Beavers on the move – Part Two

This is the second of a two-part blog written by Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, who was just awarded the Nature of Scotland Conservation Science Award for her long-term work with beavers in Scotland. Roisin previously worked for RZSS overseeing the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, and now works as an independent ecological consultant specialising in beavers, which she also studied for her PhD. NatureScot employ Roisin to provide us with advice on beaver management and she works with a range of other organisations on beaver research, survey, advice and translocation projects.

Roisin carrying out pre-release health checks for English beaver projects.
© Roisin Campbell-Palmer

In today’s blog, I’ll cover the management measures used in areas where beavers are causing issues – for example, causing waterlogging or flooding of farmers’ best fields. But following on from my last blog, the focus here is on the work we’re doing to move beavers from areas where they are causing problems to areas where their presence is much sought after to improve nature and the environment.

Under NatureScot’s Beaver Mitigation Scheme, a range of measures, ranging from tree protection to installing flow devices to regulate water levels, are now being trialled across over 50 sites on Tayside. However, on sites where there are serious issues that currently can’t be solved through mitigation and NatureScot are satisfied that certain criteria are met, licences can be issued that permit beavers to be controlled. This can obviously be controversial and is considered a last resort measure, and I have been working with NatureScot and land managers in conflict areas to instead trap and move beavers where possible.

A beaver trap set on a drainage channel where there are serious conflicts with farming.
© Roisin Campbell Palmer.

As interest in this species’ influence on ecosystems and support for beaver restoration across Britain rises, there are growing opportunities for translocation. Translocation in itself is a recognised mitigation tool, practised widely in conservation. It has been critical to both ease beaver-human conflict and restore beaver species across their native range following historic levels of persecution for the fur trade.

Beaver translocation follows strict licensing and animal welfare protocols, from a NatureScot trap and removal licence, to health screening to legal release licence requirements in the country where beavers are being relocated.

Any translocation involves the use of recognised best welfare live traps, designed by beaver management experts in Bavaria. These traps have been used in Scotland as part of recognised beaver projects for over 10 years now. Any trapping programme aims to remove established pairs or family units as far as possible, respecting and avoiding the breeding season. All individuals are then transported in specially designed beaver crates to quarantine holding facilities at Five Sisters Zoo, where they undergo veterinary screening and body condition checks to ensure they are fit for release and present no health risks to people, livestock or other wildlife associated with any release site. Samples are also collected for genetic analysis to identify current diversity levels and give us more information to help restore beavers across Britain.

A beaver held in specially designed quarantine holding facilities before moving to its new home. ©Roisin Campbell Palmer.
A beaver family in the holding facilities which enable the family group to be kept together. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

So far, beavers from Scotland have been successfully translocated to several licenced projects throughout Britain – including the River Otter Beaver Project in Devon, National Trust enclosed projects at Honicote, and several Wildlife Trust projects in Cheshire and Cumbria. As well, we have moved beavers where private landowners have been seeking to alleviate flooding and restore wetlands, including at Wild KenHill, Spainshall and Knepp Estate. With the exception of the River Otter Project, all the projects in England are within fenced enclosures and are accompanied by long-term scientific monitoring studies to document how beaver activities could have measurable benefits to the environment.

One such project is the Forest of Dean Beaver Project which saw two beavers relocated from conflict areas in Tayside and introduced to each other on site to form a new pair. These animals were selected as they matched each other in weight, body condition and were both non-breeding sub-adults. Both individuals were removed from separate agricultural ditches in which they were living and where repeated damming and collapsed burrows were ongoing issues. Following removal, NatureScot trialled exclusion fencing at one of these locations to prevent new animals from recolonising the ditch system.

A beaver in a trap at the capture site. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

The two animals quickly took to their new environment, which consists of six hectares of enclosed woodland with the Greathough Brook running through the centre. The beavers have since constructed a series of dams to create ponds to store water, improve water quality and slow the rate of water flow, hopefully reducing the flash flooding downstream which affects the village of Lydbrook.

The mixed woodland, managed by Forestry England, will benefit from beaver activity. Their foraging will encourage woodland plant diversity, and make river and shorelines more complex and diverse, providing more microhabitats for other species. Their foraging also increases the amount of dead wood, and opens up the canopy – this, in turn, increases plant and animal biodiversity by providing more foraging, shelter and breeding opportunities for a range of invertebrate, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species. Another interesting aspect of this project is to investigate if beaver foraging and opening up of this mature riparian woodland has a positive habitat creation effect for water vole colonisation, another endangered native mammal.

To date, this pair have created several burrows along the brook and have begun to construct dams. They are fairly elusive but a volunteer team lead by Forestry England rangers closely monitors their activities and looks forward to their future breeding.

The new dams attract a range of species using them as foraging opportunities. Dipper image. ©Kate Woolen, Forestry England.

You can read more about this project here.

Currently, we are actively undertaking beaver translocations between September and April. We work closely with those landowners experiencing impacts which currently can’t be solved through mitigation. At present, any successfully captured and screened beavers are being translocated to restoration projects in England, though moving beavers to locations within or on the edge of the existing beaver range in Scotland is now being considered.

Whether we see beavers restored to all our rivers and lochs, will depend on political and societal decisions on if we are willing to accept the changes to our river habitats that beavers will bring – which through positive engagement and mitigation, could offer exciting biodiversity benefits.

Read Part 1 of Roisin’s blog here.

If you’re interested in learning more about beavers, Roisin suggests the below web pages:

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