Beavers to make ‘cautious’ return to England with legal protection
The government is launching a consultation on more reintroductions to the wild after a successful trial in Devon
Beavers will be released into the wild under government proposals to support a “cautious” return of the semi-aquatic mammals to English rivers.
The native animals will also be given legal protection in England, making it an offence to deliberately capture, kill, disturb or injure them, or damage their breeding sites or resting places, as part of efforts to support their recovery.
Under plans being put out for consultation, applications for licences to release beavers into the wild would need to meet certain criteria, including local buy-in and ensuring support for landowners and river users is in place.
Beavers are seen as natural engineers who restore wetland habitats through dam-building and felling trees, slowing, storing and filtering water in their habitat, which attracts other wildlife and reduces flooding downstream.
The species was hunted to extinction in Britain in the 16th century for their fur, glands and meat.
They have already made a partial return to England, and are found wild on the River Otter in Devon, the site of a successful official trial reintroduction, as well as on other rivers due to illegal releases or escapes.
They have also been introduced into enclosures in a number of English counties to help manage flooding and create habitat for other wildlife.
Conservationists back the return of beavers to restore wetland habitats, boost other wildlife, curb climate impacts such as increased flooding, and support eco-tourism – although landowners have raised concerns about the impact locally.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is launching a 12-week consultation on further reintroductions into the wild and management of existing wild populations in England, which the environment secretary, George Eustice, said would take a cautious approach.
Eustice said: “We are committed to providing opportunities to reintroduce formerly native species, such as beavers, where the benefits for the environment, people and the economy are clear.
“But we also understand that there are implications for landowners, so we are taking a cautious approach to ensure that all potential impacts are carefully considered.”
The consultation seeks views on potential future releases into the wild, current and future releases into enclosures, and management of beaver activity or impacts in the wild, including on the River Otter and where other free-living beavers have made their homes.
It proposes that licences for reintroductions into the wild would need to meet criteria such as demonstrating positive stakeholder engagement and local buy-in, and proof that a comprehensive assessment has been undertaken of impacts on surrounding land, waterways, infrastructure, habitats and species.
Projects must also ensure that support for landowners and river users is put in place under the proposals.
The government has also announced plans to give beavers legal protection in England, which would come into force in 2022.
Rob Stoneman from the Wildlife Trusts said: “There’s an impressive body of evidence to show how beavers can help to improve the quality of rivers and wetlands and the wildlife they support, improve water quality, and reduce flood risk, as well as contributing to carbon storage.
“Beavers are fabulous – they can do all of this free of charge.”
But, he added: “Beavers are wild animals – and as their populations expand their activities will need managing.” He said the trusts would continue to play a pivotal role in the return of beavers in a responsible manner.
Eva Bishop from the Beaver Trust said the announcement was an important step forward for beavers’ recovery in Britain and it was vital to form a consensus on their return.
“We hope to see beavers accepted back in the countryside like any other native wild animal – particularly as they have a role to play in nature’s recovery and British wildlife resilience in the climate emergency,” she said.
Prof Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, said beavers could help rewild the countrysid, an important tool to tackle the nature and climate emergencies.
“Beavers can do much of that rewilding completely free of charge in river and wetland environments – so it really is a no-brainer that with the right local community support and management strategies in place, we should return them back where they belong in our catchment.”
The measures would apply to England. Beavers have also returned to the wild in Scotland, with the Scottish government giving them legal protection in 2019, although they can be killed under licence if they damage farmland.