Early last year PETER FROST suggested beavers could make our river systems less likely to flood. Now it seems scientists are starting to agree but some gun-wielding landowners are not
Our winter floods continue. The reasons are many and complex. First of course is the unprecedented heavy rains we have been having as a result of climate change.
The straightening of rivers and tributaries has speeded river flow and land drainage. Add to that the stripping of tree cover and scrub from hill farmland and the huge amount of building on flood plains replacing absorbent agricultural meadow with paved roads, car parks and building roofs that shed rain instantly.
More than a year ago I wrote in these pages that one strategy that could help a little would be the re-introduction of the European beaver (Castor fiber). These were a native species until they were hunted into oblivion 400 years ago. They are a completely different species from the north American beaver (Castor canadensis), which never lived in Britain or Europe.
The beaver was once widespread all over Europe and Britain. It was hunted to near-extinction for both its luxurious fur and an extract from its anal glands known as castoreum. This is used in the perfume industry and was once believed to have magical medical properties.
More recently, controlled reintroductions, escapes from captivity and some unauthorised releases have seen a number of beaver colonies established in England and Scotland.
When a small colony settled on the River Otter in Devon a temporary five-year licence from Natural England allowed scientists from the University of Exeter to study beavers close up, including the effect they might have on river flow and flooding.
Professor Richard Brazier, a leading hydrologist at the university, has started a study of what is England’s only breeding population of wild beavers in order to understand their impact on pollution, flooding and water quality.
He discovered that the chain of small dams and the ponds those dams created slowed river flow after a heavy storm from minutes to many hours. This could level out flow and reduce flash floods downstream. This research continues.
Meanwhile north of the border beavers have been reintroduced into several sites in Scotland and are breeding happily on several rivers.
One such colony on Scotland’s flood prone River Tay has existed since as early as 2001. Today its population is believed to top 150. At least it did until some trigger-happy shooting types realised the beavers had no legal protection in Scotland.
Now it seems some Scottish landowners and farmers have declared open season on the small but growing population, shooting them at will, while the Scottish government and its wildlife agency look the other way.
Beavers that were heavily pregnant or had recently given birth are among those shot by these unpleasant landowners on Tayside.
The slaughter has led to demands for restrictions on shooting during the breeding season and renewed calls for Scotland’s beavers to receive the same legal protection as the animal enjoys in England.
Experts at Edinburgh Zoo have carried out post-mortem examinations on 23 beavers from Tayside — 21 had been shot. Local environmental groups believe that the death toll is much higher.
A freedom of information request by BBC Scotland revealed that two pregnant animals were shot with foetuses very near full term. Two other females which were shot had recently given birth. Once the mother has been killed, newly born kits will not survive.
Beavers have one litter per year. Most do not reproduce until they are three years old. Beaver pairs are monogamous, staying together for multiple breeding seasons when they average three kits per litter.
There were concerns about the length of time it would have taken some of the 21 shot animals to die. At least one corpse contained lead shot. It is against the law to use lead shot to kill any animal in water.
In a statement, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland said: “In our capacity as advisors to the Scottish government on beaver management, we have written both to Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish government to raise welfare concerns.”
Scottish Natural Heritage has asked land managers not to shoot beavers in Tayside but to little effect.
Scotland actually has two wild beaver populations. An official reintroduction trial has been conducted at Knapdale Forest in Argyll. No shootings have been reported here.
Just as important as helping to reduce flood damage, beavers also help support wetland ecosystems by creating sustainable wet landscapes with pools, which increase biodiversity and provide habitat for threatened and rare species such as water voles, otters and water shrews.
Beavers gnaw branches from waterside trees and shrubs so that they re-grow denser, which provides useful cover for birds and animals.
Their dams trap sediment and improve water quality and can help regulate river flows and reduce flooding.
What is urgently needed is a moratorium on the shooting of beavers in Scotland pending an early decision to afford the animals the legal protection they certainly deserve.
There are a number of online petitions where you can show your support.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 19 February 2016.