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Simon Barnes: Return to the rivers

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Beavers are coming back to the waters of Britain, in glorious abundance. They must not be thwarted by the meddling of our own species


The River Otter rises in the Blackdown Hills of Somerset and flows through East Devon until it reaches Lyme Bay. Coleridge wrote a sonnet about it: “Dear native brook! wild streamlet of the west!” I sat on its banks for some hours and witnessed a miracle: the return of something lost and gone forever.

It was a furry creature of the water, but, a little confusingly, it was not an otter. It was a beaver. European beavers were once native to the UK but they were wiped out 500 years ago. There’s often something wonderfully matter-of-fact about an encounter with a rare and special species: and there was a bumbling inevitability about the big female who pulled herself out on shore for a good old groom, followed a little later by her two half-grown kits.

The beavers are coming back. More will be released into the countryside in 2021: five more releases will have the backing of the Wildlife Trusts. One has already taken place in Dorset; others are planned for the Isle of Wight, Nottinghamshire, and Montgomeryshire. There’s a particularly intriguing project to release beavers in an urban setting: in Shrewsbury at a site surrounded by a housing estate and a school.

The return of the beavers has been a strange tale, showcasing both the romantic nature of the British and our stultifying conservatism. These beavers, slapping their tails on the waters of the River Otter in the classic alarm signal of beaverkind, owe their existence to sneaking midnight romantics.

Europeans beavers were illegally released into the river a dozen years ago and for a good while nobody noticed. When the penny dropped many feared instant disaster would follow: the river dammed to oblivion, the agricultural countryside drowned and useless and all the fish dead.

There were emotional lobbies demanding an immediate cull, notably from farming and fishing. They had all the initial traction. But the fact that the beavers had been there for some years without anyone even noticing was a powerful counter-argument – and besides, a lot of people liked them. In the end a five-year trial period was permitted, beginning in 2015, in which the beavers were monitored closely. This has now passed. There are about 15 family groups on the river now and they are something of a tourist draw in happier times. It was decided that the beavers can stay.

In Scotland in 2009 there was an approved beaver release at Knapdale; a few years earlier there had been another illegal release on the River Tay. They, too, have been permitted to stay. Scotland has accepted the beavers as part of Scottish fauna and extended legal protection to them. England and Wales have yet to take that decisive step.

The historical logic is compelling: European beavers are a British species. The North American beaver is very similar in looks and behaviour, but incapable of hybridising with Europeans. Beavers were squeezed out of Britain by the spreading human population and its increasing need for space – and they were also relentlessly hunted. They were hunted for their fur, which makes especially good felt for hats. A superior hat was called a beaver, and therefore in cricket a beaver-trick is four wickets in four balls – better than a mere hat-trick.

Beavers were also hunted for a substance called castoreum. This is carried by both sexes in a gland near the tail and is used to scent-mark territories. It’s been used as an analgesic and an anti-inflammatory; it was used as recently as the 20th Century to treat complaints of the womb. Aesop and Pliny the Elder both pass on the same resulting tale: that a hunted beaver will bite off his own testicles and offer them to his pursuers.

After humans, beavers are the most effective deliberate modifiers of the environment. They take a place and make it into a new place, startlingly different and teeming with life. They are ecosystem engineers and they create a British landscape that was lost and forgotten.

I visited an enclosed beaver population in Devon. It had been established in a scrubby field, with a few trees in it. The beavers took this and created a seven-step cascading water-feature brimming with life, with pools full of insects and other invertebrates, a great food source for many other species. The hydrology of the place has been measured: in times of flood it takes in more water than it lets out, sponging up the excess rather than letting it surge downstream and cause problems. But in times of drought, it lets out more water than it takes on, not only providing an oasis in a parched place but watering the land below. Beavers create flood defences and, what’s more, they maintain them – all without taking a penny.

Across Britain the beaver population continues to grow. They are mostly in enclosed environments, so that their effect on the surrounding land can be measured. Most of these schemes look forward to a less timid time when the barriers can come down and the beavers can spread. They have already reached that stage in Scotland. It’s been decided that no more introductions are necessary for the moment: let’s see what the beavers can do on their own.

The main problem with beaver introductions – and many other schemes to restore lost species to British life – is the control-freakery of special interest groups. Beavers, more than most species, are rivals for control of the environment. They build lodges and dams and also establish a complex system of canals and ponds. 

That offends our species-pride. We have been canalising, straightening, dredging, damming, confining, redirecting, polluting, unpolluting, repolluting, riding on, trading on, amusing ourselves on, drinking from and feeding from our rivers for countless centuries: why do we need beavers?

The resounding answer comes back: because we want them. Because we are not a brutally functional species. We want our rivers and our countryside to be more than an outdoor food factory. We want a countryside with beauty and mystery: and if we’ve taken a good deal of that away, why can’t we put it back in? We have lost beavers from the British landscape. We have lost a great deal more, not just in terms of species and biodiversity, but calamitously in terms of numbers, of bioabundance. There are 40 million fewer birds in Britain than there were in 1970.

There is a sense of fighting-back: not by specialist and fringe groups, but by the press of public opinion. The rum times we have lived through in the past year have seen many people turn to nature for solace: and wondering how they had lived without it for so long. There is a groundswell – or riverswell – of support for beavers, and their growing popularity among landowners is an indication of changing times. 

No one suggests that any sort of battle has been won, but certain big questions are being asked. Whose river is it anyway? Whose countryside? Whose country?

Simon Barnes lives in Norfolk with 10 acres of marsh that he manages for wildlife. He is author of The History of the World in 100 Animals.