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beaver building a dam

Beaver power unleashed to help engineer flood defences

Image credit: Dreamstime

The National Trust is preparing to release a small number of beavers into the south of England to help manage the landscape and combat flooding.

Large regions of England are suffering from severe flooding, with chaos striking the Midlands and North last week and the banks of the rivers Severn and Avon bursting in the South West. This type of extreme weather – one impact of climate change – is on the rise in the UK.

In a scheme to combat flooding, the National Trust is planning to release a small number of beavers in England. Initially, two pairs of beavers will be released into large woodland enclosures in Holnicote, Somerset, near tributaries to the River Aller. A third pair of beavers will be released into an enclosure at Valewood, on the edge of the South Downs, West Sussex.

The plan has been given the green light by the Natural England agency. The National Trust will spend winter preparing the sites for the arrival of the beavers, which will be travelling down from the River Tay in Scotland.

Beavers, once native to Britain, were hunted to extinction in the 1500s, although small numbers have been observed in the wild in Scotland and Devon in recent years. Beavers are considered a ‘keystone’ species due to their work building dams in rivers, which significantly affects the landscape and ecosystem around them. Through dam building, beavers help restore precious wetlands through erosion reduction, downstream flood control and water cleansing. However, scientists have also raised concerns about the volumes of carbon being released into the atmosphere from soil as a result of beaver damming.

The National Trust is hopeful that the pairs of beavers will contribute towards a thriving ecosystem and render the landscape more resilient to extreme weather. The dams will store water during dry periods, lessen downstream flash-flooding during heavy rainfall and improve water quality by holding silt. The National Trust will work with Exeter University and other organisations to monitor how the beavers manipulate the landscape.

“Our aim is that the beavers become an important part of the ecology at Holnicote, developing natural processes and contributing to the health and richness of wildlife in the area,” said Ben Eardley, a National Trust project manager. “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 beavers are part of a larger project to restore the streams and rivers around Holnicote to a more natural state in which they spread “like the branches of a tree”. Meanwhile, the South Downs beavers are expected to create structures along the Valewood stream.

“Beavers are nature’s engineers and can create remarkable wetland habitats that benefit a host of species, including water voles, wildfowl, craneflies, water beetles and dragonflies,” said David Elliot, National Trust lead ranger for Valewood. “These in turn help support breeding fish and insect-eating birds such as spotted flycatchers.”

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