Beavers have returned to North Norfolk for the first time in 400 years. Two beavers, a male and a female, have been released on a secure 14-acre (7 hectares) site in the upper reaches of the Glaven valley which flows into the sea behind Blakeney Point.
The semi-aquatic rodents, which are about two to three years old, were given to the Norfolk Rivers Trust by the Beavers Trust in Scotland. It is the culmination of nine years planning by the Norfolk Rivers Trust to release beavers back into the Norfolk countryside.
Numerous hurdles were overcome and a communication and management plan had first to convince Norfolk farmers and landowners of the ecological benefits of releasing beavers into the countryside.
The beaver is known as a 'keystone species' because of its significant positive influence on its environment. Its reintroduction has been endorsed by conservation and environmental groups through well-planned and licensed releases.
The 'Norfolk beavers' were released in September 2021 into the 10.5 mile-long Glaven valley - one of only 200 chalk rivers in the world. The exact location of the release site is not being published until the project has become well established.
The ecological advantages of releasing beavers have been known for 10 to 15 years. Getting that message across to landowners and the public, and removing the fear of the unknown, has been a long and slow path, said Norfolk Rivers Trust technical director Jonah Tosney.
Beavers are a force of nature. They are herbivores eating soft riverside and acquatic plants and woody vegetation. An adult beaver can shift ten times its bodyweight each day and fell trees on the waterline.
But they are hugely beneficial in re-establishing the countryside in a way that suits nature while repairing the damage mankind has caused to the natural world.
Beavers can have a remarkable impact on the ecosystem by improving the health and function of river catchments. They are one of nature’s most incredible ecosystem engineers which through dam building and digging canals can create a complex mosaic of habitat for wildlife to thrive.
In addition, beavers can slow the flow of water as it travels through the landscape. This results in more constant flows, reduced flood risk, and retaining water during droughts. Beaver dams can capture sediment, nutrients and carbon which improve water quality downstream. All this also provides opportunities for a host of other wildlife while helping nature recovery.
Beavers were hunted into extinction in Britain in the 16th century. Their fur, meat and scent glands (or castoreum) were used in food, medicine, and the perfume industry.
The Glaven beavers have already settled into their mixed woodland and wetland habitat, said Dr Tosney. The animals, which live to the age of eight, have built six or seven dams across the stream and taken down some of the willow and oak trees. This has let more light into the area. Their dams, built across two channels, have created some deep pools which have slowed and stored the river water and trapped sediment. This has made the water downstream much clearer.
The removal of trees by the beavers will, over time, allow plants to grow and help to attract insects and fish. Owls and other bird species are already using the more open landscape to hunt and there are water shrews and bank voles. More frogs, toads and wetland aquatic invertebrates like mayfly and dragonfly are expected as the beavers store more water with their dams.
The beavers have also built a solid winter fortress, known as a ‘lodge’, on the riverbank upstream of their first dam. This is made from a mass of sticks, bark and mud and has an underwater entrance tunnel. They have also created a series of ‘runs’ or paths between the main stream and other channels. These will be deepened over time into canals connecting the water from the channels to the floodplain. This will improve the complex wetland habitat.
The site is constantly evolving as the beavers develop their environment and in doing so increase biodiversity, reduce flooding by slowing the flow of water, create cleaner water by using the silt in their dams and help stop climate change by capturing carbon.
Dr Tosney said the beavers are being regularly monitored to chart changes to the site and assess their impact.
It is hoped the pair of beavers will breed this year. Beavers have up to three kits, as the young are called, but not all of them would be expected to live to adulthood.
The Glaven valley’s pioneering Eurasian beaver project is being carried out in
partnership with Natural England, The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, the Environment Agency and the North Norfolk Coast Partnership.
Funding for this conservation project was raised through public donations by Crowdfunding and grants from the Environment Agency and the World Wildlife Fund.
Beavers are said to reset the way our rivers and streams work and create conditions for a whole range of new wildlife to prosper. This is why it is considered critical to return beavers to Britain’s landscape.
As the Glaven valley project becomes more established, plans are being developed to involve the public in conservation work. Schools and those interested in the project will be able to go on guided visits to the site to see the beaver project first-hand. Details of volunteering opportunities will be posted as they arise on the Norfolk Rivers Trust website.
Beavers have also been released under licence on another secure enclosure at Wild Ken Hill near Heacham in west Norfolk. Two pairs were released in 2020 and a kit has been filmed by the BBC's Springwatch programme. This is believed to be the first baby beaver born in Norfolk for centuries.
Other beavers have been released in Scotland, Cornwall, Devon and Somerset and more than 26 European countries have already reintroduced beavers into the wild and are learning how to live with them. You can see what is being achieved in Norfolk here at the Norfolk Rivers Trust.