Once hunted to extinction, beavers are now being carefully reintroduced by conservationists and farmers who have seen first-hand the benefit to flood defences, biodiversity and climate resilience.
Three years ago, organic farmer Chris Jones reintroduced a breeding pair of beavers to a two-hectare enclosure on Woodland Valley Farm in a bid to reduce the devastating effects of flooding on the nearby Cornish village of Ladock.
“Beavers have a multitude of positive impacts,” says Jones, who now has eight beavers on his land, including three babies (known as kits) born this spring as part of his Cornwall Beaver Project.
“They’re restoring the ecological integrity of our rivers and streams. By creating dams in smaller tributaries, they re-wet the river valley, creating pools of slow-moving water. The fuel in the biological engine is algae, the basis of all aquatic food chains – as water slows down, more algae can grow. Meanwhile, the faster-moving water in between pools is ideal for fish passage and spawning.”
By slowing down the flow of rivers, beavers reduce the risk of floods and droughts, according to the Beaver Trust charity, which launched last year. Known as a ‘keystone species’, because they have a significant positive effect on the environment, beavers act as engineers by reconfiguring the water systems in the tributaries close to a river’s source, known as headwaters.
Today, there are between 800 and 1,000 beavers living in the UK, on English rivers such as the Tamar, Otter, Wye, Stour and the River Tay in Scotland. And only this week, a landmark new decision has given England’s first wild breeding beavers the right to remain living in the wild, in their east Devon home – the first legally sanctioned reintroduction of an extinct native mammal in England.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for these plant-eating mammals, which were hunted to extinction in the 16th century for their meat, fur and a secretion called castoreum, which was used in food, perfumes and medicine.
“These crazy animals can transform even the tiniest streams,” adds Jones, who co-founded the Beaver Trust, alongside farming organic beef and running a diverse farm events business.
The beavers fell trees to make dams and create deep water so they can construct concealed entrances to their underwater homes, or ‘lodges’, explains Jones, who says: “It’s on these headwaters that they make the biggest changes and that’s where we get incredible significance for us, for society and for biodiversity.”
Since 2017, Jones has recorded eight new bird species on his farm including red-listed willow tits, spotted flycatchers, rare green sandpiper and water rails. “These birds need the kind of scruffy habitat that beavers make for us for nothing, in return for sacrificing a very small area of land that is usually of poor agricultural quality.”
The government’s new subsidy structure for farming, which will be built around new Environment Land Management Schemes (ELMs), could help pay for this kind of ecological ‘service’ by paying farmers to take some land out of cultivation and help protect beaver habitats, says Jones.
As a farmer, he struggles with the term ‘rewilding’ and thinks that repurposing land from food production to something else, especially in the lowlands, is a “silly” idea. Instead, he believes in a more integrated, systematic approach. “Beavers are very much part of a farmed landscape. If we don’t have the wit to use free, natural actors to do free, natural stuff for us, then we deserve to go extinct.”
The beavers fit into Woodland Valley and Jones’ vision for this integrated landscape approach where nature and farm work together: the cows help fertilise the grass, which in turns feeds them, and crops like clover help replace nitrogen fertiliser and improve soil structure, lowering the carbon footprint and keeping local water environments clean.
“The Environment Agency cannot do what beavers do without spending a lot of money, that’s why the Forestry Commission have been so interested in using beavers in Yorkshire and the Forest of Dean to reduce flood risks in downstream towns and villages for free,” he says.
Sacha Dench, the UN ambassador for migratory species and a trustee of the Beaver Trust agrees that “a network of healthy wetlands is critical in a changing climate”. “At such a time of emergency, bringing back the beaver to the UK is simply a rational, sensible, affordable response to climate and biodiversity crises. And overall, with a few minor inconveniences, absolutely everyone wins,” she says.
Jones, who remains realistic, explains how beavers can cause localised flooding: “If they establish in the middle of a village, for example, that could cause problems, so a robust management policy is needed.
“I value this animal for the incredible effect it has on our environment and we should be harnessing the good they can do,” he adds.
According to Jones, beaver enclosures should be rolled out “nationally but carefully” by tailoring reintroduction plans to individual catchments within each county, to avoid causing issues for farmers and fishermen.
“We should be prepared to manage them stringently and that starts with education. We might need electric fences to keep them within boundaries or to install beaver deceiver fences,” explains Jones, who prevents beavers felling particular trees on his land by applying a mix of PVA glue and sand to the trunk because they don’t like the grit. He accepts that it might be “perfectly valid” to consider lethal control as a last resort.
But overall, it seems the benefits are beginning to outweigh the challenges. Jones believes that beavers could help regenerate ecosystems without the need for formal, expensive nature recovery networks, and he is very keen for people to visit his farm to find out more. As he puts it: “Climate breakdown isn’t waiting, the sooner we get this animal out there to help us the better.”