Four hundreds years ago, beavers were hunted to extinction throughout the UK. Not that long ago, farmers were calling for a massive beaver cull along the River Tay in Scotland, complaining that their growing numbers posed a threat to property and animals. Now, some residents of the Southern United Kingdom are wondering if the way to resolve the massive flooding along the Thames might lie in reintroducing these shy mammals and encouraging them to do what they’ve always done: dam. Why the sudden change of heart on beavers?
As it turns out, beavers play a critical role in the natural ecology, and could be an important player in natural flood control, something people were not aware of when they hunted the animals down hundreds of years ago. Ecologists even now are struggling to fully understand how beavers interact with their environment, but they’re beginning to realize that what beavers do is far more important than cutting down trees and building dams — after all, any human can do that.
Beavers tend to live upstream, in areas that aren’t as likely to bring them into contact with humans. They don’t enjoy interacting with people and they like large, quiet, undisturbed territory. The locations where they build their dams are typically near wetlands, where the dam plays an interesting role. It doesn’t just hold water back. Dams appear to actively help wetlands retain and slowly release water, increasing their capacity to act like sponges, which in turn makes flooding downstream less likely.
Image a flow of water pouring down a board from top to bottom. Nail a couple of sponges at strategic intervals, and you’ll see that the water slowly fills the sponges and then drips out, controlling the movement of the water as it falls. Beaver dams and their associated wetlands are the sponges of the real world, controlling flooding further downstream. A sustainable beaver population in a wild area can make the environment healthier, with the animals helping, rather than hurting.
Historically and today, beavers are blamed for crop damage, harm to fish stocks, tree falls, and a variety of other problems. While beavers can be destructive, these tendencies may be outweighed by what they contribute, and the creation of beaver refuges could be a smart environmental policy move for the United Kingdom. This rings especially true right now, as the Thames threatens houses and England is brought to its knees with horrific and seemingly unstoppable flooding.
While beavers won’t be much help this time around, it’s possible that a careful reintroduction into key areas could be a preventative measure. The animals wouldn’t be a good fit in every problem area (such as those heavily inhabited by people, or those with existing flood control systems that the beavers might interfere with), but they might go a long way to restoring some of the natural landscape of the United Kingdom, and to preventing a repeat of this year’s dreadful floods.
Photo credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie.