver as a protected species.
So how does this affect us, if at all? Well, make no mistake, it affects us greatly.
Beavers are notorious for altering the topography of rivers, chiefly by building dams. Beaver enthusiasts claim that this benefits rivers and the attendant wildlife. Common sense tells me that there are plenty of existing dams on UK rivers anyway. They are all man-made, and all impact on the characteristics of a river: current speed, depths and so on, for considerable distances both up, and downstream. Not to mention the fact that many, if not most, are obstructions to fish migration. This applies not only to the regular, annual movement of salmon and sea-trout, but also the various species of coarse fish which regularly wander, migrate and colonise different areas along the course of a river.
Do we therefore need more barriers to fish movement, especially when we consider the dire status of migratory fish, along with the poor state of UK river fish stocks generally? I think not.
But the eco-crusaders present us with an image of hard-working, determined beaver families maintaining and improving rivers, transforming and enriching the environment for the good of all. The fact is that, since their disappearance from Britain some 600 years ago, the landscape has changed dramatically. The human population has increased out of all proportion, and much of the country has become urbanised.
There is no longer the space or the ecological niche, in a landscape which is now totally managed by man, for beavers to occupy such territory as they did long ago. There is no area of the UK left now which even remotely compares to the vast wildernesses of North America, for example.
With this, as with many issues affecting angling, it will be a question of persuading the general public, and of course politicians, of the rightness of our own anti-beaver cause. However, the general public will be at best indifferent to the beaver issue, and at worst in favour, largely because they are easily persuaded by emotional factors, and arguments which rely on them. As humans they instinctively feel that furry animals with an appealing face and big round eyes are worthy of special protection.
It was enlightening to watch a short Channel 4 interview last year with Mark Lloyd, CE of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal, on the one hand, and a beaver expert on the other, expressing opposing views on the little colony of beavers discovered, possibly as a result of unauthorised release, on the River Otter in Devon. Whereas Mark’s (essentially factual) view was that beaver dams would represent yet another obstruction to the migration of the Atlantic salmon, a species already classified as threatened, the pro-beaver lobby was based almost entirely on an appeal to human sentiment.
By removing the beaver colony, the expert said, we would be removing the animals from their rightful home and imprisoning them in a concrete-sided enclosure. No science, no rational consideration of the impact on the environment, just pure emotion. Unfortunately this is exactly the sort of stuff which will strike a chord with the broad general public. And as has been said many times before, fish rank very low on the human endearment scale.
The situation is now that the Devon Wildlife Trust have now persuaded Natural England to spare the beavers the experience of ‘deportation’ for the moment. They will be the subject of a 5-year trial scheme, subject to funds being raised, for beavers in the wild. In a short Channel 4 News item on the stay of execution for the Devon beavers, the event was trumpeted by the Wildlife Trust representative as ‘a great day for conservation’. (Of what? is the only comment I can make on this.) Mark Owen, Head of Freshwater in the Angling Trust, put across the opposing view.
And if it comes to beavers being given special status, then I have visions of fishing being restricted in certain areas, or even lost.
The plain fact is that re-introduction of beavers into 21st century Britain with all its environmental woes, is a purely cosmetic measure. In a landscape, and waterscape which are severely depleted and suffering from many ills, it may make people feel good about the world they live in, but in reality it represents not so much ‘re-wilding’, but the introduction of a wild card into the environment.
I recently came across the horror story of the importation of 25 pairs of Canadian beavers in 1946 to Argentina. The intention was to provide an economically depressed area with the basis for a fur trade, something which never actually got off the ground. The animals soon spread into neighbouring Patagonia, causing huge damage and – as beavers inevitably do – altering the landscape in order to make it their own territory. And of course, building dams everywhere in the process. And forcing out other species, both plant and animal.
The beavers have no natural predators there, and there are now some 105 thousand of them, so now it is down to man to resolve the problem: eradication by shooting and trapping, is now the aim, because of that original fateful decision to release them nearly 70 years ago. An unintended consequence, if there ever was one.
Interestingly, I gather the plan is to microchip the Devon beavers in case it is necessary to round them up. How on earth their offspring can be located if need be has not yet been revealed.
But the battle is not yet lost. In fact I have good reasons to take heart. Chiefly because there have been recent references to the Angling Trust as the chief authority on rivers. And no less an environmentalist than Chris Packham, when discussing the fight against signal crayfish infestation, recently made a reference to ‘Britain’s Angling Army’, in recognition of angler power. And then there is the definite political ‘result’ for anglers recently on the issue of conservation of bass stocks.
So I urge you to join the fight to preserve angling. Join the Angling Trust, the body recognised by the Government as representing anglers in the UK. There is so much to gain, and so much to lose and in the end, it is down to you…
Watch the videos:
Channel 4 on beavers HERE
BBC Winter Watch on crayfish HERE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rod began fishing in his local park lake at the age of twelve, and from there he graduated to chub and roach from the river Tees in North Yorkshire. He now lives in Surrey within striking distance of the river Mole, as well as the Medway and the Eden in Kent and does a lot of surface carp fishing on small waters in the area. Latterly he has enjoyed winter fishing on the Test in Hampshire.
He has contributed numerous articles on various angling subjects and personalities to ‘Waterlog’ magazine and remains a passionate angler as well as a member and promoter of the Angling Trust.