Beavers let loose in rivers across England are causing serious damage to woodland and putting production of cricket bats under threat, it is claimed. Graham Mole reports.

JUST when it’s planned to combat climate change by growing more trees, along comes a new threat – beavers, which can fell up to 200 trees a year.

Both fishermen and foresters claim the animals are being illegally let loose in the English countryside, which in some cases threatens the trees around treasured chalk streams – we have 230 streams out of the entire world’s total of 240.

Critics complain that not only do the animals fell normal trees, they also wreck willows which are used to produce world-class cricket bats costing hundreds of pounds.

Forestry Journal:  There are concerns that England’s willow trees – the wood from which is used to produce cricket bats – could be particularly at risk. There are concerns that England’s willow trees – the wood from which is used to produce cricket bats – could be particularly at risk.

Leading the opposition in Dorset and Devon is Charles Dutton, a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Foresters who also chairs a local fishery association. He explained: “We recently became aware of an ‘enclosed release’ of beavers planned for the upper river Hooke, which forms part of the river Frome chalk stream system in Dorset.

“We hadn’t been involved in any consultation about this. We investigated and what we uncovered was alarming. Beavers are being spread across Britain both legally and illegally and they are spreading. Evidence from Scotland, Europe, and North
and South America shows there are very serious consequences to such a widespread re-introduction. Even the Environment Agency says the benefits from so-called flood mitigation are limited and only suitable in some cases.

“We visited the River Otter in Devon where there’s been a five-year trial and the change in the landscape (some would call it environmental vandalism) was dramatic. Large trees are felled (without any licence) and non-porous dams built by the beaver to achieve a depth of water which the beaver needs to live in. These dams – and there needs to be a series of them – raise the water table and kill off the bankside vegetation. The dams prevent upstream migration of any spawning migratory fish and this contravenes the EU’s Water Framework Directive.”

Forestry Journal: Charles Dutton, fellow of the ICF and chairman of the Frome, Piddle and West Dorset Fisheries Association.Charles Dutton, fellow of the ICF and chairman of the Frome, Piddle and West Dorset Fisheries Association.

It’s also cost the Environment Agency a fortune, particularly in Dorset, removing dams which the beavers repeatedly rebuild.

Charles said: “Beavers indiscriminately fell trees to build their dams and ring bark others for food (certain death for a tree). This characteristic might be endearing in, say, an Alaskan wilderness, but is often highly unpopular with foresters, orchard owners, gardeners and owners of fishing rights in managed countryside.

“It’s curious that, at a time when it’s deemed imperative that as many trees as possible are planted to mitigate the effects of global warming, the champions of such a desirable policy (e.g. Natural England and the Wildlife Trust) are at the same time promoting an animal that kills valuable trees of all ages on an increasing scale as the population expands.”

He pointed out that forestry interests cite an interesting example of likely damage and loss. He explained: “Cricket bat willows are a particularly high-value crop grown in wetland areas, making them a likely target of beavers. Who would compensate growers for such losses caused by beavers? Government, Natural England, the Wildlife Trust and the National Trust all seem unlikely candidates to offer compensation.

“Beavers love willow and silver birch and on the River Otter many lovely bankside willows and ornamental trees have been felled by the beaver overnight around the village of Otterton.

“England’s the home of cricket and many special willows are grown in southern England for cricket bats under long-term contracts.”

Forestry Journal: Evidence of beavers at work.Evidence of beavers at work.

So what effect has there been on cricket bat production? Charles said: “This vital growing stock is now under serious threat because the trees grow beside the watercourses.”

He explained the rise in the water table can kill off the tree roots from waterlogging and it also destabilises the bankside trees.

The bats are not cheap. Some produced by a firm called Grays can cost several hundred pounds. Those in favour of beaver introduction admit that negative factors will build up over time as numbers increase, resulting in the need for culling, but that would need a licence from Natural England.

Charles said: “This culling issue is particularly concerning. If beavers are granted protected status, as they have been recently in Scotland, those people forced to attempt culling due to unwanted impacts on their property would probably be vilified by an unsympathetic general public. This seems an extremely unfortunate consequence of introducing beavers and seems likely to lead to widespread conflict.”

Forestry Journal: It can be a costly business to remove dams built by beavers.It can be a costly business to remove dams built by beavers.

He added that on Scotland’s River Tay beavers were illegally introduced, but to date no-one has been prosecuted. Now as the beavers have moved downstream into deeper water they’ve started to eat fence posts and feed on farmers’ crops such as carrots, maize and potatoes. What worries him is that a licence to release beavers can be applied for from Natural England and if it’s an ‘enclosed site’ there’s very little wider consultation, one example being Dorset’s River Hooke.

Charles said: “What’s alarming is that this mammal has been allowed to spread almost undercover without any proper consultation or management controls put in place and the environmental consequences are grave for both our rivers and the tree-lined river valleys that criss-cross our countryside.

“Have we not learnt anything from when the grey squirrel and coypu were introduced and the damage and costs they brought?”

Recently, the government licensed dozens of schemes for wild beavers to be placed in large fenced areas in valleys “to help with flood alleviation and restoring wildlife.” The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has announced an extension of a trial until September, when it will decide whether some beavers can remain in Devon. Currently, the report concludes that beavers “have brought measurable benefits to both wildlife and people”.

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