January 01, 2020

Reintroduction of beavers could protect land against floods and climate change
The reintroduction of beavers into Britain’ streams and rivers could help protect land and communities from flooding and the impact of climate change, trials have shown. Dams built by the creature, which died out 300 years ago through culling and hunting for pelts before being reintroduced in key areas over the past decade, are found to significantly slow the flow of water downstream and reduce peak flows after heavy rain. This has the effect of protecting nearby land from flooding as well as retaining water in streams during droughts. Research carried out during the five year trial on the River Otter, in Devon, has also found that the beavers’ dams prevent sediment and inorganic fertilisers being washed from farmland, causing plant life to flourish and boosting other types of wildlife. Professor Richard Brazier, from the University of Exeter, said: "It's an amazing story, it's far more change than we expected." The project, run by Devon Wildlife Trust, to reintroduce the mammal into a controlled section of the River Otter has seen them build 13 dams, creating new ponds with canals to link them.  Two additional beavers were introduced into a pond adjacent to the River Tale, the Otter’s main tributary, in 2016.  The beavers began coppicing willow around the pond and nearby grassland, creating more varied and open habitats. Dams also started to appear on the River Tale itself, creating larger areas of new freshwater habitat.  Researchers have now reported that while the dams are frequently washed out after heavy rains the beavers have managed to restore natural riverbanks, creating more meanders that slow the flow of water. One larger dam has increased water levels enough to create new channels running across the floodplain, re-entering the Tale a hundred  metres or so downstream. The Government is due to make a decision on the future of the River Otter project in March, when the licence expires, possibly giving the go ahead to other, more extensive controlled releases in England.  The River Otter project is one of a number of trials at enclosed sites across the country, with schemes also taking place in Cornwall and Kent. This spring the National Trust is planning to release three pairs of beavers into enclosures at Holnicote on the edge of Exmoor in Somerset and Valewood on the Black Down Estate on the edge of the South Down, in West Sussex, where it hopes their dams will help reduce flooding by slowing the flow of the water after heavy rainfalls. Ben Eardley, Project Manager for the National Trust at Holnicote said: “Their presence in our river catchments is a sustainable way to help make our landscape more resilient to climate change and the extremes of weather it will bring. “The dams the beavers create will hold water in dry periods, help to lessen flash-flooding downstream and reduce erosion and improve water quality by holding silt.” In some cases the reintroduction of beavers has led to problems for farmers, with localised flooding, as well as the animals targeting orchard trees near the river. Claire Robinson, the National Farmers' Union senior countryside adviser, said the results from trials would need to be examined before wider moves to reintroduce beavers are taken. She said: "We do have concerns about the potential damage to farmland and the landscape . It is crucial that farmers have the tools to manage any impacts a beaver reintroduction could have.” But backers say the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Prof Brazier said: "Overall, the social and economic benefits of having beavers in the landscape far outweigh the costs, but the costs tend to be borne by different people from those who benefit."
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