The Wildlife Trusts in Wales are leading a project – called the Welsh Beaver Project – which is investigating the potential for reintroducing European beavers (Castor fiber) to Wales. This project is potentially extremely exciting for the Afon Teifi catchment.
Beavers are native to Britain and Europe, and were present in Wales as recently as the 15th century, when they were hunted to extinction. Re-colonisation and re-introduction has led to their return across much of Western Europe, and a trial re-introduction is underway in Scotland.
Why are Welsh conservationists researching their re-introduction? Beavers play an important role in regulating and managing wetland areas, enriching the ecosystem to the benefit of other wildlife. They are one of a limited number of “keystone species”. These are species which play a role of great importance in their environment, and which far outweighs the size of their population. A classic example from America is the sea otter, which plays a vital role maintaining Pacific kelp forests, by eating damaging sea urchins. Beavers also play a role in improving water quality and reducing flood risk, while reducing river bank erosion and stabilising water tables.
They are a very attractive animal. Their presence in rivers across Wales would surely be a welcome boost to our important tourism industry. Adult beavers grow to around 1.3m in length. They live in small family groups on slow moving rivers and streams, rarely moving more than 20m from the water’s edge. They build their burrows (or lodges) in the bankside, these constructed from mud and sticks.
It is widely known that beavers build dams. They do this to raise the water level by up to 0.7m, so that the entrance to their lodge is submerged, and they have a larger water body in which to live. It is through this behaviour that they have the wonderfully beneficial ecosystem impacts outlined above.
They live entirely upon aquatic and terrestrial plants and will eat bark in the winter months. Their strong jaws and teeth allow them to fell trees of up to 10cm in diameter. These trees then coppice naturally, extending the life of the tree and providing the beaver with a ready food source.
Research suggests there are 6 river catchments in Wales currently suitable for re-introduction. This includes Afon Teifi, where it is thought a sustainable population of some 40 odd families could survive. This would amount to around 170 individual beavers. This population would create numerous beaver dams and ponds throughout the catchment. Creating these areas of still water would increase the number of plants and insects, and through the food chain create a cascade of positive outcomes for amphibians (including frogs and newts), fish, birds and mammals, such as water vole, otter and pine marten.
A number of rural groups, such as NFU Cymru, have expressed concerns about the potential for damaging impacts. However research shows that beavers do not threaten livestock, or introduce or spread disease. Their bankside burrows can collapse under the weight of tractors and other machinery, but these will not extend more than 5m from the river bank. Good farming practice stipulates leaving a buffer zone along watercourses in any event, to prevent erosion and water pollution.
Beaver dams are insubstantial constructions and easily removable if they cause a nuisance. Beavers will fell small bankside trees, yet any trees of value could be easily protected using wire mesh. Wildlife tourism is an increasingly popular and important part of the rural Welsh economy. Ospreys and red kites have proved to be major draws. As beavers are crepuscular (i.e. most active during the twilight hours) visitors interested in seeing them would have to consider staying overnight; to the benefit of accommodation providers and our struggling rural shops and pubs.
Before any re-introduction could be considered, agreement would be needed from the Welsh Government, local concerns addressed, funding obtained and landowners’ permission granted. Our perspective is that, aside from its undoubted environmental benefits, the beaver has huge iconic value. We continually hear about young people losing touch with the outdoors, having too much “screen time”; even of serious physical and mental health concerns through lack of exercise and separation from nature. Could the re-introduction of the beaver help inspire the up coming generation? If you’re interested in this project take a look at the Welsh Beaver Project for lots of further information.
Howard Jones Teifi Marsh Ranger