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Beavers are the secret weapon in the UK’s flood defences

After a 400-year hiatus, the Eurasian beaver has been reintroduced in London, boosting climate resilience.

By Megan Kenyon

The last time a beaver was born in London, the Tudors were on the throne. Hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago, Eurasian beavers were prized by the 16th-century nobility for their rich fur, their meat, and their production of castoreum, an exudate that was apparently like vanilla in taste, which was used to make medicines, perfumes and flavourings for food.

But today these industrious creatures are prized for their role in Britain’s rewilding efforts. In September the first Eurasian beaver kit in London for four centuries was born at Forty Hall in Enfield, north London, as part of Enfield Council’s natural flood management programme.

This arrival was swiftly followed by the reintroduction of a family of five beavers at Paradise Fields, an area of wetlands in Ealing, west London, by Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. Khan has committed £710,000 to his Rewild London fund for projects such as this across the capital. Other beaver colonies have also been successfully established in Kent, Cornwall, Devon, Derbyshire, Oxfordshire and in Scotland.

According to Eva Bishop, the head of communications at the Beaver Trust – a charity that supports the reintroduction of beavers in the UK – there is a “moral position” to bringing back this “lost species”. “They belong here,” she told Spotlight, “we removed them, they have a right to be here just as we do.” But in a more practical sense, Bishop explained that beavers can help to tackle the twin climate and biodiversity crises.

A key part of this is in beavers’ contribution to natural flood management. “Humans have spent decades straightening, draining, digging and cutting the edges of our rivers,” Bishop explained. Beavers “reintroduce chaos” to the UK’s waterways. “Chaos and complexity bring resilience,” she added.

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Beavers do this through their construction of dams and lodges – which become beavers’ homes – which help to stop and manage flooding by bringing woodland debris back into the river. Beavers efficiently manage water through the landscape, store it, and spread it into the immediate area around their dams.

[See also: Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree on the rewilding wars]

This is not only important for flood management, but can create lush, diverse habitats that benefit myriad species, such as dragonflies, damson flies and other insects. Improving flood management is essential to increasing the UK’s resilience against extreme weather events and beaver reintroduction has formed a vital part of Enfield Council’s efforts.

Rick Jewell, Enfield Council’s cabinet member for the environment, told Spotlight the local authority is “keen to explore natural flood management techniques” to reduce the risk of flood damage in the borough.

The reintroduction of beavers to the borough’s waterways has been central to this. Working with Capel Manor, an environmental college in London, the council first introduced two Eurasian beavers – fondly known as Sigourney Beaver and Justin Beaver – in March 2022, hoping that they would mate and reproduce. But the council told Spotlight that the first beaver pair “did not hit it off”. The male unfortunately died and the female was deemed too aggressive. Another pair of beavers was reintroduced in March 2023. Luckily this relationship did work, resulting in the birth of London’s first native beaver for four centuries.

Jewell told Spotlight that the reintroduction of beavers in Enfield will give the council “the opportunity to increase its understanding of a UK native species while helping the surrounding environment”. It is also hoped the project will help to “engage with, educate and inspire” local school children.

The Beaver Trust has called on the government to produce a beaver strategy for England and Wales. Scotland published a beaver strategy in September 2022, to run until 2045, to increase the number of the animals across the country. The plan includes creating new catchments for beavers, alongside appropriate management working with communities along the way to cause as little conflict as possible. “They’ve got vision. They want beavers all over Scotland,” Bishop said, “we need that in England and Wales. We need a national strategy for beavers.”

While on a local level there has been significant efforts in increasing the number of beavers, the government is slow to consider creating a national strategy for the animal in England and Wales. In response to a recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that pointed out the widespread benefits of species reintroduction to the UK’s environmental efforts and climate preparedness, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that beavers’ “reintroduction is not a priority”.

Yet the 2023 “State of Nature” report identified that 16.1 per cent of species living in the UK are at risk of extinction. And with major weather events, such as storms and flash flooding, becoming increasingly common, time is running out for nature recovery. Perhaps as central government turns its attention elsewhere, it will be increasingly up to regional and local leaders – such as Sadiq Khan in London, or the devolved administration in Scotland – to forge their own path and take the lead on protecting biodiversity.

[See also: Discovering Britain’s lost rainforests]

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