Archive for July, 2017

Keep beavering on!

Dr Nick Fox OBE is Director of International Wildlife Consultants.
He is a raptor biologist who has worked on research projects around the world, involving breeding, conservation, heritage, event management and education. As a farmer and author, Nick is interested in rural issues including farmland restoration, re-introductions, animal welfare, access, fieldsports and low impact leisure activities. Here, with his first-hand experience, he argues the case for allowing beavers to once again become established as part of Britain’s fauna.

Our native beaver is back and it’s here to stay! Current estimates put the population at about 800 in Scotland, 300 in England and 50 in Wales. The question now is: how to manage them? Having been absent from our countryside for the best part of 400 years, the beaver comes back to us with a clean sheet. It is up to us to make this species a shining example of wildlife management rather than a whipping boy of polarised prejudice. We are a nation which has got itself into a complete fiasco over the management of foxes, and of badgers and bovine Tb, which has gone completely over the top on legislating for dormice and great crested newts, and yet is prepared to let cats roam uncontrolled hunting and, in some cases, exterminating precious wildlife.

Eurasian beavers have been extinct in Britain for about 400 years.

I was at a meeting in Nairobi some years ago for CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Us Brits were earnestly preaching to the African
nations on how they should manage their elephants. All good stuff, after all there are so many species, such as elephants, that really need help to survive into the future. But in four of the African countries, the elephant populations had increased to the extent that they were not only destroying farming and livelihoods, they were wrecking their own habitats, on which a whole trophic cascade of other species also depended. A the end of a long and heated debate in which the western nations pressed the third world nations, the delegate for Botswana came up to me in frustration and said ‘Nick, this is all very well but we are over-stocked and we have 10,000 surplus elephants. Will you take them?’ I had visions of 10,000 elephants being off loaded from jumbo jets (what else?) at Heathrow and marching down Slough High Street. Imagine if we had just one elephant on the loose living wild in Britain! How can we have the gall, the arrogance, to tell impoverished nations how to manage wildlife when we have made such a comprehensive cock-up ourselves?

Of course elephants need saving. So do tigers. And all the rest. The hypocrisy is not our desire to help elephants, it is in our inability to tackle our own wildlife management issues here at home. We pride ourselves on being a nation of animal lovers, we love individual animals, especially cuddly ones or ‘under-dogs’. We call in vets and welfarists to deal with individual animal welfare. But population management requires a different professional mind-set, and must take priority over individual animal welfare. Our priorities should go like this:
1. Entire ecosystems. 2. Habitats. 3. Populations. 4. Individuals.

That is all pretty simple and obvious, surely? And yet time and time again we focus on what is in front of us – an individual – and lose sight of the bigger picture. We rescue an injured seagull and show a vet doing something heroic to save it, and at the same time have no effective methods of dealing with burgeoning urban gull populations. The pest control companies have to operate clandestinely for fear of upsetting people who don’t want to face facts. And how good we are at ignoring facts that are inconvenient! Our mouse traps that we use despite them not meeting International Standards for humane operation. Our millions of cats that at this time of year are killing and torturing young birds and mammals because we don’t want to control our pets.

Nature’s water engineers: beaver dams hold back water, slowly redirecting it and in doing so create wetland environments for other species.

The beaver is the first mammal in all our lifetimes to be given back to us to resume its rightful place amongst the British fauna. It is a unique opportunity for us to show the world how we can welcome and accommodate this iconic keystone species. Will we let the media exploit it as a ping pong ball of prejudice that sells copy? The media love to portray itself as the epitome of fairness by ‘telling both sides of the story’. Stirring up ill-informed and polarised attitudes not only sells newspapers, it also puts off weak politicians and civil servants from making any decisions. Social media send people rushing into opinion corners like super-charged flocks of sheep.

So despite the UK government having signed up to the Habitats Directive, Article 22, which commits us to at least assessing the return of endemic species that we have exterminated, and despite the five year Scottish Beaver Trial having been completed in 2015 at a cost of £2.2m, the beaver still has no protection in law and devolved governments have shown little sign of managing.

But make no mistake, beavers are back. We are talking King Canute here. Biology trumps politics. While politicians sit on the fence with both ears to the ground, beavers are, well, beavering away. Here at the Bevis Trust in Wales we have three families of beavers breeding naturally on the farm so that we have been able to study their effects and enable others to visit and get first-hand experience of the species. Beavers are really good engineers of wetland habitats creating opportunities for a myriad of other species. Where we once had just rushes, we now have small pools and ponds, reed beds and dragonflies, reed warblers, kingfishers, dabchicks, water rails, water voles, the list goes on increasing each year. They reduce the downstream flooding by holding back water in peak flows, and they filter farm slurry and organic sediments. Beavers have many benefits, but they can also be inconvenient. Like children, they can be messy and need management. They can block culverts or cut down prized trees. Management techniques for beavers are well-known and thoroughly tried and tested in Europe and America. There are handbooks on what to do and how to do it. Other countries have long since led the way and there is no need for us to re-invent the wheel. Politicians love to call for more research to avoid making decisions, and universities are quick to claim grants for research. But the reality is, this is all old hat. Many have been there before us and got the tee shirt.

What we don’t have in place is sympathetic legislation to manage the species. Beavers in the wrong places need managing. This may entail trapping them and moving them elsewhere. In the long term it could entail killing unwanted beavers, and this is what happens in other parts of Europe where populations have peaked and there are no longer any wolves or bears to provide natural controls. We need to learn our lessons. We have over-protected some species making legal management impossible. We have under-protected other species and tried to ignore their suffering. Can we make a balanced approach for the beaver, one that will ultimately ensure a stable, healthy population? And can it be tied in with environmental payments to farmers hosting beavers?

Dr Nick Fox releases a male beaver after a check-up.

The turmoil of Brexit means that politicians have other things to think about. But maybe Michael Gove will have more courage than his predecessors? Civil servants see no benefit in sticking their heads above the parapet. The Bevis Trust and others are approaching NGOs ranging from the National Farmers Union to the Country Land and Business Association, the Countryside Alliance, The National Trust, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts to see if stakeholders, the people who at the end of the day will have to manage the species, can come to a consensus for a strategy plan for beaver management. We are calling for protection of the beaver and its lodges but with a Class Licence system in place so that managers can carry out various practices without needing to apply for individual licences. Those practices are in a hierarchy, starting with educating land-owners about managing beavers, to physically removing dams, to trapping and translocating beavers away from sensitive areas, to ultimately killing beavers where there is no other solution. These beaver managers would function only with the permission of the land-owner and the licence would cover actions for a number of specified purposes, such as public safety, flood prevention and so on.

If key NGOs can agree amongst themselves a Management Plan, then we are in a good position to approach the devolved governments, and politicians, seeing an open door, are more likely to walk through it. It will be a win-win. If, on the other hand, we all squabble and fight, egged on by the media, nothing will be done, we will have another wildlife mess, and people, like my friend from Botswana, will look at us and… well you can guess what he will say.


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