Beavers were once part of the British landscape. Place names echo their presence – from Beverley in Yorkshire to Beverston in Gloustershire and Beverley Brook running through Richmond Park down to the Thames. They were hunted to the verge of extinction during the reign of King Henry VIII, prized for their silky fur and castoreum – the secretion from the scent sacs close to the tail, used for making perfume and medicines. The last known British beaver was killed in 1789 in Bolton Percy, Yorkshire.
Living without them for so long, ecologists argue, we’ve lost sight of how important they are to our ecosystem. Research in America, Canada and Europe has identified beavers as a ‘keystone species’ whose activities result in an exponential rise in biodiversity. Their coppicing of trees along the riverbanks – for food and to build dams and lodges - lets in sunlight which encourages green oxygen-producing aquatic plants. Woody debris dragged into the water by the beaver provides a jungle of substrate for micro-organisms to grow on – fuel for populations of invertebrates which, in turn, provide food for fish and aquatic birds.
As hydrological engineers, beavers are also hugely effective at creating water-systems that are able to purify water, store it, and protect against devastating floods.
Much of the work we have done at Knepp to restore water-courses, including returning our stretch of the River Adur to its floodplain, could have been done more efficiently and at no expense, by a family of beavers.
Further information: [crb - add BACE]
Campbell-Palmer, Róisin, et al. The Eurasian Beaver Handbook. (Pelagic Publishing, 2016)
Coghlan, Andy. ‘Should the UK bring back beavers to help manage floods?’ New Scientist. (13 November 2015)
Collen, P., & Gibson, R. ‘The general ecology of beavers as related to their influence on stream ecosystems and riparian habitats, and the subsequent effects on fish – a review’. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, vol 10, pp.439-461. (2001)
Collier, Eric. Three Against the Wilderness. (Touch Wood Editions, 2007, first published 1959)
Crumley, Jim. Nature’s Architect – the beaver’s return to our wild landscapes. (Saraband, 2015)
Elliott, M., Blythe, C., et al. ‘Beavers – Nature’s Water Engineers. A summary of initial findings from the Devon Beaver Projects’. Devon Wildlife Trust. (2017)
Gurnell, J., Gurnell, A.M., Demeritt, D., et al. ‘The feasibility and acceptability of reintroducing the European beaver to England’. Natural England commissioned report NECR002. (2009)
Halley, D.J., & Roseel, F. ‘The beaver’s re-conquest of Eurasia: status, population development and management of a conservation success’. Mammal Review, vol 3, pp. 153-178. (2002)
Hood, G. A. & Bayley, S. ‘Beaver (Castor Canadensis) mitigate the effects of climate on the area of open water in boreal wetlands in western Canada.’ Biological Conservation, vol 141, pp. 556-567. (2008)
Hood, G.A. ‘Biodiversity and ecosystem restoration: beavers bring back balance to an unsteady world.’ Plenary, 6th International Beaver Symposium, Ivanić Grad, Croatia. (September 2012)
Jones, S., Gow, D., Lloyd Jones, A., & Campbell-Palmer, R. ‘The battle for British beavers’. British Wildlife, vol 24, no.6, pp. 381-392. (August 2013)
Law, A., Gaywood, Martin J., Jones, Kevin C., Ramsay, P., Willby, Nigel, J. ‘Using ecosystem engineers as tools in habitat restoration and rewilding: beaver and wetlands’. Science of the Total Environment, pp 1021–1030 (2017)
Manning, A.D., Coles, B.J., et al. ‘New evidence of late survival of beaver in Britain’. The Holocene vol. 24, issue 12, pp.1849-1855. (2014)
McLeish, Todd. ‘Knocking down nitrogen’. Northern Woodlands. (Spring 2016)
Nyssen, J., et al. ‘Effect of beaver dams on the hydrology of small mountain streams – example from the Chevral in the Ourthe Orientale basin, Ardennes, Belgium’. Journal of Hydrology, vol. 402, issues 1–2, pp. 92–102 (13 May 2011)