Lead nature agency publishes beaver licensing statistics and sparks an outcry

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Captive European beaver from Highland Wildlife Park. © SNH/Lorne Gill

SNH has caused an outcry on social media after sending out the following press release. The timing of the press release couldn’t have been worse coming, as it did, the day after many UK naturalists and wildlife lovers will have seen the BBC’s Springwatch program featuring the Cornish Beaver project.

As you will see from the full text of the press release SNH 87 beavers were shot under licence, but these are in addition to those that are allegedly shot illegally. Graphic images posted on social media show dead beavers, some times pregnant females, allegedly killed, it is assumed, to stop them from causing further ‘damage’ to the areas they live in.

It does beg the question, why not move them? The UK is increasingly hit by flooding, sometimes with catestrophic consequences. Why can’t the beavers become part of the solution by helping to provide natural flood defences?

In SNH’s defence, they have stated that they are “exploring viable alternatives to lethal control” so for the sake of the beavers let’s hope they don’t take to long “exploring” and that as a result, they implement a more enlightened approach to controlling numbers and impacts.

The press release can be seen below.


Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) today published a report on the challenging balance to be made between protecting beavers in Scotland and helping to prevent serious damage to some farmers’ land.
Beavers are ecosystem engineers. They provide huge benefits to people and nature, improving water quality and flow, and creating new habitats that foster many other species. However, their actions can sometimes cause serious impacts for land managers such as flooding of fields and crops. In some circumstance, it may be necessary to manage beavers and their dams under special licences issued by SNH.

Beavers became a European Protected Species on 1 May 2019. SNH reports that between 1st May and 31st December 2019, it issued 45 species licences which permitted either lethal control or dam removal. These were granted when there was no other effective solution to prevent serious agricultural damage. Five of the licences permitted dam removal or manipulation only. All licences were issued for the purpose of preventing serious damage to agriculture and all but one of these (97.5%) were issued on land classified by Scottish Government as Prime Agricultural Land. Evidence of serious damage included waterlogged fields and crops, as well as erosion on riverbanks and embankments.

One additional licence was granted to allow an experienced ecologist to live-trap beavers from sites where lethal control may otherwise have been employed. SNH also refused 33% of licence requests.

Under these licences, 15 beavers were trapped and moved to either Knapdale or a trial reintroduction project and fenced sites in England, 83 beaver dams were removed, and 87 beavers were shot by trained and accredited controllers. All lethal control licence holders were contacted about the possibility of trapping on their land, but live-trapping is not always possible on every site for a number of reasons, including the topography and general nature of the site and how beavers use it;  and the behaviour of individual animals. Based on survey information, lethal control and trapping has taken place within around 13% of territories. The proportion of the overall range of beavers in Tayside covered by licences is likely less than 10%, with control being carried out on around 5%.

The report recommends continued work with licence-holders exploring viable alternatives to lethal control, improving understanding of the impact of control measures on the Tayside population through survey and population modelling, and supporting work that better recognises the benefits of beavers for nature.

Robbie Kernahan, SNH Director of Sustainable Growth said:

“It’s always been clear to both us and our partners that lethal control of beavers will sometimes be necessary under licence as a last resort when other mitigation is unlikely to be effective. Some of the well documented and most serious issues have occurred on the most productive areas of agricultural land in Scotland. Due to their generally being well-drained, low-lying and flat, these areas are often vulnerable to beaver burrowing and dam building.

“As we work with farmers to trial new and innovative measures for reducing the impacts of beavers on this type of ground, we hope to see less need for control measures in the coming years. We also expect to see the beaver population expanding away from high conflict areas and into  suitable habitat where beavers can thrive and bring the positive benefits we want to see.”

The beavers in Tayside and surrounding areas are the result of unauthorised releases or escapes, with many animals settling on Prime Agricultural Land where they have had serious impacts. Classified Prime Agricultural Land makes up around 13% of Scotland’s land cover and, as the most productive and important farmland, it is of national importance.

SNH trapped and re-located 15 beavers in 2019, helping projects throughout the UK from Knapdale to Northumbria and Dorset. SNH will consider opportunities for conservation translocations of beavers from high to low conflict areas within existing catchments to improve resilience of existing populations. With Scottish Government we also will consider other alternative measures as part of a wider beaver mitigation strategy.

SNH also operates the Beaver Mitigation Scheme and in the first year, provided advice and support for over 40 cases and entered into 10 management agreements to implement mitigation. This work included installing flow devices, tree protection work, exclusion fencing and bank protection to protect agricultural land, infrastructure and property.

SNH has begun trialling water-gates this year, which aim to exclude beavers from areas of land where conflicts are arising or likely, as well as trialling other techniques, such as automated early-warning systems to alert people to beaver impacts, allowing rapid intervention before problems occur. Although water gates are only likely to be successful in certain situations, a number of potential water gate sites have been identified which, if successful, have the potential to fully resolve problems on 12 current licences where lethal control is permitted and partially resolve issues on a further 6 licences.

For the full statistics on 2019 mitigation, see https://bit.ly/2zzjVSh.

Beavers Build Back Better – but their future is not secure

Devon Wildlife Trust Beaver female with kits (C) Michael Symes
Devon Wildlife Trust Beaver female with kits © Michael Symes

The Wildlife Trusts have pioneered the reintroduction of beavers to Britain ever since Kent Wildlife Trust released these industrious creatures into a fenced area of fenland in 2001. Then followed the Scottish Beaver Trial, which saw the first ever reintroduction of a native extinct mammal to the British Isles since they were hunted to extinction over 400 years ago. Later, in 2015, the River Otter Beaver Trial, based in East Devon and led by Devon Wildlife Trust, enabled beavers to roam wild again in England.

Beavers are back, but their future is not secure.  The Wildlife Trusts are calling for a Beaver Strategy for England which would provide a roadmap for a future where:

  • There are more beavers in many more catchments
  • Beaver populations are healthy and thriving
  • Management frameworks are agreed which provide support for farmers, landowners and river users
  • Beaver impacts and their population health are scientifically monitored

The Wildlife Trusts and our partners believe that beavers should be an integral part of a green recovery. The impressive and ever-growing body of independent scientific evidence reveals the vast array of benefits that beavers can bring to society by working with nature. These include:

  • Improved water quality: Beaver dams slow and filter water, causing sediment and nutrients to be deposited in ponds. This improves the quality of water flowing from sites where beavers are present.
  • Land holds more water: The dams, ponds and channels created by beavers increase capacity of land to store water and produce a more consistent outflow below their dams. This can result in less water being released during heavy rainfall (reducing flooding downstream) and more water availability during times of drought.
  • Carbon is captured: Beaver wetlands capture carbon, locked up in dams, and boggy vegetation and wet woodlands which are restored.
  • More wildlife: Beavers create diverse wetland habitats that can provide a home for a wide range of wildlife, especially aquatic invertebrates which act as a food source for other species.
  • People engaged with wildlife: People are fascinated by beavers. The presence of beavers in an area provides an opportunity for people to engage with wildlife, as well as creating a market for nature tourism.

Beavers create thriving ecosystems helping us to put nature firmly back on the road to recovery.  And they do all this for free.

By working alongside farmers, landowners, river users and local communities we have learnt that management is essential if we are to maximise the benefits that beavers provide.  We now have a range of carefully honed techniques which can help us do this, which help avoid or minimise any localised negative impacts which might occur. We have gained widespread support for our recommended approaches in Scotland and Devon.

We are also calling on government to provide farmers and landowners with financial support to make space for water and beavers on their land. This will reward those who give up some of their land to benefit communities downstream, which will benefit from lower flood or drought risk and higher water quality.

Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“Beavers are proving just what a valuable force they can be in helping to solve the nature and climate crises. Their extraordinary ability to naturalise landscapes, improving them for other wildlife, enhancing water quality and controlling water flow makes them a vital component of a modern approach to land management.  People love beavers and their presence has really boosted tourism in the places where they’ve been reintroduced.

“Now it is time to look forward and set out an ambitious vision for the return of these animals.  But this must be done properly and thoughtfully, with the right support systems in place.   That’s why it is so important that the government publishes its beaver strategy soon.”

Harry Barton, CEO of Devon Wildlife Trust, says:

“This is an incredibly exciting time for re-establishing beavers and bringing them back where they belong.  The work we’ve done on the river Otter over the past five years, with a team of international experts led by the University of Exeter, shows just how many benefits these fascinating animals can bring, and how we can manage any problems that might arise.   It’s now time to seize the moment and take this exciting work forward so that beavers can deliver their many benefits on a larger scale.  We look forward to a swift and positive response from the government.”

Professor Richard Brazier, University of Exeter, chair of the Science and Evidence Forum that published the River Otter Beaver Trial Report, says:

“Our detailed research programmes have concluded that the positive impacts of beavers outweighed the negatives. A summary of the quantifiable cost and benefits of beaver reintroduction in the River Otter in Devon demonstrates that the ecosystem services and social benefits accrued are greater than the financial costs incurred.”

The Wildlife Trusts are gathering public support for an England beaver strategy – play your part here: wtru.st/act-for-beavers

Volunteers isolate at Highlands ‘lost world’ to save thousands of young trees

Trees for Life look after the grove of trees I set up via their Plant a Grove scheme to offset my carbon footprint. So it’s good to read that the good work of the charity is continuing despite the current situation.

Patrick Fenner, Louise Cameron and Emma Beckinsale tend the young trees at Dundreggan (medium)
Patrick Fenner, Louise Cameron and Emma Beckinsale tend the young trees at Dundreggan

A team of six people from Trees for Life have been voluntarily isolating themselves at the charity’s flagship Dundreggan rewilding estate in Glenmoriston, near Loch Ness in the Highlands since 23 March – to save more than 100,000 native young trees from being lost due to the coronavirus crisis lockdown.

The trees – including Scots pine, rowan, juniper, hazel, holly and oak, as well as rare mountain species such as dwarf birch and woolly willow – have all been grown carefully from seed in Dundreggan’s specialised nursery, and were due for planting out on the hills this spring.

Dozens of volunteers help to propagate and grow over 60,000 trees a year at the nursery, from seed collected across the estate. These trees are then planted out at Dundreggan and other Highland sites to restore Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest and its unique wildlife.

“We were all set for another busy season of preparing thousands of young native trees for planting on the hills by our volunteers, when the coronavirus crisis forced the postponement of this spring’s tree planting – meaning tens of thousands of young trees have not left our nursery as planned,” said Doug Gilbert, Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Manager.

“But nature isn’t in lockdown. All these precious trees have been coming into leaf, and we need to take care of them – especially in the dry weather we’ve been having. Without regular watering, they would all die. We also needed to start sowing new seed now, to ensure a supply of trees for future planting seasons.”

So Doug – with colleagues Abbey Goff, Emma Beckinsale, Patrick Fenner, and trainees Catriona Bullivant and Louise Cameron – opted to voluntarily isolate themselves at Dundreggan rather than at their homes when the national lockdown was announced.

Doug and his colleagues aren’t leaving Dundreggan except for a few essential reasons, such as collecting prescriptions. Food is arriving at the rewilding estate via supermarket deliveries.

Doug added: “The local Redburn Cafe has started local takeaways, so they’re an occasional treat! No one has visited us for weeks now, except for delivery drivers and the postie. We’re here in isolation for the long-haul if needs be – together with a growing forest for the future.”

Trees for Life plans to open the world’s first rewilding centre at Dundreggan in 2022. This is expected to welcome over 50,000 visitors annually – allowing people to explore the wild landscapes, discover Gaelic culture, and learn about the region’s unique wildlife including golden eagles, pine martens and red squirrels.

As well as being an internationally important forest restoration site, Dundreggan is a biodiversity hotspot that is home to over 4,000 plant and animal species. Discoveries include several species never recorded in the UK before, or previously feared extinct in Scotland.

Trees for Life is dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands. So far its volunteers have established nearly two million native trees at dozens of sites, encouraging wildlife to flourish and helping communities to thrive. See www.treesforlife.org.uk.

If we want to bring back farmland birds, restore a farmland pond, new research shows

Starlings

Less than 70 years ago, ponds were a common feature of the farmland landscape, and were routinely managed just like hedgerows. Since the 1950s, many ponds have been filled in to reclaim more land for farming, however, the large number have been left unmanaged, meaning they have  become overgrown with trees and bushes, making them dark and inhabitable to many species.

WWT has been working with the Natural History Museum and University College London on research that shows reinstating traditional pond management methods, of tree and mud removal, can benefit not only pond species, but also farmland birds.

Ponds restored by the Norfolk Ponds Project were compared to neighbouring unmanaged and overgrown ponds; restored ponds contained twice1 as many bird species and almost three2 times as many birds, as the overgrown ponds.

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Bird species at the restored ponds included skylark, linnet, yellowhammer and starling, all species that are Red Listed in the UK because they have declined drastically in recent years. There were 95 sightings of these four species in and around the restored ponds, which compared to just two sightings of yellowhammer and none of skylark, starling or linnet at the unrestored ponds.

As well as attracting threatened species, researchers found that the restored ponds attracted twice as many bird species – 36 compared to 18 at the unrestored ponds. The total number of birds visiting was also greater at restored ponds with almost three times as many birds attracted to the restored ponds. This was shown to be linked to the abundant insect food resources emerging from restored ponds.

According to lead researcher, Jonathan Lewis-Phillips of UCL’s Pond Restoration Research Group:

Restored ponds are teeming with insects, and because different ponds have insect peaks on different days, birds can move from pond to pond, and get the food that they need. A network of high-quality ponds is therefore brilliant for birds in the breeding season”.

With a network of restored ponds across the landscape, birds were able to move between insect emergence events, providing an ongoing insect food resource during the breeding season.

The research comes at a time when farmland birds are under huge threat, having declined by 55 per cent in the last 50 years, largely due to changes in agricultural management to increase food production, according to the recent State of Nature 2019 report.

As well as providing a beneficial habitat for woodland birds, farmland ponds also provide important landscape feature, and act as stepping-stones for other wildlife including frogs and dragonflies. Despite this, a separate report published earlier this month by the RSPB, WWF and the Wildlife Trusts highlighted that there is a no meaningful protection for farmland ponds in the new Agriculture Bill.

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Hannah Robson, Wetland Science Manager at WWT said:

“Our research shows how important it is to restore and manage ponds in farmland. Here in Gloucestershire, preliminary evidence suggests we have lost around two-thirds of our farmland ponds since 1900. That’s why we have been working with Farming & Wildlife Advisory group (FWAG SouthWest) and local farmers to restore a number of ponds across different farms on the Severn Vale this winter.

“Even following long periods of dormancy, overgrown farmland ponds can quickly come back to life, with plants, amphibians and insects starting to colonise them in a matter of months. That is why this research could be an important pointer of where the UK’s environmental and agricultural policy should focus post Brexit.”

Dr Hannah Robson2 WWT

Carl Sayer of University College London Pond Restoration Group said:

The research on birds was inspired by Norfolk farmer Richard Waddingham. His constant belief has always been that farming and wildlife can co-exist and with wildlife declining at an alarming rate, at no time in history do we need to make this work more than now. Restoring farmland ponds is clearly part of a positive way forward”.

NEW RESEARCH SHOWS OVERALL BENEFITS FOR BIRDS FROM RESTORING NATIVE WOODLAND BUT SOME MOORLAND SPECIES MAY LOSE OUT

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Willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, perched in a bare larch tree, Co Durham, April. John Bridges (rspb-images.com) 

RSPB research in Scotland suggests that native woodland plantations could have overall benefits for some breeding birds – but care should be taken not to squeeze out important species of open ground.

The study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, looked at the breeding bird communities in native woodland plantations and nearby open moorland in Highland Perthshire.

Overall, more bird species were present in native woodland plantations relative to moorland and the number of species increased with the age, height and cover of the woodland present.

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Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis, adult perched on bracken, Isle of Tiree. Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)

Many songbird species were also more common in woodland than on moorland, but the Meadow Pipit, which favours open moorland, is expected to lose out through woodland creation. Meadow Pipits are of conservation concern due to population declines and are listed as globally Near-Threatened by the IUCN. The UK supports globally important breeding populations of the Meadow Pipit and some other open-ground species including the Eurasian Curlew, so impacts from woodland creation on these species should be minimised.

Researchers concluded “Native reforestation of open ground offers net gains in bird species richness but could disbenefit open-ground birds including those of conservation concern. Where retention of open-ground species is desired, landscape-scale reforestation should consider both woodland and open-ground wildlife.” This new research therefore emphasizes that serious thought must be given to how to minimise impacts on open-ground biodiversity of high conservation importance.

The Scottish Government has set ambitious targets to create 12,000 to 15,000 hectares of new woodland annually until 2032 and wishes to increase Scotland’s woodland cover to 21% of land area. This has the potential to deliver on climate change and biodiversity targets but a large proportion of this newly created woodland is comprised of non-native tree species.

RSPB Scotland’s Head of Land Use Policy Vicki Swales said “Increasing the area of woodlands has a key part to play in helping Scotland’s wildlife as well as tackling climate change. Native woodlands can be a fantastic home for birds and many plants, insects and mammals. But this research shows that careful attention will have to be paid to what trees are planted and where; we need the right trees in the right places. For some of our most important birds maintaining open moorland and not planting trees there remains key.”

Dr David Douglas, lead author of the research said: “Creating native woodland on moorland should increase the overall number of bird species using these areas, but birds that are adapted to open ground are likely to lose out. We only studied native woodland but we know that in Scotland, a large amount of new woodland currently being created is commercial plantation forestry dominated by non-native species. We urgently need to understand where to place new woodland – whether native or non-native tree species – to minimise the impacts on important open ground biodiversity.”