BEAVERS have returned to English woodlands as part of an effort to reduce flooding.

Forestry England has brought a pair of Eurasian beavers from Scotland to Cropton Forest in Yorkshire for a long-term trial in natural flood management.

Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) are large herbivorous mammals once native to England. Prized for their soft, thick fur and perfume like musk, they were hunted to extinction in the 1500s and have been missing from our rivers for hundreds of years.

The new project between Forestry England, Forest Research, Exeter University, and beaver experts Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer and Derek Gow, will assess the impact of the beavers’ activity on the long-term sustainability and maintenance of artificial dams.
The communities downstream from Cropton Forest have suffered severe flooding in the last 20 years, with the most serious flood in 2007 causing around £7m in damage to homes and businesses.

The man-made dams at the forest have helped alleviate the situation, but are expensive and time-consuming to look after. So the beavers have been released into a secure area to maintain the existing dams and create their own.

Forestry England expect that the beavers’ activity in Cropton Forest will improve biodiversity in their new 10-hectare home. Monitoring will continue on site throughout the five-year project to assess these ecosystem benefits.

Over 40 volunteers have been involved in the project so far, doing baseline wildlife surveys, including birds, butterflies, bats, small mammals, otters, fungi, aquatic and terrestrial plants, fish, spiders and reptiles. The surveys will be repeated every year after release.

Commenting on the day of their release, Forestry England Forest Management Director, Yorkshire Forest District, Alan Eves, said: “Today’s landmark occasion sees the introduction of a cornerstone species that has been absent from our landscape for over 300 years. 
“We are looking forward to seeing the beavers settle into their new home and are very interested to watch how they impact on the water flow and surrounding ecology.”

Cath Bashforth, Ecologist, Yorkshire Forest District, Forestry England, added: “The site is ideal for Eurasian beavers with plenty of food and water along the 824 metres of beck and around the two old ornamental fish ponds. The habitat is a combination of broadleaves and conifers. There is a lot of willow scrub and young birch woodland with open areas to provide summer grazing for the beavers.

“Beavers are natural habitat engineers, restoring complex wetland habitats and providing habitat for declining species whilst slowing the flow of water downstream. We are delighted to welcome beavers to Cropton Forest and are keen to observe the many benefits they should bring to local communities and the wider environment.”

The beavers were released in the Yorkshire forest around the same time that others were introduced to an enclosure on a historic country estate in Essex.

Similarly to the project at Cropton Forest, it is hoped the beavers at the Spains Hall estate in Finchingfield, sourced from an established fenced colony in Devon, will help reduce the risk of flooding in nearby Braintree by building dams along the brook flowing through the enclosure.

The project is being led by Archie Ruggles-Brise, whose family has lived on the estate for 250 years, and has been supported by the Environment Agency, Essex Wildlife Trust, Essex and Suffolk Rivers Trust and local councillors.

Archie said: “We are delighted to welcome beavers back to the estate, and to East Anglia, for the first time in almost half a millennium. It’s especially exciting to be able to utilise their unique skills to deliver flood risk reduction and biodiversity benefits locally.

“It will be fascinating to see how the beavers perform alongside the man-made natural flood management dams and we are fortunate to have lots of high-tech devices and expert support in place to record the changes.

“As a farming estate this is an unusual venture for us but by working with others we are confident the beavers and the wider project will bring benefits to everyone locally.”