Mammals to help counter impact of extreme weather events
A family of four Eurasian beavers were released on the National Trust’s Wallington Estate in Northumberland earlier this month. Conservationists hope they will help boost wildlife and increase the landscape’s resilience to a changing climate.
Beavers were once a mainstay of British rivers but became extinct in the 16th century due to being hunted for their fur, meat and scent glands. In recent years, they have been reintroduced at a growing number of sites in Britain.
The Wallington Estate is the location for the conservation charity’s third beaver release. It follows successful introductions on Exmoor in 2020 and the South Downs in 2021.
The release is the first to take place in Northumberland, with the animals becoming one of the few beaver populations in northern England.
Two adults and two young beaves have been relocated from wild populations in the River Tay catchment in Scotland and will make their home in more than 100 acres of land close to a tributary of the River Wansbeck.
‘Much as they did centuries ago, these instinctive animals will engineer the landscape, creating a dynamic system of dams and ponds that, over time, will become a lush wetland, brimming with life,’ explains Paul Hewitt, Countryside Manager at the National Trust
‘The BBC’s Wild Isles was a powerful reminder of the beauty – and critically, the scarcity – of British wildlife. If we are to make sure those amazing natural spectacles don’t become a thing of the past, we have to create space for wildlife to thrive.’
‘Beavers are a fantastic tool to help us do that; where they go, fish, insects, birds and amphibians follow.’
Beavers: helping to lessen the impact of climate change
Experts say that beavers can lessen the effects of climate change and extreme weather.
Their famous damn building techniques slow the speed at which water runs through a catchment which reduces the risk of flooding. They also create habitats that hold water in the landscape during times of drought.
‘Extreme weather has left its mark on this part of the country in recent years, and as we increasingly face into the effects of climate change, we need to find ways of making this landscape more resilient and benefitting the people who live and work in the area,’ says Paul.
‘Along with interventions like increasing tree cover, planting hedgerows, and restoring peatlands, we believe beavers can be part of the solution.’
Conservationists say that regular, careful monitoring and fixed-point photography will map changes to the ecology and hydrology of the site.
They add that the study should show any impact that the beavers are having on the flow of the river, which is prone to flash flooding.
In addition, researchers at the Environment Agency will monitor changes to the habitat and the impact on a population of native white-clawed crayfish present in the river.
‘Improving water quality’
‘We’re keen to understand the relationship between the beavers and other wildlife here on the estate,’ says Paul.
‘We hope to show that beavers will coexist happily with the crayfish by naturally improving the water quality, vital for a species which is in rapid decline in the UK.’
The release is a partnership between the National Trust and the Beaver Trust, which carried out the translocation under licence from NatureScot and Natural England.
‘Relocating any wild animal involves prioritising best practice in animal welfare and their quality of life at the release site,’ says Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, who led the release for the Beaver Trust.
‘What’s really interesting in relocating these animals to the enclosure at Wallington today is the upland stream setting, a recovering, formerly heavily grazed landscape.’
‘While this is still an enclosed project and beneficial to the species’ restoration, we need to look at the steps necessary for wider beaver restoration at a national level.’
‘We are still waiting for a clear policy from Government on wild releases in England that would allow this native wild animal back across its former range in ways that are well managed and that secure local support.’
Project funding from the Reece Foundation
‘The Reece Foundation is delighted to have been able to contribute to and facilitate the re-introduction of beavers to Northumberland after an absence of around 400 years,’ says Anne Reece, the charity’s Chair.
‘These nature engineers will add new habitats and remould the landscape to the benefit of many species as well as providing delight to visitors. We hope this is the start of many such reintroductions throughout the North East.’
The beavers form part of a bigger project called Wilder Wallington that is designed to improve prospects for nature across the 5,300-hectare estate and beyond.
Other plans include encouraging the migration of pine martens, restoring hedgerows and areas of peatland, planting trees, tackling invasive non-native species, supporting farmers to incorporate nature into their business plans, and alleviating flooding.
Helping to take care of the beaver enclosure will be a team of over 25 National Trust volunteers.
In time, staff hope to provide carefully managed public access to view the enclosure, however, at present rangers are asking people not to visit to give the animals time to settle into their new home.
Featured imagery: Beaver release in Northumberland. Copyright: National Trust / Paul Harris.