Response to Defra consultation on the approach to beaver reintroduction and management in England
19th October 2021
We are making our reply to the national consultation on beaver reintroductions public as we have been asked by a number of stakeholders to share our response. We are a landowner who has welcomed beavers on to the land we manage from the earliest days of the River Otter Beaver Trial and have been a proud partner of this trial. As such we recognise from experience the benefits beavers can bring but also the significant management challenges they present. Following the landmark decision, post trial, to allow the beavers to be considered resident in the River Otter catchment and allowed to spread naturally, the consultation aims to help shape the framework for further reintroductions in other catchments. For this species to be welcomed across England, by those who will have to manage their impacts, and to maximise the environmental benefits of beavers, it is imperative that this framework is right and adequately resourced. We welcome the consultation and the chance to contribute to it.
Although the legal protection to be given to beavers has been specifically excluded from the consultation we have nevertheless also responded to this point, and in particular, to the announcement that they will become a European Protected Species (EPS). Although we welcome the protection of beavers and encourage appropriate legislation to ensure their welfare, we strongly believe that automatic EPS protection triggered due to legal obligations under the Bern Convention is not the only or best legislative course of action available. Indeed, we believe that the approach suggested, even if associated licensing is made ‘enabling’ (e.g. covered by class licenses) will be entirely counterproductive to achieving the vision for beavers in the landscape. Notwithstanding the fact that at a European level beavers are no longer rare or significantly threatened, post Brexit the UK is now entirely able to decide on its own legislation that achieves the best outcomes for wildlife.
Our response has been presented in a question and answer format, with our answers (A) following the consultation questions in bold (Q).
Q. Please briefly describe your interest in this consultation.
A. Clinton Devon Estates is a rural Estate that manages 10,000 hectares of the Devon countryside. Our activities include farming, forestry, and conservation interests. All have been impacted by beavers. We have been experiencing the positive and negative outcomes of living with beavers since 2013 and know from direct experience the additional management needs and associated costs of living with this species. Since 2014 we have been a key partner in the River Otter Beaver Trial. Our response to this consultation is based upon experience and knowledge.
Q. National approach to reintroductions
Evidence shows that the reintroduction of beavers can have a positive benefit for nature and society. However, there are, in some instances, risks of negative impacts if reintroductions are not carried out appropriately or where there is insufficient management.
It remains unlawful to release a beaver into the wild without a licence, in line with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Our national approach will be to permit further wild reintroduction projects where the licence applications demonstrate clear benefits and where risks of negative outcomes are avoided, mitigated for, or managed.
This approach will allow the benefits of beaver reintroduction to be realised with limited risks and will provide an opportunity to generate more evidence to help address the evidence gaps identified. It will also provide opportunities to learn from different projects in different circumstances and to adapt or develop management approaches and maximise biodiversity and societal benefits as appropriate.
To ensure that only high-quality projects are permitted to take place, proposals for reintroductions will have to apply for appropriate licences, follow the Reintroductions Code and meet strict criteria:
A project proposal must provide evidence that the project has funding to cover all aspects of the reintroduction, including provision of advice and management of impacts. This funding must be in place for at least five to ten years. The specific time period will vary by project but this range reflects how long it might take for beavers to colonise a catchment and therefore how long support is needed by the public and different stakeholders to become accustomed to living alongside beavers.
A project proposal must provide evidence of substantial stakeholder engagement at all stages of project development, including landowners, land managers and those working in or using the water environment along with clear working relationships between the project and these relevant organisations and authorities.
A project proposal must demonstrate significant benefits and that the risk of conflict is low, including consideration, and mitigation as appropriate, of:
Area of and proximity to low-lying agricultural land
Flood risks to people, infrastructure and environment
Risk to protected areas, heritage sites and protected species
Costs and benefits to the local economy
Level of support locally
Opportunities to fill evidence gaps.
A project proposal must include a Project Plan including funding streams, roles, responsibilities and planning and feasibility study for all aspects of the reintroduction. These Plans will run for a minimum of 5-10 years.
A project proposal must include details of a Project Steering Group to support the project and must consist of a range of stakeholders with strong local ownership.
The proposed project must appoint a Local Beaver Officer to act as a local contact point, and support to stakeholders, including risk management authorities and others operating in the water environment.
Once the Project Plan concludes (after 5 to 10 years), the partnership will no longer be required to be financially responsible for managing impacts of beavers, as landowners, those operating in the water environment and river users become more accustomed to living alongside beavers and understanding how to manage impacts appropriately. This is an important step towards beavers being accepted like other native species in the wild.
Q. Do you agree or disagree with the proposed approach to beaver reintroductions? Please state your reasons and supporting evidence. If you disagree, please provide any suggested alterations or alternatives and supporting evidence.
A. We disagree. We believe that the approach of allowing the benefits of beavers in certain contained catchment areas with limited risks (‘high quality projects’) is inherently flawed as it does not prepare the nation adequately for the management of this species in adjacent and less ideal sites which the beavers will undoubtedly quickly colonise. This is a highly mobile species that is very difficult to contain to areas where societal support and management control and adequate resourcing can be demonstrated. The approach outlined does not give an honest representation of how further reintroductions will likely play out and does not make provision for management support to address the impacts outside of the narrow initial focus area of further reintroductions. The approach seems to be one of accelerated spread with effort focusing on ideal sites only. There appears to be no national policy or resourcing for the management of existing wild beaver populations (Tamar, Stour. Avon, Brue etc.). We are not against further reintroductions but believe that prior to encouraging further expansions that the government must take a stronger lead and set out a clear approach for resourcing the monitoring and management of beaver populations nationwide.
Although we welcome the rigorous approach of requiring a robust project proposal covering support, management and risks before further reintroductions are considered, the River Otter Beaver Trial shows that if this is to be done well this is very expensive – in the many hundreds of thousands of pounds. To expect local organisations to be able cover such costs for periods of five to ten years may be unrealistic. We would urge modelling of beaver expansion across the nation and an estimation of future nations-wide management costs, including the value of likely public benefits. We also recommend consideration of the national beaver management approaches of other countries such as Germany (particularly within Bavaria).
It appears that government is expecting significant public benefit to result from beaver reintroductions (although it can’t yet articulate what the value of this is) but is wishing for the majority of costs to be covered by environmental organisations (initially) and then landowners (subsequently). Using the principle of natural capital accounting there is a strong argument for government financial support for the delivery and resourcing of a national beaver management strategy. As we understand it nobody has yet done a cost:benefit analysis at the national scale. We believe this should be a priority.
Q. Existing wild-living beaver populations
As well as the wild-living beaver population on the River Otter in Devon, which has been permitted to remain and expand naturally, there are records of wild-living beavers elsewhere in England. These beavers have either been unlawfully released or have escaped from fenced enclosures (or are descendants of such beavers).
The data we have suggests that it is likely that there are populations of beavers confirmed to be breeding on sections of the following river catchments:
River Tamar in Devon
River Stour in Kent
River Avon and River Brue in Somerset and Wiltshire
Little Dart in Devon.
There is also a potential emerging population in the River Wye catchment in Herefordshire.
Further details on the status of beaver populations in England, both wild-living and in enclosures, can be found in Natural England’s report: Beaver reintroductions in England, 2000-2021.
Under our proposed approach, these existing beaver populations in England will be permitted to remain and will be subject to management in the same way as other beaver populations when not covered by a Project Plan (see Management section below).
We are aware that for some existing wild populations, local stakeholders have started to set up management groups to support the public and offer advice. We encourage such partnerships to form around these populations to enable stakeholders and the public to become used to living alongside beavers.
Do you agree or disagree with the proposed approach to existing wild-living beaver populations? Please state your reasons and supporting evidence. If you disagree, please provide any suggested alterations or alternatives and supporting evidence.
A. We do not agree. As laid out in our answer to the previous question there does not appear to be an adequately resourced or coherent national beaver management strategy. If management and monitoring of existing wild populations of beavers is to be based on ad hoc management partnership groups that may, or may not develop, this seems to be a highly risky strategy which will ultimately lead to conflict related to this species. We believe that government needs to show greater leadership in this area and be prepared to implement, resource and, where appropriate, lead on the delivery of a management strategy. This should begin with undertaking modelling of beaver spread, management costs and the value of likely public benefits.
Q. Current and future beaver enclosures
Current government policy allows beavers to be released under licence into secure enclosures. At the time of publication there are beavers present in enclosures at 20 sites in England.
We propose to continue permitting releases of beavers into enclosures; however, conditions of licences will be tightened to focus on the clear benefits of a project.
A project should contribute to the knowledge base for beavers. This could include research on a specific impact or a particular management technique. An enclosure might be used to pilot a reintroduction in a particular area, allowing the project to gather relevant information and build support and engage with the local community.
It is important to note that the licensing of an enclosure project does not provide any guarantee that a licence will be granted subsequently for a wild release. If a current or future enclosure project wishes to move towards a wild release, they will be expected to demonstrate how they meet the criteria for wild release, including demonstrating that a wild release at the location would bring substantial benefits with a low risk of conflict.
Once the process for licensed release to the wild has been developed, we anticipate the demand for licences to release to enclosures will reduce.
Do you agree or disagree with the proposed approach to licensing of future beaver enclosures? Please state your reasons and supporting evidence. If you disagree, please provide any suggested alterations or alternatives and supporting evidence.
We disagree. The benefits of beavers are clear and the negative impacts of beavers are well understood. This is a relatively well researched species. To continue to encourage beaver enclosures would appear to reflect a “sitting on the fence” approach, regarding the reintroduction of this species and be a retrogressive step. Either implement a wild reintroduction within a catchment, based on a robust feasibility study, or don’t. If there are concerns about impacts, having a small enclosure is unlikely to provide additional useful knowledge. To really understand beaver impacts it is necessary to look at their activity over a much greater
and un-constricted area which is the reality of how they operate. Creating further caged enclosures seems entirely unnecessary. Also, the majority of wild living beavers in England have escaped from such enclosures so to pretend that they are successful in containing the species safely is disingenuous. The only possible reason we can see for a beaver enclosure is for educational purposes, but even then, much better to encourage education in a wild setting.
Q. Legal protection
We intend to make beavers a European Protected Species by listing them in Schedule 2 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. This change is to implement legal obligations under the Bern Convention and does not form part of the proposed approach that is being consulted upon.
While we intend to give beavers legal protection please note we are beginning a review of species legislation with a view to enhancing and modernising it. We intend to publish a Green Paper and seek views later this year.
Giving beavers this protection means that it will be an offence to deliberately capture, kill, disturb or injure beavers. It will also be an offence to damage or destroy breeding sites or resting places.
Therefore, if an individual wants to undertake management activities which would otherwise be prohibited, they will be required to apply for a licence from Natural England. We will develop guidance to help stakeholders to understand when a licence is required and how to apply for a licence.
We believe that effective and proportionate management of beavers will play a key role in any successful future reintroductions.
Natural England will publish a Management Framework, which will outline solutions that can be employed to manage different impacts from beavers, where such actions might require a licence and where stakeholders can go to seek support and advice with beaver management. Management needs of different populations of beavers are likely to vary over time and the management framework will reflect this.
The Management Framework and licensing regime will work together to provide clear processes, providing solutions to situations encountered where action is required
It is recognised that there a number of organisations and authorities that carry out necessary operational activities in the water environment and riparian zone. Guidance will be provided to ensure that these roles can be carried out within the proposed national approach and framework.
In line with government principles on wildilfe management, landowners are free to manage wildlife on their land, within the law. Defra supports the following stepwise approach to address wildlife impacts:
avoidance and tolerance
using legal methods
This process should proceed stepwise from avoidance or tolerance of impacts, to least to most harmful actions, with interventions such as moving beavers to other areas (translocation) or lethal control considered only as a last resort. This is called a management or mitigation ‘hierarchy’.
A management hierarchy for beaver could include the following steps:
Avoid or tolerate negative impacts, such as:
allowing space for potential impacts, for example by creating buffer zones along the side of watercourses where valuable crops or trees are not planted.
exploring financial incentives available for landowners to make space for environmental benefits provided by beavers.
Use legal management or mitigation methods if negative impacts cannot be avoided, including:
protecting trees of value from felling with tree guards or anti-beaver paint.
fencing to exclude beavers from undesirable areas.
protecting banks from burrowing impacts.
If unavoidable and other solutions are not satisfactory, apply for a licence to undertake actions including:
destruction or modification of dams, lodges and burrows,
translocation or lethal control.
Some mitigation and management may require permitting from the relevant authority and all must be undertaken in compliance with existing legislation.
Translocation of beavers or lethal control must only be considered as a last resort, however in circumstances where this is unavoidable, licences may be obtainable.
Does the management hierarchy cover management actions you would expect? Are there additional aspects that you think should be included in the management hierarchy? Please provide further details.
A. Although the current consultation explicitly does not cover the intent to make beavers a European Protected Species (EPS) we feel we must question this approach as we believe it to be very misguided. The reason cited for EPS status is to implement legal obligations under the Bern Convention. Notwithstanding the fact that at a European level, beavers are no longer rare or threatened, post Brexit the UK is able to intelligently decide on its own appropriate legislation or re-write the detail of that legislation to suit our needs. If EPS status is implemented, we believe it will be one of the biggest blocks to beaver acceptance by land managers across the landscape. There is very little confidence in the licensing framework associated with EPS status and it comes with significant ‘baggage’ and mistrust. Within the Otter catchment it has been shown that beavers can expand rapidly in the absence of protection and with no evidence of persecution. We believe that beavers need a degree of welfare protection and encourage appropriate legislation to cover this, but strongly believe that EPS status is the wrong legislation. The reality is that existing EPS legislation and licensing is not trusted and even if there is a review of legislation to make it more ‘enabling’ through the use of class licenses etc., the likely impact of EPS status will be that landowners will be far less accepting of beavers on their land and so the approach is counterproductive to achieving the vision of expanded beaver populations in the landscape. It will likely achieve the exact opposite of what it is trying to achieve.
The River Otter Beaver Trial was successful because: 1) management support was available from a professional organisation, 2) management support was rapid, 3) management was fully resourced, 4) there
was an absence of fear that protection would constrain the ability to manage the species at short notice if required. If any one of these four elements was in doubt the trial would not have been so successful. Ultimately, there needs to be focus on what the vision for living with beavers is. There is a very great danger that EPS status and mistrust of it will result in increased persecution and dissuade landowners from accepting beavers on their land. This could result in beavers being largely confined to main rivers with very few of the potential wetland and wildlife benefits resulting. In our view this would mean that the reintroduction of beavers into England would fall far short of attaining its full potential in enhancing the nation’s natural capital and improving the delivery of ecosystem services.
Regarding management principles, we welcome a national management framework and believe this should be based around that drafted by the River Otter Beaver Trial (ROBT). We support the management hierarchy as laid out in the ROBT Management Framework. Our greatest concern relates to the resourcing of this. Without adequate resourcing even a good management strategy will fail.
Q. Government policy and support
Government policy is that it is the responsibility of landowners to cover the costs of managing impacts of wild animals on their land. In line with this, Defra will not provide direct payments for management of negative impacts of beaver activity or pay compensation. However, we recognise that beaver reintroductions are unique circumstances. Therefore, Defra will consider facilitating the creation of management groups around existing beaver populations to help manage impacts and provide management advice to landowners and stakeholders for beaver populations outside of a Project Plan.
Consistent and accessible advice and guidance is essential to successful reintroductions. Natural England and Defra will host advice through gov.uk which will cover applications for reintroduction projects as well as management. Natural England will provide further advice and engagement to guide stakeholders and liaise with local projects and management groups.
Any project applying for a wild-release licence will be required to have a Local Beaver Officer for the duration of the Project Plan. Local Beaver Officers will act as a focal point, providing advice and undertaking management as required, to support local landowners and river users.
We are working with stakeholders and end users to determine the specific land management actions that will be paid for through the Sustainable Farming Incentive, the Local Nature Recovery scheme and the Landscape Recovery scheme. ‘The Path to Sustainable Farming: An Agricultural Transition Plan 2021 to 2024’ sets out examples of the types of actions that we envisage paying for under the schemes, including creating, managing and restoring habitats such as wetlands and freshwater habitats. In March, we published more details on the first phase of piloting the Sustainable Farming Incentive, including the actions we will pay farmers to take to manage their land in an environmentally sustainable way. On 30 June, we also published an update to the Agricultural Transition Plan, which included information on the elements that we will include in the Sustainable Farming Incentive itself, from 2022.
Excluding direct payment for management activities, what other support do you think should be available and to whom?
A. We believe it is wrong to exclude direct payment of management activities from the consultation. Although historically Government policy has been that it is the responsibility of landowners to cover the costs of managing impacts of wild animals on their land, beavers are not at all like other species and if their reintroduction is to be encouraged by government and successful, we feel that it is appropriate for another bespoke approach to be considered, that reflects the realities of the unique impacts and management needs of this species. We (the Estate) have been living with beavers since 2013 and as their populations have expanded, so have our management responsibilities and associated costs. This has included: need to pre-emptively fell dangerous trees; repairing of fences; need to remove trees from watercourses close to bridges; near daily inspection of beaver dams and reduction of height of dams, including with the use of machinery to reduce water levels in ditches, to protect a road from flooding and to prevent impact on domestic sewage systems. This has been in addition to the significant management support provided by the Devon Wildlife Trust. Beavers have: flooded agricultural land; required the new placement of a new field gate and access, where existing access has become unusable; has resulted in significant additional costs relating to the development of a manged realignment scheme. Our acceptance of beavers has bin part been based on the support provided to date by the Devon Wildlife Trust. Even with the receipt of direct payments via DWT during the trial which has supported addressing a significant proportion of impacts, the Estate has still incurred significant costs (in the tens of thousands of pounds) with one staff member now having a beaver management role. The actual cost of managing beavers, even when advice is supplied, should not be underestimated. However, significant though it is, we believe that it is tiny when compared to the economic value of the public benefits. Thus, there is a strong economic case to support direct management costs and we encourage Defra to look at the approach followed in Bavaria where costs above a minimum amount are covered. We recommend that there is further engagement with the Devon Wildlife Trust and ourselves on this matter as together we can provide a realistic estimate of costs. There appears to be an expectation that beavers will result in great public benefit, but that this benefit will be paid for by landowners who will largely not experience that public good. Without direct financial support for management activities then landowners will be less inclined to accept beavers and there is a high risk that beavers will be confined to main rivers where fewer public goods will arise. This is therefore a false economy. We believe this issue to be very, very real.
We welcome that resourcing will be made available through such schemes as the Sustainable Farming Incentive, the Local Nature Recovery scheme and the Landscape Recovery scheme. This will be essential for beavers and their wetlands to be accepted. Following on from our previous point, we believe that payments should be generous and not only consider the area where, for example, a wetland can be created, but also take into account direct management costs of beaver activity across their adjacent range. If payments are not realistic and do not represent the true cost of loss of production and associated management time and management costs, there will be very poor uptake.
How would you prefer to access advice and guidance (e.g. information on website, via email, focal point for enquiries etc)?
We believe that the best source of advice and guidance is face-to-face and on site and we believe that this should be the basis for management support. We don’t have strong views about the focal point of initial contact as long as the resulting response is rapid (less than 24 hours) and will result in a site visit (also within 24 hours) where necessary. The impacts of beavers can be very significant and can happen very quickly – within a few hours and the provision of advice and guidance must reflect this reality. Should guidance not be swift and appropriate then this will rapidly result in conflict, un-informed management and non-acceptance of beavers. We advise that the approach taken in the River Otter Beaver Trial regarding communication, management support and resourcing is the basis for guidance and support. Indeed, we recommend that the approach provides the model for further reintroductions.