Do you want to see beavers back in Norfolk rivers?

Would you welcome beavers back to the rivesr of Norfolk? Picture: Nick Upton

Would you welcome beavers back to the rivesr of Norfolk? Picture: Nick Upton - Credit: Nick Upton/Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Conservation is surely about saving species. When they are gone they are gone – extinction, as the saying goes, is forever. Well, yes and no, argues Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s David North.

An otter in the wild Picture: Mike Dawson

An otter in the wild Picture: Mike Dawson - Credit: Archant

Global extinction is a tragic and final loss, but when a species has been lost from parts of its former range – or indeed even entirely from the wild if populations remain in other places, or even in extremis in captive breeding populations – then well thought out, properly resourced and carefully done reintroductions can bring back ‘lost’ species and help restore ecosystems.

So do reintroductions really work? Globally there are many examples of success. The Arabian oryx, formerly extinct in the wild, has been successfully reintroduced to Oman from captive bred animals.

The reintroduction of wolves in North America to Yellowstone National Park brought unexpected, but now well documented, benefits to the whole ecosystem. The presence of even small numbers of wolves changed the behaviour of grazing animals, particularly moose. This reduced grazing pressure allowed trees to naturally regenerate along water courses and this benefited the whole ecosystem with increases in fish and bird populations.

Here in the UK the return of the red kite across much of England, and white-tailed eagles in parts of Scotland, have been hugely successful, with sustained growth in their populations and spin off benefits to tourism and local economies.

How would you feel if you saw a wolf in the wild in the UK? Picture: Damian Waters

How would you feel if you saw a wolf in the wild in the UK? Picture: Damian Waters - Credit: Damian Waters /

Reintroduction, though it can be controversial, especially when predatory mammals are being considered, is now a tried and tested technique which has been used successfully for many plants, fish, mammals, birds and invertebrates.

So what’s the potential for reintroductions in Norfolk? A ground breaking reintroduction, with NWT working in partnership with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, has seen the pool frog – which became extinct in the UK in the 1990s – reintroduced to an NWT nature reserve in the Brecks.

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And red kites, originating from reintroduction projects elsewhere in England, are becoming a frequent sight in Norfolk and are now breeding again in Norfolk after an absence of more than 150 years.

Reintroductions can be controversial. The return of the otter to Norfolk’s rivers, mainly through natural range expansion, but aided by release of small numbers of otters, through the work of Philip Wayre’s Otter Trust in the 1980s and 90s, has not met with universal welcome in all quarters.

So what may be the future in Norfolk for this conservation technique? Could the Eurasian beaver return to Norfolk rivers? The positive role of this ‘ecosystem engineer’ is widely accepted and its ability to create wetland habitat has been shown to bring many benefits to other wildlife. By slowing down the flow of water on the headwaters of rivers, beavers can also reduce the risk of flooding lower down the river which given recent events is potentially a very significant benefit to communities at risk of flooding. Wildlife Trusts in Scotland, Devon and Essex have been actively engaged in beaver reintroduction projects. NWT has no current plans to introduce beavers on its own land but is supportive of schemes as long as they comply with international conservation guidelines and UK law, include detailed feasibility studies and are properly monitored.

There is of course a bigger global picture and the current biodiversity and climate emergencies give a new urgency to restoring habitats and saving species. There is potential in Norfolk for large scale wetland recreation, both coastal and in the Fens. New wetlands could play a vital future role as part of natural climate solutions, creating carbon sinks and making land more resilient to sea level rise and flooding. New large wetlands have the potential to support species not currently found in Norfolk. Could white storks, black terns, purple herons, cattle egrets or even Dalmatian pelicans form a spectacle in our future wetlands? And should we wait and see if these species arrive naturally or perhaps give them a helping hand?

These are questions for the future. But undoubtedly as climate changes across Europe and in a human dominated world, where natural habitats are too fragmented for some species to move unaided, then moving species and enabling them to establish new populations in their ‘climate comfort zones’ may become the only way to protect some species.