Beaver Management in Bavaria

KOR_Beavers_-5 smallThe beaver reintroduction trials on the River Otter (Devon, England) and at Knapdale (Argyll, Scotland) have provoked much  debate within the UK over the last two years relating to whether we should be seeking to reintroduce long-extinct species, and if so, what might the benefits and costs be to society. We are at the start of this journey as far as beavers are concerned in the UK, but in Bavaria, reintroduction of the beaver took place in 1966 when 120 individuals were released. The species became extinct in Bavaria in the late 19th century.

There are currently 20,000 beavers in Bavaria, and as their numbers have increased and their well-known damming activities expanded, so has the recognition that this species both requires management, but can also deliver some great ecological and hydrological benefits. Benefits to society include enriched and more diverse wetland habitats, attenuation of water flows and maintenance of base level flows in rivers. But what about the negatives?

In Bavaria beaver populations are now sufficiently high that there is conflict with certain elements of society where beaver and our human habitats overlap. For the most part the costs of beaver damage are small (a few hundred Euro). Conflict tends to relate to the blocking of drainage ditches, burrowing into dykes or banks, minor damage to high energy agricultural crops such as maize or sugar beet, and tree felling. So what approach do they take to manage this conflict?

The adopted system has been designed to be pragmatic. A network of over 400 trained volunteer 'beaver consultants' cover the state, and when an incident arises (a blocked ditch is reported for example), the nearest consultant is dispatched to take a look, and an appropriate course of action is usually implemented within several days. There is no cost to the person involved. Due to their status as a EuroIMG_3775 small 2pean Protected Species on the continent (not yet the case in the UK, but likely in the near future) a license is required for any action that might impact adversely on the conservation status of this species. Such licenses are generally awarded quickly.  They also have no tolerance zones where beavers are simply are not allowed:  on sewage works or important flood levees for example. There is a  culture of compensation for damage related to be beavers to those impacted (except on State land, gardens or community land), and between 500,000 and one million euros are spent each year in Bavaria providing compensation specific to beavers. Not everyone likes beavers in Bavaria, but they are generally tolerated due the pragmatic approach taken with their management.

So what can we learn from Bavaria's system in this country? The first is that although management is a long way down the line for us as current beaver numbers are small, at some point - perhaps a decade or two from now - management will be required as more marginal habitats are occupied and the beavers need to undertake more engineering of their environment. Management is  a broad term that includes everything from removing a dam, to translocation and in extreme circumstances even culling. We need to start preparing for this now and deciding who will undertake this management, who will pay for it and how it will be licensed.

Compensation for wildlife is a thorny issue, and for many it appears perverse to have to compensate people for living in association with nature. Except in very few cases we don't have a culture of compensation for wildlife in the UK and one has to question whether this is something we really want to introduce. Perspective is also needed on this issue. When compared to the damage caused by deer, wild boar, badger and grey squirrel, for example, (some native and some alien species) negative beaver impact is likely to be small However, the fact remains that should beavers be allowed to remain in the UK in the long run, then some people will be impacted, and a few potentially seriously. How do we deal with that?

My view, is that to start with, resources need to be focused on ensuring that we establish the legislative framework and management mechanisms  that allow management to be undertaken when required, and that society is prepared in advance for this. Zones of no tolerance need to be established, and those agencies responsible for maintaining our country's infrastructure empowered to protect it. At the same time, however, we should also look much more closely at the positives beavers potentially bring, and with a critical review of evidence from other countries, see what opportunities there are for their presence to create for free many of the ecosystem services that we require and which are expensive to deluiver by any other means (local flood protection schemes, for example).  The negatives of beavers need to weighed up against the positives, and the positives are potentially huge. I woudl like to see more debate on this issue backed up with hard evidence.

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