Beavers return to London after centuries of absence

Today is International Beaver Day! To celebrate, here’s some good news for the European species. After almost 500 years gone from the area, two beavers were reintroduced to London three weeks ago. They were released on a farm in Enfield as part of a local plan tackling climate change.

Beavers in Britain – a history

The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) is the largest European rodent. As its dam-building activities strongly affect the landscape, it is a keystone species of freshwater environments. Though once widespread, its numbers dropped in the Middle Ages, especially in Britain. Beaver meat was not only a rich food source, but the Church classified the tails as fish; therefore, they could be eaten during Lent. Their warm fur, while never as in demand as that of their American counterpart, was also popular. Beavers were also hunted for castoreum, a secretion from their scent gland used to treat various illnesses. As a result, it became extinct in Britain (probably) in the 16th Century.

Across the rest of Europe, the species also started disappearing. By the early 20th Century, only about a thousand beavers remained on the whole continent. Due to successful protection and reintroduction programmes, populations gradually recovered and today their numbers stand at around 1.2 million. In the UK, the first reintroduction took place in Scotland in 2009. Since then, beavers have returned to several locations in England and Wales.

Benefits the beaver brings

The return of such an iconic species alone is fantastic; however, the beaver’s presence also benefits biodiversity as a whole. As ecosystem engineers, they influence their environment with the dams they build. You might think that beavers would reduce vegetation by chopping down trees; in fact, the opposite is true. By grazing on shrubs and trees, the rodents help regulate plant growth. In one study area, this lead to a threefold increase in plant richness.

Beavers also have a positive effect on other animals. Dams are ideal places for insects to lay eggs, and the deep ponds beavers create support amphibians. These are also great nursing and overwintering habitats for fish. In addition, the wetlands formed by beavers help waterfowl, which are struggling due to habitat loss; lodges are even used as nests by some birds! Several other species benefit from reintroductions, as beavers act as flagship species for wet woodlands.

As well as helping wildlife, the return of beavers can reduce the risk of flooding as the dams store water. They also help improve freshwater quality. Dams slow the flow of water and thereby act as a natural filter. Beaver ponds also remove sediments and pollutants from the river. This can help mitigate the effects of climate change. After beavers were released in Devon, a survey found their ponds stored up to 18.4 tons of carbon!

Show your support on International Beaver Day

If you would like to support British beavers, these charities do great work. By donating to the Beaver Trust, you will be supporting beaver reintroduction and habitat restoration. The Scottish Wild Beaver Group promotes wild beaver conservation in Scotland through education, campaigning and wildlife tourism; make a donation here.

They’re not just beautiful creatures, they’re so good in the ecosystem, they encourage other animals and insects because of the ponds and dams they make. They do an incredible job and that’s why we are so pleased that, after 400 years, they’re back in Enfield.

Ian Barnes
Deputy leader of Enfield Council

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