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Saving Species in Sussex – the Beavers are Back

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Tree-gnawing, tail-slapping and dam-building, beaver behaviour is familiar to most people. But beavers are both liked and loathed.

Beavers (Castor fiber) were wiped out in the UK in the 16th century, however, reintroductions began in 2009. Here in Sussex, the aquatic rodent will be reintroduced later this year. With the River Otter Beaver Trial ending earlier this year, will the benefits to biodiversity and flood management guarantee it a place, or are some right to be concerned?

A beaver at the water’s edge. Per Harald Olsen/NTNU.

The first UK reintroduction was in 2009 and in May last year beavers became protected by law in Scotland. Meanwhile in Devon, beavers were released without permission in 2008 and by 2014 they had produced kits (young). Despite local protests, The Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) was given permission to run a five year trial on the River Otter. A report of their findings was released in March. Earlier this month, the decision to allow the beavers to stay in Devon permanently was approved. There will be a consultation on the strategy for further reintroductions later this year. The outcome of the River Otter Beaver Trial will help to influence decisions on further releases, which bodes well for the future of beavers in England.

Early this year, Sussex became the eleventh county in England to get the go ahead to reintroduce beavers. They will be released at the Knepp Estate in autumn once the area has been made secure. As our local rewilding project, Knepp is a promising place to reintroduce beavers. The beavers will be joining reintroduced white storks and free-roaming cattle and pigs that occupy the place that once wild aurochs and wild boar would have filled.

The Old Hammer Pond on the Knepp Estate may be used by beavers in the future. CC-BY-SA 2.0 © Marathon.

Beavers were hunted to extinction for their fur, meat and castoreum (a secretion used in perfumes and food additives). Beavers are keystone species, as many organisms rely on their presence. Beavers are also ecosystem engineers, as they modify the landscape by removing trees and creating dams that change waterflow. These newly created habitats provide varied areas for plants and other animals to thrive in. In a time when biodiversity loss is an urgent crisis locally and globally these habitats provide vulnerable species space to exist.

A beaver dam in Scotland. Patrick Mackie CC BY-SA 2.0.

Some people are wary of reintroductions. Beavers change the habitat on a large scale and farmers are worried about flooding caused by beaver-dams. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) are also concerned that the beaver will cause destruction similar to the coypu (Myocastor coypus), an invasive species which was subsequently eradicated from the UK in 1989. However, coypu feed on different types of vegetation, destroying habitat for native species, unlike the beaver that creates habitat for vulnerable native species, from fish to butterflies.

Beavers also control and slow the flow of water, providing ecosystem services in the form of flood mitigation and improvements in water quality, among others. In a time of extreme weather events and increased flooding due to climate change, this is potentially of huge value.

The Knepp rewilding project was established in 2001 and has seen its own share of controversy. However, Knepp is part of The Sussex Beaver Partnership, which has been in consultation with the NFU for two years, providing hope that the release will be welcomed. Indeed recently, the president of the NFU, Minette Batters stated that beavers are part of the solution for flood management.

As native mammals and ecosystem engineers, beavers benefit biodiversity and control water levels. Through further reintroductions, the benefits should become more apparent to those at higher risk. Let’s hope the beaver is here to stay.

Kerrie Curzon, Collections Assistant