A new study has helped us better-understand the public’s feelings about Beaver reintroductions – we take a look at their results and work out what it means for planning a successful project.
Beavers can be controversial – these charismatic creatures have rolled out across the British countryside, apparently unaware of the growing debate, and split the nation in two. Well, not quite two – a new study from the University of Exeter has tried to find out exactly what our thoughts are on beavers – are we really split down the middle or is there more to it than that? If you’re rolling out a new project, it’s important to keep the local community on board; knowing what their opinions are, and what groups they fall into is a great way to start.
Beavers achieved legal status in Scotland and part of England, with a trial ongoing in Wales, partly due to their impact on flood prevention. In fact, they’ve become so established here in the UK that they now number over 1000 in the wild. However, sociology research has lagged behind and, until now, nothing has been published on how the public feel about beavers’ impact on flood risk.
But why does it matter how the public feel about the flood prevention role of beavers, when the science is so strong? Well, one of the key principles of rewilding is engaging with local communities and addressing potential conflicts before they happen. Rewilding will never be successful if we ignore the opinions of people who may have to live with potentially negative consequences. And there are some negative consequences – while beavers have a positive impact on water quality, flood risk, biodiversity and erosion, they also flood farmland, damage infrastructure and eat crops.
The new research shows that the impact of beavers on three downstream English communities – in Yorkshire, Cornwall and Gloucestershire – is perceived very differently by different groups. The participants in this study are categorised into five main groups based on their responses; three of them are pro-beaver. While beaver sentiment is generally very high – 75% of respondents view them favourably – the groups are divided in their reasoning.
Most beaver supporters feel that these animals are more effective than humans at preventing floods. Their dams form part of the government’s so-called ‘Natural Flood Management’ (NFM) strategy, which also includes blocking upland rivers with large logs to reduce sediment flow. For an innovative look at how beavers can improve NFM, read our free guide.
Even respondents who have concerns about beavers reliably preventing floods were often convinced by their ability to improve water quality. Concerns may actually stem from the recent success of rewilding schemes, as a fear was expressed that so many ‘new’ species are being reintroduced, with potentially ‘devastating’ effects on ecology. Early, more effective, wider-reaching communication of the benefits and history of these species might have reduced these concerns.
Most anti-beaver sentiment crystallises around one thing – the unpredictability of these agents of chaos as they run loose across the land. It’s accurate to say that beavers aren’t the most reliable contractors when it comes to commissioning infrastructure. You don’t necessarily know where (or even when) a dam will be built – dams being constructed downstream of a village are the main concern of anti-beaver participants. However, computer modelling of potential damming locations and foraging sites could help to identify problems early and, if freely available, defuse community tensions.
One potential solution might be found in the form of Beaver Dam Analogues (BDAs). These are artificial substitutes for the real thing, constructed out of anything from logs to metal, or wicker. BDAs raise the level of water, creating reservoirs that are suitable for beavers to inhabit. Some research in the USA has found that these animals may ‘adopt’ the BDAs as their own, which considerably reduces the unpredictability factor. However, this method hasn’t yet been tried in the UK.
There’s no silver bullet for beaver reintroductions – any scheme will have impacts on the local area. But a well-designed project, planned in partnership with experts and involving authentic community engagement can be successful and identify issues early. We have experience monitoring beaver impacts as well as creating natural flood management features, and our monitoring system (including LiDAR) may be used to map potential damming locations or identify foraging sites, as recommended in the paper. The authors of the Exeter University paper also suggest appointing a dedicated Beaver Officer, who may identify and mitigate problems before they happen. In the end, a project’s success will depend largely on the community’s perception of it, so it’s important to address this at the planning stage.
Here are some key actions that we recommend for any future reintroduction projects. Please contact us if you would like to discuss any of these further:
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