Conservationists are calling on the Government to take an active role in the reintroduction of beavers in England to help it meet its environmental goals on the day they officially become a protected species.
The semi-aquatic mammals were hunted to extinction in Britain in the 16th century, and were only reintroduced in 2015 following a long campaign by environmentalists.
Originally highly prized for their fur, meat and scent glands, which were used in perfume, the rodents are now seen as vital in the fight against biodiversity loss.
There is a growing body of evidence from reintroduction sites that beaver dams slow the passage of water through landscapes, cutting flood risk downstream and also conserving water in times of drought.
The new wetlands they create can become havens for other wildlife, including dozens of bird and insect species.
As of October 1, they are designated both a native and a European protected species under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 – making it an offence to kill, harm or disturb them.
In September, Defra published guidance on what activities related to beavers will require a licence, but conservationists want a full strategy on their management.
The Wildlife Trusts and the Beaver Trust are calling on newly appointed Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawadena to ensure the Government leads the way on their reintroduction.
Currently it is being left to land managers and NGOs to orchestrate and fund releases, but the charities say beavers can help the Government meet its targets under its 25 Year Environment Plan.
The Scottish Government has published a beaver strategy, which it says “will steer wider efforts to identify and actively expand the population” as well as manage it.
But Matthew Holden, Beaver Project lead at the Devon Wildlife Trust, said currently there seems to be no similar plan for England.
Mr Holden said: “Healthy rivers and healthy wetlands, these are in line with the Government’s own commitments on its 25 Year Environment Plan.
“They have set ambitious targets, it makes sense to achieve some of those targets through beaver reintroduction.”
Among the measures the Wildlife Trusts and the Beaver Trust want to see is a timeline for reintroduction in English river catchments.
They also want to see Government funding for releases, claiming the upfront costs involved mean land managers wanting to introduce the species are unable to do so.
Farmers and landowners who provide space for the animals on rivers and wetlands should be rewarded financially, they say, while a network of beaver management groups should be set up across the country.
The first successful reintroduction of beavers in Britain was on the River Otter in Devon, coordinated by the Devon Wildlife Trust.
Harry Barton, chief executive of the Devon Wildlife Trust, said: “A summer of record-breaking heat and drought has highlighted the urgency of making our landscapes more resilient to the unfolding climate emergency.
“Beavers have created green oases in our parched river valleys, because of their ability to store water through dam building and wetland creation.”
He added: “The Government’s recent announcements on protection for beavers and their management are good news, but they lack clarity and a sense of urgency.
“We need a clear plan and timetable so these amazing animals can become part of the wildlife of rivers throughout England.”
Sandra King, chief executive of the Beaver Trust, said: “Beavers bring such an astonishing array of ecosystem services to our landscape, this truly is an historic day for the species in England.”
She added: “It remains urgent and vital that the Government delivers a clear, ambitious policy and licensing guidance to support beaver restoration in the wild.
“At the end of the day, if we are to welcome beavers back as a native animal our primary objective must be to target positive coexistence with beavers.
“A properly resourced, forward looking strategy will enable land managers and communities to do this.”
Defra said that following its consultation on reintroducing beavers, which closed in November last year, it was working with Natural England to develop a national approach to beaver releases.
It said the approach would include criteria for wild releases and would be published in due course.
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