THE BRIEFING ZONE
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1. The Natural History of the European beaver
1.1 The European beaver Castor fiber, is the largest rodent in Europe, weighing 18 - 20kg. It is vegetarian, gnawing on the bark and shoots of trees and shrubs during the winter and herbaceous vegetation during the spring and summer. Individuals generally live for 7 - 8 years living in family groups of 3-5 individuals.
1.2 The European beaver prefers burrows in riverbanks, but it will build lodges of piled logs where burrowing is not possible. It builds fewer dams than the North American beaver, and it does so generally in shallow streams to maintain water levels above the entrance to its burrow. Dams are built of tree trunks, branches and mud, and are about one metre in height and rarely longer than fifteen metres. They are usually breached by flood waters each year, and do not normally pose any obstacle to the movements of fish such as brown trout and salmon, but may impact on spawning habitat.
1.3 The European beaver was found throughout England, Wales and Scotland, but is thought to have been hunted to extinction by the mid-sixteenth century. Wild populations have continued to exist in parts of France and Germany and are generally widespread in Scandinavia, the Baltic states and Russia.
2. European re-introductions
2.1 The EU habitats and Species Directive 1992 'encourages member states to look at the possibility of returning extinct native species as a conservation aid'. The European beaver can enhance habitat biodiversity by creating scrub similar to coppiced woodland, ponds and invertebrate rich woodpiles.
2.2 Re-introduction projects have taken place in 24 European countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. In the Netherlands 100 beavers were introduced in two localities in the 1980's and 1990's.There are now an estimated 170 wild beavers within the Netherlands. In 2003 the economic damage caused by beavers was been estimated at a mere £170.
3. Beaver Projects in the UK
3.1 In April 2003, 5 European beavers from Norway were introduced to the 50 hectare Ham Nature Reserve owned by the Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT) and local farmer. The site is enclosed but at the time Defra considered a licence for release was required. As part of the licence requirements the site was monitored, bui a breeding population never established and only two females from the original group remain. In terms of habitat management however, the KWT consider the experiment to be a success.
3.2 On September 1st 2004, the Scottish Executive refused the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), proposal to release beavers in Knapdale, Argyll. The grounds for refusal were the potential impact on the natural woodland, which is designated as a Special Area for Conservation. Also the shooting of beavers, identified as a last ditch control measure, was considered illegal, since this species is protected under European law. Both SNH and SWT expressed their disappointment with the decision.
3.3 In October 2004, 6 European beavers were introduced without a licence into a 5 hectare enclosure at Lower Mill Estate in the Cotswold Water Park. Defra subsequently accepted that because the site is relatively small and enclosed and the animals are in effect "under control", a licence is not required.
4. Regulation of reintroductions
4.1 A licence is required from Defra under Section 16 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 to release into a wild habitat species which are not normally present in Britain. This enables Defra to assess the potential risks associated with the proposed introduction and ensure that releases of non-native species will not have an adverse impact on the environment.
4.2 The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) is a statutory advisory committee appointed under section 124 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (the EPA). It provides advice to Government and other bodies as appropriate on releases into the environment of Great Britain of animals and plants covered by sections 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
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