Derek Gow is a farmer.
A previous guest blog here, about rewilding his farm (and much else besides), Winds of Change 4 February 2019, was one of the most popular posts on this blog in all time. His second guest blog, I must tell you something of the Beaver was about the subject which he picks up again here.
I am trying to finish my book. It comes out in September and is as near accurate an account as can be given of the rocky road travelled to ensure a stumbling start with beavers in Britain. Along its course there have been ups and downs, funny bits and sad, rights and wrongs. It’s been a roller coaster of a journey which for some of us has absorbed more life-time than it should.
But the point of this essay is not to sell books, it’s to explain that its ending remains mercurial and difficult to predict. In mid-February there was hope that in the wake of the disastrous winter floods of 2020 that the newly appointed Secretary of State for Environment George Eustice in a search for sustainable solutions was thinking ‘outside the box’. When he advocated the much wider restoration of the ‘humble native beaver’ to recreate vast swathes of absorbent wetlands the Telegraph and the Times supported his position. Boris was believed to be benign.
It’s an entirely sensible stand-point because one day soon the waters will return.
The social, political and cultural winds of change were starting to blow firmly in favour of the beaver’s return.
The book could culminate on a high note.
But issues remained.
Sure, they were still being shot in Scotland at the insistence of politicians paying homage to the high priests of the potato but this was a position of regression. A nervous option as the official yet unpublished kill figures from the Tay show just how much sanctioned death has occurred. Well over 100 are believed to have been shot so far on record and others without doubt will have swollen the ranks of the ‘disappeared’. While this shameful first within European history of moving to the lethal control of beavers within 10 years of their reintroduction is unique to Britain there is now a move afoot in England which will compound with elegance its tragedy. A move so retrograde and unnecessary as to be near unbelievable if it were not true. To snuff out the last tiny light of hope that’s emerged for the darkness of these killing fields. The transport under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage across the border of a few refugee pairs, of families with their babies or other odd juveniles to form breeding colonies in large enclosures in the south.
To provide the foundation populations that will in time ensure their wider return in England.
At a point when the government’s own 25 Year Environment Plan clarifies our desperate need for clean air, water, a thriving ecology, a reduced impact from natural events, to use our resources from nature sustainably and to ensure ‘beauty, heritage and engagement’ are all enhanced within our natural environment a tiny cabal of conspiritants without any discussion beyond their own closed circles in Natural England are attempting to ensure that the beaver colonies that could sustainably assist with the delivery of these aims die before they ever can.
They are not making this decision for you or me or honestly on behalf of our natural environment. They are making it for no rational reason at all.
It’s misguided and wrong.
Before I explain why, I would like to make clear that the coalition which has formed over time to rescue the ragged exodus and promote the beavers’ case is quite remarkable. Over the last decade in accelerating response to rising environmental concern many of the great estates have begun carefully to reprise their role. Within their vast landholdings many have realised that they hold the keys to rapid change. While some of their owners understand that much of their curtilage was never suitable for agriculture in any case and that when the subsidies go this option will be unfeasible financially many others harbour much greater ambition. Some quite clearly care about preparing for a better tomorrow. The wildlife inspiration that is the Knepp Castle in Sussex has enthused others to follow. Beavers will arrive there soon to broaden still further the appeal of this wonderous place for nature. Large conservation NGOs are also beginning to confidently act on the beaver’s behalf. Enlightened farmers are content that as our national system of financial support for them moves towards a more balanced approach which truly takes nature into account and supports them through the new Environmental Land Management system (ELMs) that they will be rewarded for their actions.
I spoke at a farming southwest conference at the request of the NFU in February. Its thinking was progressive. The leaders of the upland chapter told their hill farming audience that to think you were going to continue operating in the way you were doing and had done for decades was utterly unrealistic. That you must plan to follow the money. That it was not in sheep. I talked about a need to return lost species and the development of a grown-up understanding of the potential of their presence. In the conversations that followed over lunch it was quite obvious that many of those attending knew quite clearly what beavers were and what they did.
Audience polls were held in the afternoon on all sorts of issues. In response to the one on beavers yes or no? 70% said yes.
A decade of experience from Scotland, combined with the 5-year project now concluded on the River Otter in Devon verifies that beavers do all it says on their box. They slow flows, retain water during drought, purify it of toxins in their complex wetlands and restore biodiversity in great abundance. The process of restoring them in Britain has taken a very long time – the idea was first floated by Lord Onslow in the 1930s – and with the exception of an official release permit for a project on the west coast of Scotland in 2009 has been driven almost entirely by escapes from captivity or unofficial release. Despite a commissioned feasibility study by NE’s precursor, English Nature, which was entirely supportive of their restoration – similar independent studies commissioned in Scotland and Wales at around the same time provided the same conclusion – NE has pretty much done nothing with regard to the species until recent times. The only official beaver project in England is on the River Otter in Devon which was licenced retrospectively for a 5-year study period after a vigorous public campaign to retain the beavers finally overwhelmed an initial insistence from the then Secretary of State, Owen Patterson, that they could not stay
The project report for the Otter is now complete and has been issued by the Devon Wildlife Trust. A decision is expected from the Minister for Environment regarding its future in August 2020. It has demonstrated independently and quite unequivocally that beavers are tolerable with some simple management in an English landscape and that their presence brings active environmental benefits.
NE are indicating that they are prepared to now recommend further releases of beavers into other river systems on a strategic basis starting from the West and moving East.
So, what is the problem?
For a start there is an import ban in place for beavers coming from most of Europe. The reason given is that a few beavers have been identified carrying a nasty tapeworm called Echinococcus multilocularis which is believed to be absent from the UK and which can be transmitted sometimes with fatal results to humans. DEFRA’s own internal risk assessments indicate that as a vector of transmission the chances of beavers playing any significant role regarding the establishment of EM in Britain are slim.
EM is a disease which is transmitted by canids. When a rodent or other host contracts it they do so by inadvertently consuming the wind-blown eggs of the parasite released from the faeces of a dog, wolf, fox or jackal which has consumed another rodent infected with the disease. Rodents can’t infect other rodents directly. Canids can’t infect other canids directly. It has to go canid-rodent-rodent-canid. The World Health Organisation and DEFRA itself are clear that dogs are the most significant infectious vector of this disease and its transmission to people. There are approximately 150,000 dog movements between Britain and Europe where worming is required to eliminate EM before the dogs return to the UK. The checks on these are purely based on documentation thereafter which means that any percentage which fail will then present both an immediate risk to their owners and harbour the potential for the wider dispersal of EM in the countryside.
This is a much more significant and credible risk.
In addition, there is a community of individuals who maintain exotic mammals as pets in Britain. Although now banned you could until recently keep racoon dogs – a promiscuous transferrer of EM – in your backyard. No one knows who had them or indeed still has as there are no records. You could buy them from advertisements in garden centres along with a broad array of exotic foxes which can also presumably carry EM. The latter are still freely available.
If you so wish you can keep North American beavers, capybaras, porcupines and indeed every other rodent species worldwide including some promiscuous carriers of EM in Europe without a licence.
No issue. No problem. No records of who has what.
So why just pick on Eurasian beavers?
It’s land use. It’s the old politics of who can do what with the countryside around us. 50 million pheasants and red legged partridges? Fine. Whatever multiple of millions of sheep stripping the hillsides bare? They are ok as well. Wildlife change for the purpose of nature recovery and enhancement? That’s difficult from a cultural perspective.
When escapes of native species occur and boar or beaver populations establish a period of strident whining then follows. When it proves to be the case that the more fantastical objects to their presence are fantasy-based the bitching does not disappear it simply slyly connives. Well-connected individuals who worked perhaps for an MP’s father write ridiculous notes in thunderous capitals insisting that he ACTs! Despite sense or reason some of the supplicants do.
On the Tay the idea that the beavers there are the ‘alien ones’ because they are successful and therefore wrong in every sense has taken firm root within the farming community. The fact that the Tay beavers are, despite their killers, expanding while the much smaller official population in Kintyre is quite simply not, is no issue for them. They wanted no beavers anywhere in any case. While their script suits them well it fortunately does not suit others and throughout Britain where free-living beavers exist very many of the landowners on whose properties they reside are entirely content with their presence. Many others now want to have them as well. The human communities who live around them are commonly intrigued and then enchanted by their activity. When, on occasion, as happened on the River Otter in 2014, the views of these communities are requested, individuals who have had no voice ever with regard to the way we treat our landscape and its wildlife step up to the mark and say that they understand that the beavers do good and that they must stay.
There is a faction within NE that is well out of step with this reality.
That we can’t just talk. That we must now do and that to accomplish this we must hand the ability over to people who can, stand back and quite simply without good reason not get in their way.
There is no other possible scenario under which wildlife can recover at speed.
What NE need to do is create the policies to support these conditions and not try to run it the other way round.
NE contains people quite committed to doing just that. It’s got a good chairman of standing and depth, and some excellent directors. Although I do not know Marian Spain, I am told by those who do that she is very sound as are a broad range of the field personnel with whom I occasionally work. Good people, caring and committed but not I am afraid in control of NE licencing. As an organisation it’s been bludgeoned since birth by governments and ministers who wished its role to be no more than a supplicant stamper of forms. There to provide false legitimacy for bad things. Within its ranks there are strong seams of listless inertia and a marked hostility to change. You can expect nothing else from a body that’s haemorrhaged talent for years and been so resource stripped that the last time we met at Noble House (the Defra HQ) the reception staff there did not even realise the organisation existed.
Beavers are just too difficult. They bring change. Inevitable, resolute and sure. The applications coming in for processing don’t easily fit into any computerised system of approval and there is little flexibility in licencing for anything much that requires free thought.
So, you don’t have time to administer the licencing system you have created. It’s complex. You’re tired. But it’s only complex because you have made it so and it’s only there as a system on dubious legal grounds. A senior species licencing chum in Scotland who works for SNH says that he can’t even see how it is legally valid and that they don’t consider it credible. In England however if you accept NE’s premise that this single species threatens the security of the realm, in a way no other native rodent does then you need a licence for the pen and the project. You need to consult the EA. You need a drainage consent which the people issuing don’t understand. You need a licence to trap them for whatever future purpose. You need a licence to use beaver scent to do so and a licence to possess them – which is nearly identical in all respects to the first licence you applied in any case – if they come from the Tay. You also need to prepare a detailed management plan
its bonkers for a creature which does good and is indigenous.
All this with some notable exceptions where grown-ups have become involved more recently has been handled with a stunning degree of ineptitude. One individual who applied for a licence to keep 2 beavers in a pen in Cumbria did so before Christmas 2018. Last week – April 2020 – it finally arrived.
How can something so, so simple be contorted into something so complex?
One can only conclude that it’s a process created to simply make needless difficulties. While its instigators believed it would be uncommonly used as it would be expensive to implement and would thus slow any process of beaver return it has failed in these aims. It has cost those who have undertaken to pursue it a lot of money and despite its crushing imbecility further brave souls are now clenching to absorb its administrative pain. Since the system began in 2017 not a single beaver has been recorded as breaching the bounds of the newly designed fence systems its requirements entailed.
In that respect at least it has worked.
But now it’s going to stop.
Because despite being designed to frustrate and deny it’s bred enthusiasm. This was not envisaged and therefore a new approach must be developed to finally finish the game. One that promises hope but makes it impossible. The development by NE of a national strategy for beaver recovery.
The plan will be ambitious and daring. They will come up amongst themselves with the best beaver mitigation plan ever devised. Everything will be decided on the basis of hi-tech mapping. It will operate from the West to the East and be implemented in a year or less.
The problem is it’s simply not credible and it involves everything that’s happening right now stopping to accommodate its perfection.
There is no need for this. It’s just another delay.
In evidence I would like to state that it will involve computerised mapping. While in the hands of informed grownups this prospect is unthreatening, I believe that it will be handed to teenagers who will be told quite explicitly that the broad theorem of ‘computer says no’ will prevail on every occasion when a shred of doubt exists. Any folk on the ground who know their subject well and say that the computer is wrong will get short shrift. A bureaucratic nightmare will be the end result with illogical decisions being enforced for reasons that are quite silly. I have ground-truthed the system which will be used with its creator and it is quite clear that while it identifies the high-quality habitats well those which beavers can move through and reasonably adapt to suit themselves are much less clearly identified.
If no more enclosed projects can be developed, then no baby beavers born in these will be ever available to stock this great glowing orbit of future hope in any case. If no import then none from abroad. If the Scots one day as they must decide to listen to a broad range of people rather than just potato farmers then the killing there will switch to translocation from the Tay to other Scottish locations where they will prosper but turning off the tap of supply. There may quite simply not be enough beavers left in reserve to stock anything much at all and any progress that might be made will be excruciatingly slow with setbacks at every turn. Reintroducing species is best accomplished with large numbers of animals rather than small. Bigger populations provide a broader gene base and a reserve if anything by chance goes wrong. Smaller more hesitant projects suffer when a few individuals die.
There are as I have seen in the course of my long career other advantages with the big enclosures. They are good for example for understanding. They show people what beavers do and begin a rational rather than hysteric debate. I have stood with sceptical farmers groups on rainy, wet days in the enclosed Devon beaver site. Whilst unwilling to begin with when faced with the muddy dams of reality and not the soaring edifices of their imagination they have quite simply stated that ‘this is nothing to us’.
This is how confidence and dialogue are bred.
The wild things which return to cohabit with the beavers in their life-scapes can’t see the fences. Their ability to resurge in great abundance to hunt and nest, to swim and spawn, to flutter and feed, to sing and reclaim their rightful homes will all be denied. Wherever they exist enclosed or free beavers help nature. There are books the size of busses throughout their wide world range that tell us so and which can teach us how to live with them. I helped write one in 2016. There is very little in England we will have to learn anew. We are near the last western European nation to restore them quite fully for their significant environmental and economic worth.
It’s a shame.
And why just in the West? To do so is to deny nature. So impoverished. So, destroyed. Beavers are a key component of riparian process. They should be everywhere they can be. Although intensive arable landscapes are tricky it’s in these that the very worst of the pollutants and problems exist. A truly adult debate should in time look at taking land in back in these landscapes for beavers to create new ‘Kidney’ wetlands to dialisise the wastes flowing through. That is the future in the now, in the stock-lands where wooded corridors exist, they should be returned at speed. In a way we are not used to in Britain at scale and with vigour.
The solution is clear. NE should help create the structure of the new nirvana, empower management groups to do it, abandon the licencing of the current system of enclosures but set a standard for their fencing and let those who wish to keep beavers do so. We have set a precedent for such a move since the bronze age with cows and sheep after all. It’s worked for them and would not be hard to do.
Remove a useless burden that’s achieving nothing and move on swiftly as we should have done many years ago to a near-time future when this remarkable creature is returned quite fully to England’s wetlands to repair, heal and restore.