Re-introduction of beavers to Purbeck

Two beavers on a riverbank

For centuries a cornerstone of our wetland ecosystems has been missing. Now we’re exploring the reintroduction of beavers to Purbeck — 400 years after they were hunted to extinction in Britain.

Eurasian Beavers are native animals; they evolved alongside our other native fauna and flora and until extinction had successfully coexisted in Great Britain since the last ice-age. We believe bringing back Eurasian beavers at carefully chosen sites could benefit Poole Harbour and the rivers which flow into it, and we’re asking for the support of local communities to make it a reality.

Benefits for nature and people

Beavers are ‘ecosystem engineers’ and similar schemes elsewhere in Britain and Europe have shown how their activities can improve both water quality and biodiversity. With recent Environment Agency studies showing that not a single English river meets high ecological and chemical standards, we could do with a helping hand from beavers now more than ever.

Algal mats like these in Poole Harbour are caused when river water contains excess nutrients, which run off intensively used land. By recovering natural filtration processes, beavers help to improve water quality
Algal mats in Poole Harbour
Algal mats like these in Poole Harbour are caused when river water contains excess nutrients, which run off intensively used land. By recovering natural filtration processes, beavers help to improve water quality

Beavers need areas of deep, still or slow flowing fresh water to feel safe. If they don’t find the conditions they like, they will create them by building dams and digging channels. The result is a patchwork of open water, wet grassland, scrub and open woodland which has the effect of improving water quality downstream by trapping sediment and pollutants.

Beaver activity has also been shown to stabilise river flows, reduce flood risks, and provide habitats for a wide range of species including fish, amphibians, mammals, water-loving plants and insects.

Beavers adapt the environment to suit their needs, encouraging new varied wetland habitats with far greater levels of biodiversity
Image of beaver wetland
Beavers adapt the environment to suit their needs, encouraging new varied wetland habitats with far greater levels of biodiversity

The story so far

A University of Exeter study, commissioned by the National Trust and a group of partners, identified suitable beaver habitats in Purbeck. We then talked with landowners, engaged with the local community and listened to a broad range of views.

The feedback revealed widespread enthusiasm for bringing beavers back to Purbeck and helped to identify the measures needed to manage any potential impacts, steering us towards proposing a phased reintroduction plan.

The site chosen to begin is Little Sea in Studland, picked because it is an area of optimal habitat surrounded by sea and dry heath, both inhospitable to beavers, so they are unlikely to spread easily. This means we can contain the new arrivals in a safe environment on a national nature reserve while we monitor their impact.

If the Little Sea release is approved by the Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), it will be the UK’s first licence for an unfenced release of beavers into the wild.

Should this be successful we would in time consider applying for a licence to carry out a second phase. Phase two would involve us working with other landowners to return beavers across the Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve, with all the benefits to water quality and biodiversity that would bring.

For more information on the Purbeck Beaver Project please contact Gen Crisford.

Your can read about the proposals in more detail here: Purbeck Beaver Project phased proposal summary (PDF / 0.4MB) download

Beavers were a key part of the natural landscape in Britain until they were hunted to extinction
A beaver
Beavers were a key part of the natural landscape in Britain until they were hunted to extinction

Beaver facts

  • Beavers are a large rodent, best known for building dams in streams. The deeper, slow-moving pools they create protect the underwater entrances to their burrow or lodge and allow them to swim more easily.
  • Beavers are very well adapted to manoeuvre in water but are not very agile on land. As a result, they stay in the water as much as possible and don’t stray far from their freshwater habitats. They will dig channels to reach new food sources, creating new wetlands as they go.
  • Despite what many people think, beavers don’t eat fish. In fact, they are completely vegetarian, feeding on riverside plants and grasses, tree bark and shoots. Beavers eat more than 300 types of vegetation, favouring coppiced willow trees.
  • Beavers are fiercely territorial but live in small family groups. They breed slowly, producing only 2-5 kits per year. The young live with their parents for their first two years and then leave to find territories of their own.
  • The Eurasian Beaver is native to the UK and evolved alongside other native fauna and flora here for much longer than it has been missing. Suitable habitats are readily available across England, where beavers can fit back into the ecosystems that they have been missing from and begin their work to recover them.
Beavers live in burrows or lodges with an underwater entrance for security from predators
Diagram of a beaver lodge
Beavers live in burrows or lodges with an underwater entrance for security from predators