Farmers in England are allowed to shoot beavers if they threaten their crops, the government has announced.
Conservationists oppose the move, saying the animals are a “farmer’s ally”, help conserve water in times of drought and are an endangered species that should be nurtured. The rodents became extinct in the UK 400 years ago after being hunted for their fur, but in recent years they have been reintroduced to England and Scotland.
After the wetland-creating creatures were found on the River Otter in Devon in 2013, the government allowed them to stay to test their impact on fish stocks and local landowners.
A 2019 study found that the beavers had improved the area’s biodiversity and increased fish stocks. Since then, the wheels have been set in motion so that beavers are recognized as a native English species and thus protected from harm. From October 1, beavers in England will enjoy increased protection, paving the way for their repopulation of the country’s waterways.
Until now, however, it was unknown whether farmers and landowners should be allowed to kill, rather than simply remove, beavers that can cut down trees or flood farmland. Government guidelines released this weekend said that, as a last resort, “lethal control” can be used.
Some farmers have criticized plans to protect beavers without consulting their control.
Minette Batters, chair of the NFU, recently said: “With the obvious impact beavers can have on farmland, a clear management plan after consultation with farmers was the least the government should have done before this legislation was introduced.”
Farmer Derek Gow, who breeds beavers for reintroduction projects on his Devon farm, said he disagreed with the new guideline.
He told the Observer: “It is completely wrong to kill them. Beavers change landscapes for the better. They help in times of drought and with a slower flow in times of flooding. We must nurture beavers for all they offer and carefully move them to where they will help the land. We must not kill any beaver.”
He added that farmers’ concerns about beavers are unfounded in most cases. “Beavers can only be a problem in highly used drained wetlands with complex systems that have very limited drainage in terms of water drainage. We’ve farmed next to water for too long – the biggest polluter is agriculture; pesticides, bacteria and chemicals enter the water directly and cause massive damage. Beavers, which filter these kinds of pollutants, are actually a tool for agriculture.”
James Wallace, former CEO of the Beaver Trust who now works at River Action, a waterway charity, said the animals should be seen as a help rather than a hindrance to farming.
He said: “Farmers should be given support to live alongside beavers, including a hierarchy of management, starting with education, then practical solutions such as protecting trees or crops or removing dams, then translocation if problems persist. in areas of high risk to infrastructure such as levees, and ultimately lethal control if all else fails.
“Killing beavers should be the last thing on our minds as we encourage people to welcome them back, but if necessary it should be done by a licensed professional and only after evidence shows the need. As we have been reminded by months of drought and devastating pollution from agriculture and sewage, we need nature’s help for people to thrive.
“Beavers can help revive our degraded and polluted land, without reducing food production. In fact, beavers and other natural solutions, such as paying farmers for river buffers, are essential for sustainable future harvests and saving Britain’s rivers.”
An NFU spokesperson said: “Despite the government releasing more information on the management and licensing of beavers in England, the NFU is disappointed that this has happened without wider consultation with farmers and landowners.
“We would like to see more government cooperation with farmers and landowners before finalizing the national response to wild beaver evictions.
“Farmers will continue to work around the clock to produce the country’s food and will rightly ask the government for adequate resources and support to manage a species that can affect their business and food production.”