Perhaps the only earthling more industrious and hard-working than a Eurasian beaver – that miraculous rodent currently restoring Britain’s waterways – is Dr Roisin Campbell Palmer. She’s the Restoration Manager at Beaver Trust, a charity collaborating with wildlife management bodies to reintroduce the species across Scotland and England. If there is anyone to ask about this creature and why it is causing so much of a fuss in environmental circles, Roisin is the one: She’s currently writing a book on beaver ecology, conservation and management. Not her first on the subject…her second.
Her roots as a wildlife lover run deep. ‘As a child I always wanted to work with animals, but I knew I wanted to be out there in the field making a difference,’ she says. ‘The thought of getting animals back into the wild – that really excited me.’ After working with the Royal Zoological Society for many years, Roisin had the opportunity to get involved with a project that would trial the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland. She was sent to Norway to learn about beaver ecology and behaviour from the world’s foremost beaver expert, Prof Frank Rosell including how to trap, handle and monitor this species especially for the purpose of reintroduction. ‘By then, I had the bug. Beavers became my purpose.’ Before she knew it, she was the UK’s expert on all manner of practical considerations to do with beavers, and she would later become a leading figure in the nationwide effort to reintroduce the species.
The return of a lost rodent
The Eurasian beaver was once widespread across Britain, but until recently, we’ve been missing the species since around the 1700s, when they were hunted to local extinction for their fur and body parts. When the last beaver fell to the rifle, our rivers and woodlands lost a species that the biological community had evolved with over millennia.
Enter wildlife lovers. In Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, working with Forestry and Land Scotland, released the first wild beavers in over 400 years as part of the Scottish Beaver Trial. In Britain, frustration began to brew with the bureaucracy that accompanied proposed species reintroduction; a few beavers from privately owned collections later ‘found’ their way back onto rivers in England and other parts of Scotland. After protracted debate, free-living beavers on Devon’s River Otter became the subject of the River Otter Beaver Trial. Together, these scientific trials gave unequivocal evidence that the species benefits biodiversity, while significantly mitigating flood risk. Beavers were back.
Today, NatureScot estimates that beavers number >1000 in Scotland across a minimum 254 territories, mainly in the Forth and Tay catchment, with beavers becoming a protected species in 2019. In Engalnd, the government recently confirmed that beavers will be given Legal Protected Status this October.
They are one of the world’s most adept natural engineers, with an ability to build new wetlands and create new habitats and nurseries for invertebrates, fish and amphibians, all the while creating space for wildflowers and more diverse plant life. ‘There’s the cliché that water is life, but you can really see that interaction between the water, woodlands and plants and animals when the beavers get to work. It’s an ancient, evolved interaction,’ says Roisin.
Today, many argue that we need the habitats that beavers provide more than ever: Since 1970, there has been a 14 per cent decline in average species abundance. Some 41 per cent of species show a strong or moderate decrease in abundance, according to the UK’s State of Nature Report.
The species may also have economic benefits. Our modified rural landscape is today particularly vulnerable to flooding. An estimated 300,000 hectares of lowland wet grasslands were converted between 1970 and 1985, and 1.5 million hectares of upland peatland was drained in the mid-century, mainly through the mechanical digging of channels designed to lower the water table. Across the UK, many upland areas have been deforested, increasing the speed at which water flows downstream into rivers. Since the Second World War, the intensification of farming has seen a sharp increase in the level of inorganic and artificial fertilisers in our waterways. As Roisin explains, beavers can help to mitigate these impacts:
‘Beaver dams act as filters, trapping the sediments that we’ve increased through intensified farming. It can really restore not only habitats but ecosystem functioning, developing more healthy and naturalised functioning floodplains that we unfortunately as humans have successively destroyed over the centuries. ’Modern Britain, she reminds us, is currently facing rising summer temperatures and officially declared droughts. The presence of beavers has already shown to retain and reabsorb freshwater during the current record-breaking heatwaves.
Beavers are not without their opposition, mind. Some complain that beavers damage agricultural crops near riverine areas, and they sometimes fell sentimentally valuable trees. Beaver Trust are working with a wide range of stakeholders to support public understanding and reach consensus on the appropriate management strategy for the species. ‘Ultimately, this was the first mammal to ever be officially reintroduced to the UK after such a long absence. The more I engage with people the more I realise that it’s a complex issue. But I believe in the species; that it does so much good and that we’re only just learning about the benefits it brings to our environment.’
‘I think people are really questioning the wider health of our ecosystems. I think the public support for beavers demonstrates that really nicely.’. Many have dubbed the beaver a ‘totem for change’, where we place less faith in our ability to engineer our way out of the climate and biodiversity crises, instead trusting in the power of nature.
Leica, in collaboration with The European Nature Trust is announcing a series of ambassadors – conservation champions that are working to revive ecosystems across Europe. Roisin will receive Leica equipment to support her crucial work to protect and restore nature in the UK.
How might Leica’s equipment benefit your work?
It will greatly help with monitoring beaver families, some of which can be very secretive in nature, especially this time of year to confirm breeding and presence of kits. Beavers often live in complex and densely vegetated shorelines, so this equipment will greatly assist field surveys – a crucial part of conservation.