The Question of Reintroduction

Since the early 1990s, there has been a growing movement to see the European beaver (Castor fiber) reintroduced to the UK.  The Scottish Beaver Trial is currently underway and a escaped population has establsied itself on the River Tay catchment. There have been a number of  releases in large enclosures in the UK.  The Highland Foundation for Wildlife has campaigned for many years for the return of the beaver and strongly believes that this species should be reintroduced to the UK.

Photo by Laurie Campbell

There are a number of reasons why we believe beavers should be reintroduced:

1.) Moral obligations

The beaver was once widespread throughout large parts of the UK.  Sadly, it was heavily persecuted and hunted to extinction for its luxurious pelts, meat and musk oil, and finally became extinct in the 16th century.  Humans are responsible for eradicating the species so many people believe, the Foundation included, that we have a moral responsibility to bring it back.  The beaver has been reintroduced to 27 European countries, with Sweden leading the way as long ago as 1922.  Britain, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Portugal and Italy are the only remaining countries in its natural European range where it is not yet present.

2.) Ecosystem restoration

The beaver is what is known as a keystone species, meaning that it is integral to the healthy functioning of the ecosystem in which it lives, and the other species which live there.  Beavers coppice and fell trees, creating open areas for new growth and increasing canopy diversity.  They also dam water systems to create new wetland areas, resulting in improved habitat which benefits other species.  The introduction of beavers into a new area can result in the arrival or increase of a whole range of other species, including dragonflies, kingfishers, herons, numerous other birds, fish, frogs, water voles, water shrews and even otters.  Additionally, they improve water quality and reduce siltation.

Photo by Laurie Campbell

Photo by Laurie Campbell

Photo by Laurie Campbell

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.) Legal obligations

We are required by EU law to examine the possibility of reintroducing species which have been lost.  The Bern Convention (1979) and the Rio Convention (1992) oblige us to encourage the restoration of native species, while the EC Habitats Directive (1992) directly obliges us to consider the desirability of reintroducing lost species such as the wolf (Canis lupus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), lynx (Lynx lynx) and beaver (Castor fiber).  IUCN guidelines state that the processes which caused the original extinction of the species must no longer be operating if it is to be considered for reintroduction and, in the case of the beaver, this is true.

4.) The benefits of tourism

The reintroduction of beavers could bring a great economic boost to rural areas of Scotland.  Wildlife tourism is big business and estimates have shown that beavers could generate £2million per year in tourism revenue.  Local hoteliers are already reporting an upturn in business due to the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale.  Scotland itself has already benefitted from wildlife reintroductions; the restoration of sea eagles on Mull brings £2.4 million to the island, and supports 110 jobs.

A number of concerns have been raised about beaver reintroduction, in particular their impacts on forestry, agriculture and angling.  Each of these is addressed below.

Forestry

Beavers fell trees in the vicinity of the water courses in which they reside. But by felling old trees, beavers actually increase the diversity of tree species by allowing light to reach the forest floor, enabling new species to take root. This then encourages an increased diversity of wildlife.

Beavers prefer broadleafed species and are not expected to have an adverse impact on forestry operations

Concerns have been raised about their impact on forestry operations, but beavers prefer to eat broadleafed species.  A review of the damage to conifers caused by beavers found that the problem was minimal and not even worth insuring against.  A more realistic concern is the impact that beavers may have on native aspens, which are one of their favourite foods.  However, the majority of aspen stands in Scotland are not near suitable beaver water courses and so should not present a problem.  For those that are, simple and effective mitigation measures can be taken to reduce damage, such as fencing them off or protecting the lower part of the trunks with mesh or sheathing.  Beavers do flood areas by building dams, but it is not thought that large areas of flooding would occur in Scotland, due to the nature of the terrain.

Agriculture

In other parts of their European range, beavers sometimes feed on crops such as maize and sugar beet.  However, damage is usually small scale and localised.  Crop damage can easily be prevented by leaving a buffer zone along the edge of the water course or by planting other species which beavers don’t like.  Concerns also exist about beavers flooding crop fields but, again, this problem can be eliminated by providing buffer zones, and any dams built which do prove to be a nuisance can be easily removed.

Angling

Salmon jump upstream on the way to spawn and are easily able to negotiate beaver dams

Beavers do not eat fish.  They have actually been shown to increase fish numbers and diversity due to increased oxygenation of the water and growth of plants.  Concerns have been raised about beaver impact on Scotland’s economically important salmon industry, but salmon live alongside beavers in many European countries, and are not adversely impacted by the presence of beavers.  Indeed, in Norway, beavers are actually considered to benefit the salmon industry.  The majority of Scottish salmon spawning grounds are in fast-flowing upland streams and beavers prefer slow-flowing lowland water courses, so spawning should not be affected by beaver reintroduction, and salmon are easily able to negotiate beaver dams.