Beavers are helping to cope with the environmental impact of heatwaves, says the National Trust

Beavers were reintroduced to the National Trust's Holnicote Estate in Somerset in 2020. The impact has been dramatic (Getty )

Beavers were reintroduced to the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate in Somerset in 2020. The impact has been dramatic (Getty )

Already heralded as playing a highly effective role in reducing flood risk, the return of beavers to the UK also shows how the species is protecting the environment from the effects of hot, dry weather.

With another heatwave in the UK and millions of people under snake bans, the National Trust has warned that the record dry spell is taking its toll on landscapes, waterways, plants and animals across its estates.

But one area where the impacts have been significantly reduced are the places where beavers have been reintroduced.

After being absent from British landscapes for over 400 years, due to being hunted to extinction, beavers are now back and showing why they are regarded as a ‘keystone species’.

The animals have a unique ability to reconstruct landscapes to increase biodiversity, improve water quality and slow the passage of water on a large scale, reduce flood risk, recreate lost wetlands during dry periods and maintain water supplies.

At the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate in Somerset, where beavers were reintroduced in 2020, wetland habitats continue to thrive, despite low river levels and record weather.

“At the moment our river systems are not working naturally,” Ben Eardley, the trust’s project manager at Holnicote, told The independent.

“As humans, we have engineered the landscape to drain the water as quickly as possible from these river basins, so that we can utilize it in certain ways. But that means we now have river systems that are very reactive, so when you have much wetter weather or drier weather, you’re not really holding any water in the landscape to develop resilience.”

But that changes quickly when you bring in beavers.

The species redesigns the landscape to give them water depths of around 60-70 cm, in which they can dive.

“They’re cumbersome, they don’t really like to move around on land, they want to move in deeper water to access vegetation and escape predation,” Eardley said. “And that’s when they develop these wonderful waterscapes that we see at Holnicote.”

Speaking about the old mill pond in the Paddock Wood area of ​​the estate, where some of the beavers were released, Mr Eardingly said: “Before we had the beaver in there it was unmanaged wood, not much water in there, just a little spring, and at this time of year the ponds would have been muddy puddles. But now we have a system where there’s water everywhere – right over the place, and they’ve created more ponds, and wet forest, wetland and it’s still completely full of water because they impound it.

“The dams are permeable, so water and wildlife like fish, eels, lampreys, otters, whatever, can move through that system because all those species have evolved with beavers.

“What you have is a habitat that we had lost. We have lost almost all of the wetlands in the UK. They’re bringing back something we’ve lost, and in certain places, if we rebuild that habitat, it can have huge benefits.”

He added: “It’s amazing. It’s like a lost world. It almost feels like Jurassic Park – different than anywhere else on the property.”

Retaining more water in landscapes will become increasingly important as the climate changes, the National Trust said.

The conservation charity said on Wednesday that this summer’s exceptional conditions “are a wake-up call to cut emissions and adapt” to the worsening climate crisis, and called for more government action.

The Trust said the heatwave meant heather in some areas is struggling to flower, lichens, mosses and liverworts are withering at Lydford Gorge – a site of globally important temperate rainforest, and in Northumberland bats were found disoriented and dehydrated in daylight during the hottest the days.

Elsewhere, the trust said grooves and water features in some historic gardens have dried up, while much of the country “remains tinder-dry with fire risk reaching ‘exceptional’ levels in places of beauty such as the Peak District”.

Several bushfires have broken out on trust land in recent weeks, including one in Devon which has taken two months to fully extinguish.

Keith Jones, national climate change adviser for the National Trust, said: “We shouldn’t be surprised by these temperatures, that’s what science has been saying for decades. But even with years of planning, some of the effects are strong, and we’re still learning about the exact impacts extreme weather like this can have.

“What we can do is adapt. At the trust, we are taking action to ensure our sites are ready for future changes, from making our landscapes rich in nature, our rivers cooler and our gardens more resilient to helping our buildings cope with excessive heat.

– But we also have to cut emissions. The UK still holds the COP presidency and the next Prime Minister should put this at the top of the to-do list as COP27 approaches in November. This must be a watershed, where we make a decisive shift from words to action.”

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