Beaver reintroduction at Holnicote

A beaver swimming in a river

Beavers have been welcomed to the Holnicote Estate. The beavers help with natural flood management and improve biodiversity on the estate.

 

Beaver reintroduction 

The project, approved by Natural England, saw two pairs of these amazing mammals released into two fenced areas of woodland at Holnicote on the edge of Exmoor in Somerset.

The beaver reintroduction (which happened in January 2020), was the first undertaken by the National Trust and combined plans to create priority habitat for nature and increasing the diversity of species and wildlife in its care.

Beavers were once an important part of the ecosystem but became extinct in the UK in the 16th century due to hunting for their fur, meat and scent glands.

A beaver baby arrives on Exmoor

In the summer of 2021, the team at Holnicote were very pleased to spot the first ever beaver kit born on National Trust land. It was thought to be the first one born on Exmoor since beavers were hunted to extinction 400 years ago. The beavers have been busy, not just starting a family, but also transforming the 2.7 hectare beaver enclosure from unmanaged woodland to a more open wetland attracting more wildlife in just two years.

The young beaver, known as a kit, was captured on camera in July 2021 swimming behind its mother back to the family lodge, while she stopped to nibble a branch.

The team first had an inkling that the pair of beavers had mated successfully when the male started being a lot more active building and dragging wood and vegetation around the site in late spring.  The female also changed her usual habits, and stayed out of sight, leaving the male to work alone.  The family should now stay together for the next two years before the kit will naturally want to go off to create a new territory of its own.

Following the announcement of the birth, thousands of social media users voted to name the kit Rashford inspired by the successful campaign by the England team in UEFA’s European Football Championships last summer. Since then, the young kit has been playing an active part in helping its parents transform unmanaged woodland to a more open wetland that attracts more wildlife.

Ben Eardley, Project Manager for the National Trust at Holnicote, says: “The multiple dam complexes created by Rashford, Grylls and Yogi over the last two years have helped slow the flow of water through the catchment, creating ponds and new channels to hold more water in the landscape.

“The resulting water habitat is creating opportunities for a wide range of wildlife to flourish including fish, amphibians, reptiles such as grass snakes, bats, insects and birds like sparrow hawk, grey wagtail, moorhens and kingfisher. Otters are regular visitors to the site as the wetland offers ideal habitat for them to hunt.

“As well as holding water back the beavers are also helping us manage the woodland naturally by stripping bark from non-native conifers to create deadwood habitats and encourage natural woodland succession. This process opens up the canopy; promoting regrowth and creating better quality habitat for a wide variety of species.”

Analysis of the site has indicated that the area was wetter before historic drainage changed the landscape. By giving water space, beavers can reinstate this lost habitat and play a role in reducing the impact of floods and droughts, both of which are expected to become more frequent with climate change.

Ben continues: “It’s been such a pleasure seeing Rashford’s continued development over this last year. Learning so many skills from Grylls and Yogi will serve the kit well when it reaches maturity in a year’s time and sets off to find its own territory.”

“We are hopeful that Rashford will be the first of many kits to be born at Holnicote and early signs indicate that more kits may be on their way later this spring.”


The benefits of beavers 

Beavers are known as a keystone species within their ecosystem. They can change their habitat and create new ones. This can help the both the wildlife and improve the river quality. Beavers create wetlands which support other species such as water voles, otters, dragonflies and amphibians. Their presence in our river catchments is a sustainable way to help make our landscapes more resilient to climate change and the extremes of weather it will bring.

The dams the beavers create will hold water in the dry periods, help to lessen flash flooding downstream, reduce erosion and improve water quality by holding silt.

Mark Harold, Director of Land and Nature at the National Trust said: “We know from the recent State of Nature report that wildlife is in decline, 41 percent of species since 1970 and 15 percent of species are under threat from extinction. These releases are part of the Trust’s wider objective to restore 25,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats by 2025. Part of this work means we are focusing on helping nature recover, and the reintroduction of beavers is just one example of our approach to restore nature processes”.

The beavers are one important part of the Trust’s habitat restoration work at Holnicote. Other work includes the first application in the UK of the innovative ‘Stage 0’ approach to river restoration, where a tributary of the River Aller has now been allowed to find its own course, creating a wetland habitat which has again attracted wildlife including peregrine falcons, grasshoppers, dragonflies, bees and wagtails.

“Due to historic drainage, water is the missing component in many of this country’s landscapes, and the aim of the ‘Stage 0’ work is to give water space so it is part of the wider habitat, delivering benefits for people and nature,” concluded Ben.

Holnicote is one of the Trust’s Riverlands projects[3] and is co-funded by the Interreg 2 Seas Co-Adapt programme and the Somerset Rivers Authority.