Eurasian beavers were first discovered to be living on the river Otter in East Devon more than a decade ago and found to be breeding in 2014. The Government initially planned to remove them, but with the support of the Devon Wildlife Trust, Clinton Devon Estates, Exeter University, Derek Gow and the local community, the area became the site of the first non-enclosed free-living beaver trial in Britain. There are now beaver territories established across much of the River Otter catchment.
As a House of Commons Committee reports on the challenges of bringing lost species back to the British countryside, Dr Sam Bridgewater, Director of Environment Strategy and Evidence at Clinton Devon Estates spoke of the pros and cons of having around five family groups of beavers living and breeding on Estate land.
He said losses suffered as a result of hosting the beavers, which are now a protected species, can be significant at a field scale or individual property level, although on a landscape scale maybe considered modest, when balanced against benefits to wider society such as slowing the flow of water and improvements to water quality and wider biodiversity. He welcomed the new pragmatic management principles and license regime developed by Natural England and the development of Government environmental payments that recognise the costs to farm managers of wetland creation. Having a properly funded and supported management regime is critical to beavers being accepted on to land and ensuring that the anticipated benefits of beavers are widely realised.
One beaver wetland has been demonstrated to have flood defence benefits for the village of East Budleigh, East Devon, and during last summer’s drought (2022) a large wetland created stored water and supported healthy habitats supporting a range of wildlife, while vegetation on the land around dried out and virtually disappeared.
The activities of the beavers, which includes the felling trees adjacent to watercourses and building dams on tributaries and drainage ditches around the river Otter, means some land has had to be taken out of agricultural production because it is waterlogged through much of the year with the grazing platform of three separate dairy businesses impacted.
Dr Bridgewater said: “There are around seven hectares of beaver wetland that we have on the Estate and as a result of that we have abundant wildlife in these locations, including invertebrates and wading birds, which we are delighted about. The downside is we have some land that was farmed that we no longer use, and our staff need to constantly manage their presence to prevent the spread of beaver wetlands to new areas that would be more disruptive and costly for our tenants and other businesses.”
He said Clinton Devon Estates was fortunate that it had sufficient land to be supportive of balancing the benefits with the costs of hosting the beavers, but he acknowledged not all farmers were in that position.
The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the House of Commons has called for a compensation scheme for farmers affected by the negative impacts of species reintroductions, but Dr Bridgewater said he would rather the conversation was less about compensation and more about how land managers can be adequately paid for the eco-services beavers provide. Without such payments and management support, fewer land managers will be willing to accept beavers on to their land.
“We also have to decide who is going to pay for those services, provided by the beavers, because they can come at a cost – is it the private sector or the public purse? Where beavers are compromising farming and other businesses or key assets, such as bridges, roads and homes, there needs to be a management regime to enable immediate action to be taken by the land manager or asset owner to remove the risk to property” and Dr Bridgewater welcomed the work of Natural England in developing such a regime.
Dr Bridgewater said he believed updates to the grants paid under Countryside Stewardship, which rewards farmers for environmental initiatives, must be constantly under review to ensure the level of payments were sufficient to offset the costs to those who manage the land. He said that payments are already available under schemes including “making space for water” and “mitigating flooding on permanent grassland.”
He said: “We have been delighted with the benefits that we have seen from the creation of beaver habitat on Estate land – both in terms of helping us meet our own nature recovery and climate adaptation ambitions but also in supporting ecosystem services to wider society. However, there is definitely a cost that comes with this. Costs have included the loss of some of our tenants’ farmland, the loss of some land on the Estate farm, damage to agricultural machinery which has fallen into a beaver burrow and damage to a footpath. And there is the staff time taken up with keeping a constant eye on the beavers and their dams and monitoring and managing their impact. Because we are a large Estate, we can accommodate that at current levels, but there are low lying areas of Estate land where we wouldn’t support their presence as the cost to our business, the businesses of our tenants and to others would be too great.”
Dr Bridgewater said that at a national level he would like to see the creation of much wider buffer and woodland margins on all rivers and streams: “We know that many of our rivers and streams are not in the best of health. If we give them more space and buffer them from agricultural land then this will help improve wildlife and water quality and will also reduce the impacts of beavers on land managers as they tend to stay close to water courses”.
MPs on the Environment Committee warned that a lack of clarity on plant and animal reintroductions, which are supported by the Government, caused confusion and uncertainty. The committee called for the establishment by the Government of a species reintroduction hub to manage future reintroductions.
MPs also called for a compensation scheme for farmers and landowners negatively affected by reintroduced wildlife and it suggested the protected status of beavers should be reviewed.
Dr Bridgewater said he thought Natural England, which has set up the management plan and licensing regime by which landowners can intervene if beavers are causing problems, had “made a pretty good fist of things so far.”
Beaver dams that are considered to be potentially damaging can be removed if they have been in place for less than two weeks and, a range of support licenses can be applied for, that allow for pragmatic beaver management.