Three weeks ago, a historic decision in UK conservation was made by Natural England. Having escaped or been released some years ago, the first family of wild English beavers Castor fiber since the species’ extirpation from our shores in the 16th century were allowed to remain swimming, gnawing and damming away to their hearts content on the River Otter in Devon, rather than being trapped by DEFRA’s equivalent of the child catcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang and subjected to captivity (not that any of the zoos wanted them). In order not to starve the bureaucrats of some management and paperwork to let them pretend they were still in charge of things, this is all part of a five-year trial akin to the Scottish beaver trial (currently over and under review) after which they could theoretically be removed if they don’t ‘behave’.
Either way, this is fantastic news, especially when you consider how nasty the government has been towards wildlife in recent years, and it seems here the beavers have managed to curve the particularly virulent ‘curse of B’ (the Badgers and Buzzards haven’t been so lucky). Conservationists have been preaching the practically magical ability of beavers to renovate and regenerate the health of wetland, meadow and wet woodland environments for decades now due to the phenomenal benefits it brings to the local ecology and the successive ecosystem services (such as flood defence, carbon storage and water purification). Probably the most vocal is Derek Gow, an ecologist and farmer I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for the past couple of years now.
When I first met him to conduct this interview for the Independent, I was struck not only by his ability to talk at length with such sound sense about the state of conservation in this country to the point that what felt like ten minutes had gone by in two hours, but his comment on the enormous decision making that was represented by this single species of mammal – quite simply, if we couldn’t learn to live alongside beavers, we’ve got no chance of making drastic changes to conservation. In a more specific context, it could be interpreted Derek was referring to reintroductions, and the currently sexy buzzword ‘rewilding’.
Most of the official reintroductions that have taken place in the UK have been small, ‘mostly harmless’ species that people think are lovely to look at and would get the National Trust salivating to print on a tea towel as soon as possible – think the large blue butterfly, the cirl bunting, the water vole. Attempts to go bigger have raised hackles slightly, as the uneasy relationship between farmers and white-tailed eagles in Scotland shows despite their huge economic value in ecotourism. So bringing back an animal not only larger than a jack russell, but can actively change its environment, has unsurprisingly triggered knee-jerk aggression since it was first suggested, and continues to do so.
But perhaps the Devon beavers signal the start of a slow acceptance that we need keystone species back in our ecosystems in order to restore balance to our damaged ecology. If, or more likely when, beavers become more fully established in Britain, occasional conflict resulting from their engineering habits would be inevitable, but the cost of managing ‘problem’ animals through translocation or extermination is definitely worth the benefit of the aforementioned ecological and economic benefits of these animals activity, rather than rather childishly leaving the answer at no. (Or more commonly in the case of anglers, the go-to excuse ‘our rivers aren’t the same anymore and would need restoration first’ – despite the fact beavers would provide said restoration!)
And with beavers back, what could this mean for the other ‘ghosts’ of our ecosystems? At the moment, it’s definitely watch this space on the pine marten. This beautiful and enigmatic mustelid is doing well in the Scottish Highlands, but has been mostly absent from England since the 18th century. It isn’t spreading well from the former however, so the Vincent Wildlife Trust are in the process of formulating reintroduction plans to appropriate sites. The main barrier here is the simple fact it’s a predator, a word which seems to trigger rabies-like symptoms in gamekeepers. However, the Sheehy study’s revelations of the marten’s incredible ability at reducing numbers of grey squirrels, and subsequently clearing space for the reds, could well be the trump card in this case.
Although it’s not a predator, the wild boar is an equally divisive case, and any decision for official reintroduction is likely to be decided, like the beavers, from feral populations already abundant in the Forest of Dean and Kent as a result of farm escapes. Their rooting increases soil quality and they are capable of controlling the forest-floor swamping bracken and brambles, but equally this habit is not popular with gardeners, farmers and even football pitch managers. Ironically, the best bet for this animal would be with support from the hunting community. Huge populations are maintained and cherished in France by hunters, and the economy created from game meat (a much more sustainable alternative to much of the meat industry) would be a valuable way of maintaining breeding populations capable of regenerating woodland ecology, while controlling numbers before it became too damaging.
But what of the predators not just a bit larger than not just a jack russell, but a labrador? What of the lynx, or even the wolf, and, quiet voice now, the bear? If the uproar created by a herbivorous rodent is anything to go by, we should expect reactions akin to a rattlesnake that’s had to listen to Piers Morgan for a year, even in this brave new rewilding world. These cries would probably be from the same people who love tigers and expect poor Indians who can barely afford a home to live side by side with them in harmony, but I digress. In its current state, Britain is more or less ready for the return of lynx, though more woodlands with suitable denning sites would help. This unseen cat is a specialist predator of our over-populated roe deer (and would almost certainly take muntjac if found here too), would limit the populations of mesopredators like fox and badger, and as a predator of solitary animals in woodland cover, is generally thoroughly put off by flocks of sheep in fields.
The other two predators, even I’m going to admit we’re not quite ready for, particularly as the latter point regarding lynx definitely does not apply here – though if an agreement between sheep farmers was magically achieved in the Scottish Highlands, you might be able to get a small wolf population up there – but even then, it would be best to wait for a larger wild land network to be developed (like Half Britain). Whatever happens next, that small family of beavers paddling about their ways in a West Country river may well be more than just a pretty tail: They are a keystone in the history of 21st century nature conservation, and possible gatekeepers of a much wilder future to come.
FOOTNOTE/SHAMELESS PLUG: On Monday the 20th April this year, I will be hosting the first rewilding workshop designed specifically for young conservationists between 16 and 30, as part of my work within the A Focus on Nature network. Hosted at the Wildwood Trust in Kent, it will be a chance to hear talks and debate on the issue, and see beavers, wolf, lynx, bear, boar and more up close. So if this article interested you, you’re between the above mentioned age bracket, and want to delve more into this exciting new aspect of conservation, book your place here!