Beavers helping to tackle environmental impact of heatwaves, National Trust says

Beavers helping to tackle environmental impact of heatwaves, National Trust says
Previously dry landscapes ‘absolutely brimful of water’, just months after reintroduction

Already heralded as playing a highly effective role in reducing flood risks, the return of beavers to the UK is also demonstrating how the species protect environments from the impacts of hot, dry weather.

With another heatwave in Britain and millions of people subject to hosepipe bans, the National Trust has warned the record dry spell is taking a heavy toll on the landscapes, watercourses, plants and animals across its estates.

But one area where the impacts have been considerably reduced are those sites where beavers have been reintroduced.

Having been absent from UK landscapes for over 400 years, due to being hunted to extinction, beavers are now back and showing why they are regarded as a “keystone species”.

The animals have a unique ability to re-engineer landscapes to boost biodiversity, improve water quality, and slow down the passage of water on a large scale, reducing flood risks, recreating lost wetlands during dry spells and maintaining water supplies.

At the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate in Somerset, where beavers were reintroduced in 2020, wetland habitats are still thriving, despite low river levels and record dry weather.

“At the moment, our river systems are not naturally functioning,” Ben Eardley, the trust’s project manager at Holnicote, told The Independent.

“As humans, we’ve engineered the landscape to drain the water as quickly as possible from those river catchments, so we can utilise it in certain ways. But that means we’ve now got river systems that are very reactive, so when you’ve got much wetter weather or drier weather, you’re not really holding any water in the landscape to develop resilience.”

But that changes fast when you bring in beavers.

The species redesigns the landscape to provide them with water depths of around 60-70cm, which they can dive in.

“They’re cumbersome, they don’t really like moving around on land, they want to move around in deeper water to access vegetation and escape predation,” Mr Eardley said. “And that’s when they develop these amazing waterscapes we see at Holnicote.”

Speaking about the old mill pond at the Estate’s Paddock Wood site, where some of the beavers were released, Mr Eardingly said: “Before we had the beaver in there it was unmanaged wood, not much water in there, just a small spring, and at this time of year the ponds would have been muddy puddles. But now we’ve got a system where there is water everywhere – right across the site, and they’ve created additional ponds, and wet woodland, wetland and it’s still absolutely brimful of water because they impound it.

“The dams are permeable, so water and wildlife like fish, eels, lamprey, otters, whatever, can move through that system because all of those species have evolved with beaver.

“What you’ve got is a habitat that we’d lost. We’ve lost pretty much all of the wetland in the UK. They’re bringing back something that we’ve lost, and in certain places, if we redevelop that habitat, could provide massive benefits.”

He added: “It is stunning. It’s like a lost world. It feels almost like Jurassic Park – different from anywhere else on the estate.”

Holding more water in landscapes will become increasingly important as the climate changes, the National Trust said.

The conservation charity said on Wednesday that this summer’s exceptional conditions “are a wake-up call to cut emissions and adapt” to the worsening climate crisis, and called on more action from the government.

The trust said that the heatwave meant in some areas heather is struggling to flower, lichens, mosses and liverwort are shrivelling at Lydford Gorge – a site of globally important temperate rainforest, and in Northumberland, bats had been found disoriented and dehydrated in the daylight during the hottest days.

Elsewhere, the trust said rills and water features in some historic gardens have dried up, while much of the country “remains tinder-dry with fire risk reaching ‘exceptional’ levels in beauty spots like the Peak District”.

Several wildfires have broken out on trust land in recent weeks, including one in Devon that has taken two months to fully extinguish.

Keith Jones, national climate change advisor for the National Trust, said: “We shouldn’t be surprised by these temperatures, it’s what the science has been saying for decades. But even with years of planning, some of the effects are stark, and we are still learning of the precise impacts extreme weather events like this can have.

“What we can do, is adapt. At the trust we’re taking action to make sure our sites are ready for future changes, from making our landscapes rich in nature, our rivers cooler and our gardens more resilient to helping our buildings cope with excessive heat.

“But we must cut emissions too. The UK still holds the COP presidency, and the next prime minister should put this at the top of their to-do list as COP27 approaches in November. This has to be a watershed moment, where we make a decisive shift from words to action.”