Beavers are back and here’s how to live with them

New field guide offers a practical approach that addresses some tough questions, says Roisin Campbell-Palmer

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The recently published Eurasian Beaver Management Handbook provides a wealth of information regarding beaver management in modern, human-engineered landscapes.

In essence, it offers a distillation of the hard-won experienced gained by pragmatic beaver managers in both North American and European landscapes, but also leads from recent experiences gathered in Britain. 

Sustainable systems

While it is well known that beaver activity plays a keystone function in the creation of ecologically complex wetland environments, it is their role in the provision of sustainable systems of water management that is now placing the case for their restoration on the political agenda. There are also calls to give beavers protected status in Scotland.

Although we have begun to understand that flood amelioration can be accomplished effectively with natural materials such as woody debris dams, trees felled at random along water courses or artificial impoundments, we have been slow to comprehend that these features mimic the activity of the beaver.

A significant weakness of this approach is that there is commonly no financial or physical ability to sustain or expand the presence of these artificial environments, even when it is in our own interest to do so.

Beavers extend their living environments all the time. By digging canals, harvesting wood and manipulating mud, they manage water naturally. Although occasionally unacceptable, under most circumstances, with tolerance or landscape adaptation, we could relearn how to live with beavers.

Cultural barriers

The barriers to this are largely cultural. To overcome them we have to look beyond the immediate interests of a few to benefit the wider prospects of the many. Is it really valid to protect every field from flooding for the sake of a few sheep while the results of this policy are passed downstream with breathtaking equanimity, delivering devastation to many thousands of people?

If the answer is an obvious no” then these landscapes would without doubt serve a more effective function as beaver-generated and maintained wetlands, slowing the flow, absorbing water, recharging aquifers and capturing toxic silts.

Living with beavers requires realism, however. They cannot exist among us without management. In the end, when necessary, this will mean targeted lethal control of the specific individuals in a specific location causing a specific problem. However unacceptable to some this approach may be, it is proportionate, rational and quite necessary if we are to ensure the effective acceptance of beavers in the wider British landscape.

The Eurasian Beaver Handbook, Ecology and Management of Castor fiber is available from Pelagic Publishing.

About the author

Roisin Campbell-Palmer was formerly the conservation projects manager for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, managing native species projects including beaver restoration and Scottish wildcats. Part of her remit incorporated the role of field operations manager for the Scottish Beaver Trial. She is currently an ecological consultant, specialising in beaver management and species restoration, and advises Scottish Natural Heritage on beaver mitigation issues. She is completing her PhD on the importance of founder section in beaver reintroduction projects at the University of Southeast Norway, publishing a number of journal articles on this subject. Róisín holds advisory roles on the Beaver Advisory Committee for England, the River Otter Beaver Management Group, and represented RZSS at the Scottish National Species Reintroduction Forum and the Tayside Beaver Study Group. Róisín completed her honours degree in Zoology at the University of Glasgow and her MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Edinburgh.