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Beavers are back in Dorset

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Logo: Dorset Wildlife Trust

After an absence of 400 years, beavers have returned to Dorset. Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Marketing and Communications Officer, Alex Hennessy explains why they matter and how they shape the landscape.

Beaver release © Dorset Wildlife Trust - James Burland
Beaver release © Dorset Wildlife Trust - James Burland

When we think of natural solutions to the ecological and climate crises, beavers (Castor fiber) are a ‘keystone species’ with huge potential to help nature cope and rebuild. Their unique set of skills can really help shape our landscapes for the better, but they were sadly hunted to extinction here in Britain four centuries ago. In the past few years, several beaver re-introduction projects have been planned and started across the UK and now, for the first time since the 16th century, Dorset is home to beavers once more.

Dorset Wildlife Trust welcomed two beavers, an adult male and female, into a specially prepared enclosure in early February 2021. But what is it about beavers that makes them such a valuable addition to the landscape?

Female beaver washing © Dorset Wildlife Trust - James Burland
Female beaver washing © Dorset Wildlife Trust - James Burland

Beavers are ‘ecosystem engineers’, whose presence can bring a number of benefits for other wildlife and humans. Their dams, built so that they can feel safe in the resulting deep pools, ‘filter’ out sediments and debris so that water downstream from the dam is cleaner. Dams benefit the resident fish and humans alike through this cleaning of the water, while increased wood debris in streams allows freshwater invertebrates to thrive, which then provide food for fish. Beaver dams also have the potential to reduce flooding by slowing the flow of water during storm events, so that areas downstream are less likely to flood.

The Dorset beavers, now settling into their new home, were relocated from Scotland’s wild population under licence from NatureScot, while the licence for their introduction to the site in Dorset was granted by Natural England. Baseline monitoring before the beavers arrived was carried out by Dorset Wildlife Trust and project partners University of Exeter and Wessex Water. The scientific study site will now be used to gather information on biodiversity and hydrology (water quality and flow) changes as the beavers start to settle in and make changes. As of the end of February, the beavers have already started working on a dam, a great sign that they are settling in well.

Dorset Wildlife Trust Rivers Conservation Officer, Steve Oliver, said: "It’s fantastic to be welcoming beavers back to Dorset. Beavers are magnificent creatures in their own right, but they are extra special because their engineering activities have the potential to bring even more life to a landscape and enable other species to flourish.”

University of Exeter’s Professor of Earth Surface Processes, Richard Brazier said: “This will contribute to a growing body of knowledge and understanding across Great Britain of the impact beavers have on landscapes. Beavers have been present on the planet for 40 million years or so, so they’re a highly adapted species and know how to manage water resources. We could really learn a lot from them.”

Regular monitoring and scientific investigation into how the beavers are changing their surroundings will help us to do just that – learn from one of nature’s great engineering species, right here in Dorset.

To find out more about Dorset’s beavers and the plan for the future of the project, visit dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/BeaverProject 

Beavers – a year in Dorset.

  

Dorset Beaver Project Beavers enclosed site before the beavers arrived (Steve Oliver, Dorset Wildlife Trust)
Dorset Beaver Project Beavers enclosed site before the beavers arrived (Steve Oliver, Dorset Wildlife Trust)

A year ago, Dorset Wildlife Trust brought beavers back to the county for the first time in at least four centuries for an enclosed scientific study into the changes they have made in a landscape. Here we look back on what we’ve learnt from these amazing animals so far. Observing the beavers’ behaviour has been achieved using trail cameras, capturing their secretive night-time habits, which otherwise would have been impossible to see.

Dorset Beaver Project Beavers enclosed site after one year (Steve Oliver, Dorset Wildlife Trust)
Dorset Beaver Project Beavers enclosed site after one year (Steve Oliver, Dorset Wildlife Trust)

Throughout the year, they have built four dams at the project site. They got started on their first dam within just three days of moving in, indicating that they had settled well and were keen to engineer the landscape to suit their needs and make themselves at home. Amazing trail camera footage has shown them gathering twigs and branches and using their mouths to pull these into place, building up the structures which create deep pools where the beavers feel safe. In just one year, they have created a wetland with leaky dams holding back water creating deep ponds and dynamic channels with diverse water flow. In partnership with Exeter University and Wessex Water, we are monitoring water quality, water flow and changes in biodiversity. This data will give us important insights into what it means to have beavers back in our local landscape.

As we look to the next year, there is potential that the pair of beavers might breed. It’s too early to know at this stage whether the family will expand – the Eurasian beaver’s mating season is between late December and the end of January, with any young beavers (kits) born in spring before emerging from the lodge for the first time in early summer. We will of course be keeping a keen eye on the trail cam footage for any signs of new additions to the project.

Find out more about the project at dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/BeaverProject

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Posted On: 02/03/2021

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