A government consultation, which will reportedly be launched this week, will see the criteria laid out for what DEFRA has described as “the cautious release of more beavers into the wild”.
Ben Goldsmith, non-executive board member of DEFRA, told The Times that he expected many wildlife charities, water companies and other landowners to apply for licences to release wild beavers.
Goldsmith also said that there may be such a demand for licences that the animals will need to be imported. Whilst some will come from Scotland, he said, others may need to be brought in from other parts of Europe including Germany, Norway and the Netherlands.
Beavers currently have no legal protection in England, but Scotland declared them a protected species in May 2019, and licensed beavers were released in Wales for the first time in March this year.
Figures released earlier this month from the Scottish wildlife regulator, NatureScot, showed that the number of wild beavers in Scotland has surged to 1,000 over the last three years - albeit with 115 of the animals also killed under licence in 2020.
The strategy for England is also expected to include a last resort option for landowners to apply for a licence to kill the animals if they cause significant damage to land, and other mitigation methods have been exhausted.
Beavers, once native to Britain, were hunted to extinction in the sixteenth century. According to the Wildlife Trusts, the loss of beavers led to “the loss of the mosaic of lakes, meres, mires, tarns and boggy places” that the animals were instrumental in creating.
A spokesperson from the Beaver Trust told ENDS that the conservation group welcomed the news about the proposed legal status, adding that “given their existing protection in Scotland, it seems logical that this will be extended across other parts of Britain”.
“It is great news from the government that England’s beaver strategy consultation could also start this week… Beavers are a nature-based solution that can help turn Britain's rivers into nature recovery networks, slowing the flow of water through the landscape. Whilst they are not a silver bullet, their benefits in many catchments will be achievable at a relatively low cost.”
If England grants the animals legal protection as a native species it would become an offence to capture, kill, disturb or injure them, or damage breeding sites or resting places without a licence from regulator Natural England.
At present, the only place where the government has permitted wild beavers in England is on the river Otter in Devon. The beavers were thought to have been released illegally, but were allowed to remain after research showed they improved water quality, reduced flood risk downstream, and benefited other wildlife such as otters and kingfishers.
News of the government’s planned strategy for beavers emerged earlier this year, and although welcomed by green groups, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has previously called for a long-term management plan for the animals, with concerns that their dam-making abilities have the potential to undermine riverbanks and impede farmland drainage.
In a statement Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, said the anticipated consultation launch would mark an important moment for the future of beavers across England.