In a rare piece of good news for the south-west’s environment, the government recently confirmed that beavers would be allowed to stay on the River Otter in Devon.
Beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain about 400 years ago. Hunters sought their pelts and their anal glands, which produce castoreum – a unique natural product which has been used in the perfume industry (and medicine) for millennia. Many species of wildlife become extinct because their habitat disappears but, in the beaver’s case, the habitat (rivers and wetlands) is still there, albeit badly damaged.
The government trumpeted the return of the beaver to the River Otter as its own success, but the truth is very different.
The beavers had found their way into the river by a release which remains a mystery to this day, and they had been quietly living there for several years before anyone noticed. Then, about six years ago, someone spotted a beaver and reported it to Natural England – I wrote about it at the time. The Angling Trust then weighed in, calling for the beavers to be shot, despite the fact that they are vegetarian and actually create very good-quality habitat, in which fish populations can thrive. After all, beavers and fish (including salmon and trout) have co-existed in these islands for millions of years before the beavers were hunted out. Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) also joined the debate with this comment:
“Beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the last 500 years. Our landscape and habitats have changed since then and we need to assess the impact they could have.”
This sounded remarkably similar to the commentary emanating from another august body -the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) who expressed opposition to species re-introduction programmes.
In 2013 the NFU commented on another proposed Beaver project thus:
“There’s a certain amount of evidence that in Europe, in particular, that quite considerable damage has been done but in truth we don’t really know what problems there will be… and I don’t think anyone else does either,” he said.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ll contribute anything to the eco-system.
“The history as far as introducing mammals in particular is not a particularly good one.
“We’ve seen the grey squirrel, rabbits and even mink so in reality there isn’t much evidence to suggest they do any good at all.”
Furthermore, Natural England (NE), whose remit is to advise the government on natural environment was, by 2014, completely under the thumb of its Whitehall department, having lost all its independence in the years following 2010, when the coalition government formed and swept away as many of New Labour’s institutions as possible.
From conversations I have had, it’s pretty clear there were people within Natural England who did not want Beavers to be released into the wild.
Whatever advice NE may have given to Defra about beavers, the Defra minister of state at the time, one George Eustice, said:
“We intend to recapture and rehome the wild beavers in Devon and are currently working out plans for the best way to do so. All decisions will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind. There are no plans to cull beavers.”
So began the long struggle to save the River Otter’s beavers.
That struggle was led by the Devon Wildlife Trust, with stalwart support from Friends of the Earth. Eventually, Defra and NE relented, and agreed to a five-year stay of execution. Evidence was gathered, led by researchers at the University of Exeter, on the benefits of having beavers back in English wetlands and rivers. This confirmed what everyone already knew from studies based on beavers in Europe and also the earlier introductions in Scotland: beavers transform rivers and wetlands by felling trees and building dams. They re-create wetlands which have been destroyed in the past. These wetlands support a myriad of other wildlife; they also store carbon and they clean water that has been polluted by human activity upstream, notably diffuse agricultural pollution. By creating wetlands, beavers also help hold back floodwater in the catchment, reducing the intensity of flooding events – events that will become ever more common as the grip of climate chaos tightens. What’s more, the Otter’s beavers have become a tourist attraction, creating jobs in the local economy. Now the Otter’s beavers can officially stay, and Defra will be consulting this autumn over the next steps in the beaver’s return to England.
But they are still a controversial animal: the Angling Trust continues to mutter darkly about impacts on fisheries. Personally, I think this harks back to another mammal reintroduction project to which the anglers have never become reconciled: the otter. The otter became almost completely extinct from England’s rivers in the 1960s and 1970s, due to the use in agriculture of persistent highly toxic pesticides like DDT. After these had been banned, there was a series of unofficial introductions, akin to what has happened with the beaver. Now otters have returned to every river catchment in the country, and the anglers are not happy, because otters do eat fish. Indeed, an otter will happily take a bite out of a prize carp and leave the rest of the body on the reservoir bank, almost taunting the fishery’s owner. Some anglers would like nothing more than to see the otters gone again. I think some of this visceral hatred has spilled over into their attitude towards the beaver.
Forestry interests are also up in arms – apparently beavers are threatening the future of cricket. One landowner, Charles Dutton, (a keen angler and also chairman of the Frome, Piddle and West Dorset Fisheries Association), fulminated:
“Cricket bat willows are a particularly high-value crop grown in wetland areas, making them a likely target of beavers. Who would compensate growers for such losses caused by beavers? The government, Natural England, the Wildlife Trust and the National Trust all seem unlikely candidates to offer compensation.”
The National Farmers’ Union has reacted similarly. It has never wanted the beaver back. Responding to the recent announcement, Phil Jarvis, the NFU representative on the beaver working group, said:
“Beaver activity can undermine riverbanks and impede farmland drainage, making fields too waterlogged for cropping or grazing … This seriously hinders farmers’ ability to produce food for the nation.”
Yes, you read that correctly: according to the NFU, bringing beavers back to rivers across England means we will all go hungry.
Let’s set aside the NFU’s obsession with growing biofuel crops (currently covering a shade under 100,000 hectares (ha) of farmland), or their support for growing that essential food crop, sugar beet – another 100,000ha). We could also ignore the fact that over half of our cereal crop is grown not to feed people, but pigs and chickens; or the fact that we produce only a quarter of the fruit and vegetables that we consume; or the fact that we have the largest sheep flock in Europe, with all the consequent environmental impacts. Or indeed the fact that all of this is propped up by £2.5bn a year in subsidies (from your taxes) plus another £2.5bn a year in tax breaks (money that could be spent on public services.)
No, let’s leave those little inconsistencies to one side, because, as Defra, the Angling Trust, and the NFU have all illustrated, this story of the beaver is all about who has the final say over what happens on the land (and the water) of England. As George Monbiot eloquently expressed it on 19 August: those who control the land are pushing back.
Just as Monbiot says there are moves to criminalise trespass by humans, trespass by beavers is also deemed unacceptable. Beavers cannot lobby parliament, write to their MP, march on Downing Street or do any of the other things that citizens can. They just go about their business felling trees, building dams, making baby beavers (kits) and eating plants.
We need to be their voice, as we must be for all of non-human nature.