Should there be beavers in the Brit?
Between 13th and 30th April 2023, we undertook a set of community consultation events across the Brit River Catchment to ask the question above.
These are now completed and you can download the report here. We have put a summary of the results below.
If you want your get in touch after reading the report, please contact us here
Summary of findings
The main findings from the consultation are:
from those who attended the meetings and did our online questionnaire, 87% of people were in support of wild beaver reintroduction in the catchment area, the majority of whom were ‘very supportive’;
from the subset of landowners and farmer, 67% were supportive, 24% not sure and only 8% opposed, which gives a clear mandate for further conversations with this audience;
The vast majority of people recognised the benefits that beavers can bring, except in the case of economic benefits, about which people were less clear;
Many people had questions, the answers for which are in the document and copied below.
The rest of this page gives you details about beavers. We need funds to do this work so any contribution made below would be fantastic. Thanks:
Questions and answers from the consultation
Question: Will beavers flood my land?
Answer: Beavers need areas of deep water, and if they are living in an area without that, they will build dams to create it. This can reduce flooding to communities downstream, but it can result in waterlogging and even flooding of low-lying farmland adjacent to watercourses in the headwaters. Due to the nature of the Brit Catchment, with many small, steep narrow valleys, the extent of this flooding is likely to be limited by the shape of the landscape. Where farmland is affected, there is a government management hierarchy in place to enable the landowner, or West Dorset Wilding, to respond. This can be seen here and may involve removing the dam, putting in a flow device, and ultimately translocating the beavers. There are also agri-environment payments that can be used to reward the landowner for taking these wetland areas out of production, because of the benefits to residents downstream and to wildlife.
Question: Will beavers eat my trees?
Answer: Beavers are entirely herbivorous. In summer they mostly feed on lush wetland plants, but in the autumn and winter, they switch more to riverside trees and shrubs.They fell larger trees to reach the upper branches and bark which they eat, and to stimulate regrowth of trees like willow or poplar that coppice readily. This can often result in the tree canopy opening up in patches, stimulating more vegetation growth below. If you have a tree that is within 20 metres of a river or stream where beavers are present, you might see evidence that the beavers are starting to feed on it. As well as willow and poplars, other favourites include hazel and apple trees, but nothing is completely off limits.
If there is evidence that beavers are eating your trees, and you wish to protect them, there are easy fixes such as weld-mesh or sandy paint, both of which are cheap and easy to apply and could be done by the landowner, or West Dorset Wilding. ‘Pre-emptive protection’ is also possible for important trees in the middle of an active territory.
Question: Will beavers eat crops?
Answer: Beavers can eat ‘sweet’ green crops like maize within about 20m of a watercourse. The financial impact of this behaviour is very limited, but a buffer strip alongside the watercourse can discourage it. Buffer strip payments are now available through Agri-enviornment schemes here in England under the new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS).
Question: Will beavers damage river banks?
Answer: Beavers can burrow into riverbanks, either for their main natal lodge or for outlying dwellings or temporary ‘shelters’. While the lodges are generally quite obvious, some of their smaller burrows can be unobtrusive. These can impact on flood defences, and they sometimes collapse when farm machinery or even people and livestock go over them.
A buffer strip alongside watercourses reduces potential conflicts with burrows.
Question: What will keep the population down as there are no natural predators?
Answer: Beaver kits are subject to predation from otters, foxes and birds of prey, so it is inevitable that some will be lost. Natural predators of adult beavers are wolves, lynx and bears which are obviously absent from Britain, but the most significant control of beaver populations is territorial fighting which controls beaver number; they kill each other as the population increases. Road traffic collisions also kill beavers, and in the longer term people are likely to control beaver populations.
Question: What happens if there are too many?
Answer: If it is agreed under the management hierarchy that there are too many beavers in an area, some can be translocated out of the catchment to places where they are wanted and there is more space. Ultimately the management hierarchy allows for lethal control of beavers by a skilled operative where there are no alternatives.
Question: Because they are protected, what can we do?
Answer: Beavers are protected under law and so management has to be carried out in accordance with the management hierarchy and under a Natural England class licence. All of the information you need is here.
Question: How could they be monitored and managed, and who will pay?
Answer: If beavers spread into the area naturally then it would be the responsibility of landowners to undertake any management under licence from Natural England (NE). West Dorset Wilding are proposing an approach similar to that used in the Otter Valley, in which we source funds for a catchment beaver officer to oversee management and monitoring. This will take the burden off landowners and ensure that trained and licensed personnel can advise and support landowners effectively.
Question: Do they pass on TB or other diseases?
Answer: There has never been a case of beavers carrying TB. Any beavers introduced from elsewhere in Britain would need to be health screened for a number of diseases such as Salmonella and Leptospirosis. Report from the Scottish beaver trial states: A sample of Tayside beavers were also tested for a range of parasites and diseases and no evidence was found of pathogens that may cause an increased health risk to humans, livestock and other wildlife. More can be seen on this here.
Question: Will they create silt which will impact on fish spawning gravels, and how will it impact on fish populations?
Answer: The effects of beavers on fish is an area where there is much research from around the world, and more being undertaken. Beavers build dams in the headwaters and so trap sediment and hold and gradually release a steady flow of cleaner water from their wetlands. This can benefit existing spawning gravels, and they also create new gravel beds which have been shown to benefit trout and other species. Beaver pools are also shown to hold larger trout and other species that like areas of slower flowing water within the channel. Questions are sometimes raised about whether dams impact on migrating salmon, but dams are built in the headwaters, usually upstream of where the salmon are spawning. It is worth remembering that migratory fish and beavers co-existed and co-evolved for a long time before humans impacted our watercourses so heavily. However watercourses do need more space in order to adapt to the presence of beavers and maximise their potential. Beavers do not build dams in larger rivers - although there are many man-made weirs and other barriers to fish migration in the Brit and Asker.
Question: How will you control the mink that will flourish in the wetlands?
Answer: This is an interesting question and one for which there is little evidence from previous work. It is likely that as an non-native invasive species, we would aim to undertake trapping as part of the work to support a wild release of beavers if it became necessary. An effective programme of this type would also pave the way for re-introducing water voles.
Question: When will management stop?
Answer: This would entirely depend on government policy, but from West Dorset Wilding’s perspective we would look to continue with management and monitoring until the point at which it is no longer needed and beavers are part of everyday life - should that happen.
Question: Will they cause footpaths to be lost?
Answer: The effects of beavers on footpaths are likely to be very limited. Very occasionally paths might be realigned if areas became impassible, or if necessary beaver dams could be removed to maintain an important path. Trees being felled on footpaths will be an important thing to monitor for.
Question: What about dog/beaver interactions?
Answer: Beavers have a strong sense of smell and will be aware of dogs within their territory, and will often stay out of the way. If a dog is putting the beaver’s family at risk, they are capable of defending their kits with sharp teeth, and there have been occasions where dogs have been bitten by beavers in these situations. A tail-slap is a sign that beavers are being disturbed by people or dogs, and also warns other beavers of the presence of danger within the territory.
What about the safety of beavers from dogs and hostile humans? In respect of dogs, see above. In respect of humans, it is illegal to harm a beaver, and although this may not stop everyone, we hope that a programme of education and awareness through guided walks and talks will help people feel more comfortable about the reintroduction of a native species.
Question: What is the scientific basis for reintroduction?
Answer: There is plenty of work done that can explain this better than us. You could look at this summary from the team at Exeter University, and there are some useful scientific reports published by the government as part of a beaver consultation held in 2021 - see link here. There is also more information on the Beaver Trust website https://beavertrust.org/
Question: Will it reduce the value of my land?
Answer: There is unlikely to be any significant effect on the value of your land. Beavers are becoming more widespread in Britain again, and this is likely to continue over the coming decades until they are in most watercourses. There should be management processes in place to minimise detrimental impacts on productive farmland, and the Government policies suggest that there will be more financial incentives for landowners wishing to create wetlands in the future.
Question: Will they eat all of the beautiful wildflowers on the river banks?
Answer: Beavers are browsers and in the summer tend to eat lush riverside vegetation. This might include a few flowers, but it also includes brambles, nettles and even invasive species like himalayan balsam. They are actually likely to make the vegetation and the canopy more structurally varied which would benefit the rarer wild-flowers. Beavers will have co-evolved with riparian plants so their interaction is natural.
Where would the beavers live?
The wider Brit catchment includes the rivers Brit, Symene, Asker and the Mangerton Brook that feeds into the Asker. They also all have tributaries, smaller streams, that feed into these rivers, some of which don't have names.
We currently have work in progress by the University of Exeter looking at which of these areas have suitable habitat for beavers, but initial indications seem to indicate that the animals would be very happy here, with plenty of secluded areas with vegetation like willow, hazel and bramble.
Beavers are unlikely to dam main channels, favouring small tributaries to create safe deep water for themselves and their kits. These dams also slow down the flow of water, which helps prevent flooding downstream, and retains water for drought periods.
A better map will be provided soon. This one is under OpenSteetMap licence.
Although it may seem a rural idyll, West Dorset ’s biodiversity has been hugely depleted over the last 70 years and more. The natural systems that protect us from the effects of flooding, drought and pollution are failing and many animal and plant species are on the brink of disappearing altogether. West Dorset Wilding recognises the importance of a thriving nature and its vital role in helping us to adapt to the impacts of climate change now and in the future.
Enter the Eurasian Beaver.. Proven ‘ecosystem engineers’, beavers have been the subject of much recent research into flood alleviation and ecosystem restoration in the UK, most notably in the Otter Valley in nearby East Devon where there has been a wild release for 10 years now.
Beavers are a native species in the UK, but we wiped them out in the wild over 400 years ago, and their reintroduction is about bringing balance back to nature. They are a ‘keystone species’ which means their behaviour positively affects many aspects of the ecosystem, and they are also now protected by law.
In short, beavers can prevent flooding and drought, improve water quality, increase biodiversity and help prevent climate change by locking up carbon in wetlands. To add to this, the recreational, wellbeing and educational value of having wild beavers in an area is massive.
They were wiped out in the UK and much of Europe some 400 years ago by hunting for their fur and 'castoreum', a secretion which was used for making scents and was also believed to have medicinal properties. Sadly they also suffered from indiscriminate hunting for ‘sport’.
They are nocturnal animals and completely vegetarian, eating pretty much anything green. They love riverside plants and tubers, with a particular favourite being young sallow branches (a type of willow), and the bark of some trees. They don’t eat fish! They have orange iron enriched front teeth which they use to scrape off bark and gnaw their way through bigger trees which they cut down mainly to open up the canopy. The increased light that result stimulates new growth of vegetation in the understory, which of course provides them with food. They don’t tend to eat the dry hard wood when they chop down trees and leave that on the ground in the form of beaver chips – considered lucky by some! They also sharpen their teeth on hard wood.
Their behaviour is all about safety and food – much like all of us! They build dams to raise the water level which then gives them safer access throughout their territory, away from harmful predators - not that the wolf lives in Dorset, but otters and badgers can kill baby beavers, called ‘kits’. They live in ‘lodges’ which are normally dug into the side of riverbanks and accessed below the raised water level, but which have ‘escape’ tunnels into the riverbank above, normally cunningly disguised as a pile of sticks! The tree felling not only allows new plant growth, but allows them to eat the bank and young branches all the way up the branch, and can help with dams.
This text is from an article that is published first in the Marshwood Value magazine. You can see the article in full here on pages 24/25.
What's the problem?
This all seems too good to be true... but there are some perceived downsides to beavers living wild. Since they became extinct we have become used to living without them, and in particular we farm or build building and roads right up to the edges of what would be, and could be their terrain - the rivers.
This means that under certain circumstances, the dams that they make could flood fields, road or houses and the woody debris may lead to culverts being blocked. Moreover, they may decide that they want to eat a favourite tree in a garden or public space.
Whilst we understand that these might be concerning, they are all manageable, either through protecting trees using wire mesh, or removing or altering dams so that the flooding is no longer an issue.
The government has put in place a clear management framework for beavers in the wild, and West Dorset Wilding would look to employ a beaver manager to help people with any problems or concerns they might have, in the same way that Devon Wildlife Trust did for the Otter Valley release.
One thing we can't get away from is that beaver-occupied areas look 'messy', but nature is messy, and with the 'mess' comes a whole lot more life - so perhaps this is something we can put up with?
If you couldn't attend the drop-ins and are a landowner or farmer with particular interests or concerns, please contact us directly and we will come and see you.
Thank you for your time, we look forward to hearing your views. There are some great resources about beavers out there and we will put them here when we get a minute.
Our thanks for support for these events goes to Natural England. They are held in collaboration with or with additional support from Mapperton Estate, Slape Manor, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Devon Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Dorset AONB Team and The University of Exeter.
You can help us take the next steps in this work by joining the charity or making a donation. Thanks for your time.