Guest blog – Holding back the Beaver by Derek Gow

Derek Gow is a farmer.

His first 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.

He has written other blogs here (click here) and I reviewed his book Bringing Back the Beaversclick here.

A Response to the current DEFRA Consultation Process regarding the reintroduction of the Eurasian Beaver to Britain.

I have decided to respond to the current consultation on beaver reintroduction in an open manner to make my views on this subject clear. I have worked with this species in Britain for a quarter of a century and visited sites the world over to see and understand at first hand their remarkable works. I have met the ablest of individuals who work with and understand them and earnestly hope that my journey with this most marvellous of creatures is not yet done.

The prospect of government moving to restore the beaver to England has been a long time coming. It is to the great credit of a broad range of individuals that this position has finally been achieved. While Boris Johnson’s ‘Build Back with Beavers” was hardly a Churchillian statement if his simple intent is to be delivered his government servants will have to insist that it is done. From the experience I have gained to date of the systems which administer nature in Britain I believe the following is worthy of consideration.  

Few would contest that state of our country’s natural heritage is appalling. Nature in large part no longer flourishes in our landscapes. Our historic destruction is in large part complete and in large part much of the modified environment we still call a countryside is dead. The bulk of peer reviewed scientific evidence combined with field study experience in Britain, North America and Eurasia clearly demonstrates that restoring beavers quite simply restores life. Prejudice, ignorance and mistaken belief do not mask this reality. If we seriously wish to afford nature the slimmest of chances to detach herself from the failing system of the intensive care ward where we have laid her, we need to return beavers to the land. Not cautiously, but at speed wherever we can. In an age of mass extinction and savage climate change why on earth would we not? Why fail to charge? commission? recruit? the beavers that fill their watery lands full to the brim with frogs, fish, birds and insects when we have so palpably failed?

At this point when we are devoid of all other solutions the Beavers time has come.     

I have read through the tedious consultation form.

Both species of beaver are incredibly well studied. To suggest we need to delay or dither at this point as a result of ‘evidence gaps’ is absurd. While predictably there will be limited cultural issues – their ability to exploit hedgerows as a living environment is not well established, and they may or may not consume cricket bat willows and forage on Himalayan plants in historic arboreta – all are predictable activities but very limited in scope. They can be addressed by proven solutions adapted from experience gained elsewhere. To infer otherwise simply keeps can-kickers in play at their obscure game of choice. Like a hunt for a yeti, a yale, or a unicorn theirs is an illusory quest made complicated only by invented webs of interwoven bureaucracy.    

There are not and will not be any yawning chasms of knowledge with respect to beavers. Everything of substance we need to know to act now is known.

The section on stakeholder engagement uses a familiar old and homely habit of humble homage to established Titans, locked in the past. Tired old trolls shuffling well past their prime. Old or backward thinking farmers, whose feather beds fluffed full-out by others are never deep or soft enough. Fishermen with fanciful beliefs founded on no science and no personal experience, but on the hearsay of other fishermen. Tame nature conservationists who prefer cosy systems which promote pointless delay over swift and effective outcomes. While not all are anti-beaver their political leaders will bray loud. What about you whoever you are? What of your interest in the natural world, its wonders and benefits? What of the interests of your children and grandchildren? Your teenage offspring in university? Must they inherit from us nothing more than a sterile land and rising seas? bleaching reefs and withering forests? What about young mothers, gardening clubs, doctors, retired academics, war wounded soldiers, supermarket workers, music groups, stamp collectors or the wardens of traffic? What about society in its widest sense? This is about the future of us all. Do we really wish to let the natural world slip ever further into a grey twilight of despair? This decision to repair is not the prerogative of a few. It’s a vital challenge to us all.

We are all stakeholders in our own survival. Have your say. Say yes.  

As we cannot import more beavers any wider release will be drawn from a limited pool. If the Scots ever rise beyond a bloody annual sacrifice of beavers and allow them to return to their own lands well away from the Tay then a few may flow south. Although the populations on some English rivers are rising, they have not yet swollen to a point where their harvest for elsewhere might prove practicable. Some, such as those on the River Otter, are so inbred that to translocate their stock without pairing with unrelated individuals would lack foresight. Although captive groups established in large pens will provide life-skilled young beavers in time to make wider releases possible one of the proposals in this consultation process is that the criteria for these should be much narrower. This makes no sense. If, as is obvious, wild release is going to be a costly and lengthy process (with technocrats controlling all but contributing nothing) then large enclosures will continue to offer a viable way to accumulate nature while mitigating against any apparently greater ‘risk’. The little grebes that dive and rear chicks on the pond systems created by semi-captive beavers will, like the other life that adores them, recognise no fence. If these facilities are disallowed it will mean that the wildlife rich environments they could create in locations where their owners want them will never be allowed. No moorhen will nest in their pools nor brown trout swim in their depths. No water voles will browse their banksides nor dragonflies purr over the glassy surface of their lagoons.

They will never be and the creators that could have made them will be ghosts on the Tay.

That a strategy of this sort to deny natures existence should be advanced by those charged with the recovery of the natural world is downright perverse. It’s been advanced to make risk averse form fillers lives easier and for no other reason. If a licence is needed at all to keep beavers when it’s unnecessary for any other rodent species it should be in no way restricted. 

Ahha” you say when the golden goal of wild release is dangled “here is what we wanted. The grail. An end”

There is a very real danger that what is being proposed as a simple process will ensure that its delivery will be made near impossibly hard.

I have spoken to the only individual so far who has applied to translocate free living beavers onto his estate in Scotland. No light touch was applied. Nine months on he is getting nowhere and was informed today by part of the committee structure set up to consider his application in imponderable depth that no action can now be taken until next year. He was required to fill in the same sort of 90-page long document as will be required in England. He has been told that he will have to bear all the costs of moving the beavers if a licence is granted, consult with the organisations that harbour the species most bitterly determined foes and fall out with his neighbours as a result. He has been informed on innumerable occasions that his application to move individuals, which would otherwise be shot, to his near-ideal location of well-wooded pools is contentious – even though the nearest wild living beavers requiring no licence are only 8km away – more “serious time and consideration will be required”. [Note: the following two sentences replace the original single sentence after some discussion] On a recent site visit from the licensing authority he was informed of their fear that released beavers would not remain on his ponds but swim off downstream. Dispersal, it was explained, is one of the most stressful periods in an animal’s life, and releasing beavers on a pond that they then chose not to remain on would be akin to forcing them to disperse. Bear in mind that all of the beavers ear marked for this translocation are subject to cull licenses. Surely the risk of dispersing, to a river system where beavers are already resident, is less stressful than a bullet. When you contrast this with the simplicity of process for licences to kill beavers, which can be issued in a single day the system is quite clearly designed to ensure killing over conservation.

While I appreciate for those not involved in species restoration this might sound like a insane statement.

It’s not. It’s an appalling truth.  

So corrupted by this trend of thought have the official bodies become that this lunacy is their reality.   

Pay heed to Greta and her claim of betrayal in bold broad daylight.

There should be for many years be no lethal control. History teaches well that governments that give those who hate the right to kill the subject of their ire perpetuates such abomination. Our island is big. There is much habitat that’s suitable. Best to reintroduce the beaver widely and well. This process will render any killing invalid and unnecessary and, in the end, when or if any need to act in this manner comes it should not be undertaken by those with barbarism in their hearts, but professionally and humanely.

Every indication given by the consultation document is that the process of wild beaver restoration proposed for England will invoke no gossamer touch. No hope of swift victory. Big budgets must be raised for a 5–10-year period to employ staff and committees to do God knows what. In Bavaria, a state the size of Scotland, the beaver population of approximately 23,000 individuals is efficiently managed by 2 full time field officers coordinating a trained network of very capable volunteers without any nonsense of this sort. On a basis that’s well informed with a swift speed of response to issues that rise from the presence of beavers in highly developed landscapes. Tensions can generally be resolved without significant conflict. Unless we can emulate the Bavarians example any end result will be hellish. Beavers will become the new badger, reviled not because of their abilities but because of an incapacity to afford any effective management of their presence. Nothing in Natural England’s sorry track record of license administration infers that this will be in any way avoidable. Delays will be inevitable. Delay and prevarication result in anger and hate. Responses will take days, weeks, months or years with only a series of standard computer apologies to stem the monotony.  There will be no opportunity to talk to a human being who understands to explain. Any response you might get will be abrupt, didactic or based on very nearly entirely bugger all. 

Without wishing to be a grump this consultation and what will ensue may play out better than I anticipate. I hope quite earnestly that I am wrong.  If I am right, it simply comes down to whether the government wants to employ beavers to give nature the ability to heal or not. If they don’t then they should simply say no and not hide behind a witless façade of rules that make it all but impossible. If they, do it should be made easy with no hindrance of substance. It is clear from the efficient and effective way we have administered the vaccination programme for the Covid Pandemic that we are still be a capable people if we choose. This calm ability is not commonly the case in the backwaters of nature conservation where urgency of action and competence of approach are the rarest of beasts.

Small thinking. Small numbers. Small aspirations.

At a time of global ecological calamity this is unacceptable and utterly inadequate.

Over the course of the last year, I have visited at invitation a range of locations whose custodians wish to find a different way. Even the finest contain only shreds of former wildlife. A few red squirrels here, a few adders there. The 10 spined sticklebacks, godwits, curlews, spotted flycatchers, black grouse, ring ouzels, swifts and water voles are now all dust.

Extinction has its own sound. It is silence.

Beavers in large part would restore the cacophony and we should give them every chance to do so.

There is now in truth no other option   

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13 Replies to “Guest blog – Holding back the Beaver by Derek Gow”

  1. Derek, thank you. This is an eloquent and withering critique of conservation policy and nicely rounds off the discussion we had when you kindly showed me round your rewilding projects this week. For decades, sometimes with taxpayers’ support, landowners and farmers have been experimenting on our land with little or no oversight. And yet the proposed introduction of a few tens of beavers (or lynx) requires decades of data and multiple, identical trials. Would 50 million pheasants be released annually if the same level of scrutiny was applied? Would chickens have been crammed into cages if the same sort of official dithering and prevarication that is applied to the reintroduction of native species were applied to new systems of farming? Would maize be grown on land to which it is manifestly unsuited? Would we have megadairies and the attendant pollution of watercourses? Rewilding and reintroductions carries some risk. Innovation always does. It’s time this was recognised and it’s time we took this risk.

    Likes(45)Dislikes(1)
  2. A briliant exposition of the (depressing) situation regarding beavers...and I can wander 300m to see them wild on my local river.

    I hope to goodness that Derek is wrong that 'beavers will become the new badger'. That sort of future is grim!

    We need, more than anything else, space given over to beavers, which as I'm sure Derek knows, causes most conflict to evaporate.

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  3. Another excellent and insightful guest blog from Mr D. Gow (and which shows how valuable this blog is as a platform for them). This is what happens when the conservation community does its best to be accommodating, conciliatory and patient, but as they say in Yorkshire 'Patience is a virgin.' Its been walked over, kicked into the corner and had been treated as a joke in return.

    As well as being a massive tool for conservation the beaver is enormously important in expanding the options and effectiveness of natural flood alleviation, to a large extent in the uplands where the conflict with genuinely economic activities is virtually zero, but the savings from reduced flooding to homes, businesses and better quality farmland is potentially enormous. The conservation movement can't possibly have lower hanging fruit to pick than the planned translocation of the beaver to help wildlife and people. And yet it wrings its hands not wanting to rock the boat with 'stakeholders' who not only don't give a shit about wildlife, but about the families whose homes are going to be flooded without change (no problem taking the public subsidies they provide though). They don't deserve the consideration they're getting.

    The conservation organisations desperately need to grow a set of cojones, preferably several, or at a time when conservation could and should be steaming ahead it's going to get thwarted down just about every path. There's still a lot of resistance to getting even wildflower meadows in urban spaces, and in Wales you can see this scaled up to an effective nationwide block on rewilding. With the latter a tiny minority of subsidised, flood friendly hill farmers have determined that a very large proportion of that country is going to stay ecologically devastated periodically contributing to Gloucestershire turning into a water park. The conservation movement hasn't dealt with this, no plan B, and is effectively stuffed. That's pathetic.

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  4. Time to ignore the government and release beavers here there and everywhere they can make their homes and survive.
    People power will eventually win. Especially once local people come to enjoy the landscape and proliferation of life that beavers create.
    If enough are released strategically across our waterways then the governments strategy to stop the beavers return will be thwarted.

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    1. To do that would have a reciprocal affect and would give those who oppose the idea, a free hand to shoot them.
      Advocating Law breaking will have repercussions which will impact heavily and bring about a negative influence.
      People power ain't always all that it's cracked up to be.

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  5. As Derek says we know all we need to know about European Beavers To make understanding where and how they should be released and indeed how many. Those who say we do not are part of the nay sayers and we should in part ignore them wherever possible. The Beaver belongs here many maybe most/all habitats will benefit from them, Timidity never won the fair lady and it won't win the battle to improve and increase our biodiversity either. As for the cull policy in place in Scotland and a lack of translocation of "problem" beavers it is madness, utter madness and stupidity in the face of the ignorance of the opposition Nature Scot or whatever they call themselves should hang their heads in shame over it. We need beavers out there NOW!

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    1. If you wanna do an end run around the culling policy, then put the beavers into Glasgow on the Clyde and Kelvin. There will be massive public outcry if they try to cull them out, and also they provide the gateway to so many other Scottish regions. Hell, a couple on the Leven and they'd be all up in Loch Lomond and the tourists before anyone could notice. Aiming to only put beavers in out of the way countryside seats just makes it so the only people that notice them are the "field sports" assholes, and easy to shoot and cull out without people noticing.

      Put them into the rivers in the hearts of major towns, and people will notice and they will be the type of people who are not of the cull first mentality. It will also mean they have relatively secure heartlands to expand out of in a way that farmers and anglers cannot touch. Just like how Peregrines recovery only really started when they started nesting in cities and spires. Most UK towns have a river or two running through them, and most of those have unkempt banks that beavers can munch through, and burrow into, to their heart's content.

      Rewilding, in the UK, needs a rethink to its approach, and that has to be looking at our damaged countryside and systems and seeing them not as the starting point, but as the hostile environment it is. Lynx would be safer reintroduced in the London greenbelt, which is under assault by deer, and free of lethal grouse moors. The uncared for rivers of the UK towns and cities are the perfect safe havens for beavers. Pine Marten, near farming country? Nah, but city parks are overrun by grey squirrels. Look to the cities first, where they can charm the population before tossing them to the metaphorical wolves in the Huntin', Shootin', Fishin', and Farmin' crowd.

      If only we could convince harriers to start nesting on the green roofs of office blocks too.

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  6. It is time, long past time, to say sod the system and just do wild releases with or without official sanction. That goes for all our missing wildlife too. Harder now to source candidate animals, except wild boar which can be handily translocated, because of Brexit and enhanced border checks due to the UK's self imposed relegation to the third tier of nations, but far from impossible. We've waited long enough for the wheels of officialdom to turn, but with someone standing on the brake all the time we've gone nowhere; time to go it alone and let the officials come crying later.

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    1. If it hadn't been for 'unofficial' beavers, either escapees or illegal releases, then the only free living ones in the entire UK would be those of the official reintroduction in Knapdale on a remote peninsula hemmed in by mountains and the sea. Supposedly many of the young beavers trying to look for new territory have to use the sea which is killing many of them. There was a public consultation about reintroducing beavers to Scotland way back in 1995, and there was overwhelming public support for it. It was rejected.

      So years after the Scottish public said they wanted beavers back and were over ruled we finally got it where it wasn't going to do much for beavers, but would help keep their detractors happy, or at least less pissed off. Always about keeping a nasty little clique happy, sod wildlife or what the hoi polloi want or keeping homes dry when it compromises driven grouse shooting.

      Likes(12)Dislikes(1)
  7. I think you would need a licence for Coypu (and you probably wouldn't get one).
    Having said that I fully support Derek's efforts

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  8. " GWCT welcomes new report that shows beavers benefit fish by building dams in Scottish rivers", 11th Oct.

    Likes(3)Dislikes(0)

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