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Conservationists Say Boris Johnson's 'Build Back Beaver' Plans Must Go Beyond Punchlines

Boris Johnson has thrown his support behind rewilding, but experts want a more joined up approach

9 min read

Boris Johnson wants to Build Back Beaver, but conservationists say the UK’s policy must go beyond punchlines if they want to stop a climate disaster.

With world leaders descending on Glasgow for what has been branded as the last best chance to reverse climate catastrophe, the UK is planning to use COP26 to push a new approach. Alongside the negotiations around emission targets, tech-driven advances and industry commitments, a growing drive for nations to adopt nature-based solutions is set to take centre stage.

Rewilding, the process of encouraging nature to expand, creating more natural woodlands, reintroducing key native species and promoting biodiversity, has for decades been siloed away from the wider issue of tackling climate change, viewed by many policy makers as a sideshow from the nitty gritty of reducing carbon emissions and keeping global warming at bay.

But a fresh impetus to drive forward the link between the revitalisation of nature and pulling the world back from the brink of an unstoppable climate disaster has emerged at the very top of government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made headlines at his party’s annual conference in September when he riffed on his “Build Back Better” agenda, saying his climate objectives, which include plans to protect 30 per cent of the UK’s land-based habitats could be best summed up by the slogan “Build Back Beaver”.

Johnson’s beaver fever has become symbolic of the government’s hopes to persuade fellow world leaders there is a symbiotic relationship between the natural environment and efforts to tackle climate change, with announcements expected on major new rewilding projects to highlight the twin benefits of saving wildlife while also creating carbon sinks and mitigating impacts from climate change.

Tony Juniper, head of Natural England, the government’s adviser on the natural environment, told The House the new strategy has finally started to build momentum after decades of work by scientists and conservationists to prove the “inextricable” connection.

“The climate agenda 25 years ago was initially seen as a technological challenge. It was about emissions from fossil fuels and with good reason,” he says. “The world had homed in on the source of the problem and what the remedy would be. That source was principally seen as the combustion of coal, oil and gas and that’s not wrong, but it’s by no means the only thing.”

Debates around shifting from coal to wind and solar power, petrol and diesel to electric, while important, came to “dominate” climate discussions, Juniper says, but he insists the government has worked “very, very hard” in recent years to build a record on natural solutions that can be showcased on the world stage.

Until recently, Westminster’s own approach to rewilding left much to be desired, mainly consisting of a patchwork of consultations and policies created and implemented primarily by the environment department. Even Johnson’s totemic beaver plan still lags far behind legislation and protections already in place in Scotland, with the benefits of having the species back in the wild only properly examined after a pair of them escaped from captivity into the River Otter in Devon in 2013. Having been marked for extermination by the government, they were spared after a public outcry and promises of financial support and scientific monitoring from conservation groups and academics.

Over the course of a five-year study led by the University of Exeter, the two pairing groups grew to eight, and the busy beavers were found to have constructed a series of dams upstream from the flood-prone village of East Budleigh. Rather than installing expensive concrete barriers, the fugitive rodents had reduced the flood risk naturally, with peak flows measurably lower during flood season. Water quality rose as their barriers filtered out sediment and chemicals and other species flourished in the new habitat. As a result of their dam good work, the government announced in 2020 the group would become the first wild beavers in 400 years to be allowed to stay permanently in their new home.

In Whitehall, civil servants still do not share the Prime Minister’s eco-exuberance, describing a short consultation on reintroducing the species as a “cautious step” towards a possible increase in their numbers. Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, said the approach was emblematic of a wider failure across government to recognise the benefits, both from a climate and economic perspective, of creating a cross-departmental strategy that includes rewilding and nature in every new policy discussion from defence to house building.

“We need to clearly demonstrate that restoring nature at scale is the only way forward for tackling climate change mitigation,” he says. “They are inextricably linked. If you are restoring natural processes, healthy functioning rivers, healthy soil management, healthy woodlands and vegetation, then you are going to mitigate the impacts of climate change. You are going to sequester more carbon, you’re going to slow the flow of water off hills and you are going to deliver very significant wildlife recovery.”

The conservationist added he had “mixed views” about Johnson’s beaver-mania, saying discussions about reintroductions had been going on for decades without resolution, and hoped the current enthusiasm for nature-based solutions would extend beyond conference “punchlines”.

“At a national policy level I’m delighted the government has said they are prepared to license release of beavers to the wild and are going through consultation... but on the other hand punchlines like that can have an adverse impact [because] people don’t take it seriously,” he says.

“It can undermine the fact this is a serious option for the countryside, it’s not a joke, it’s dead serious. I’m glad it we’ve got it on the political agenda, but it should not be treated flippantly.”

Juniper does welcome the mainstreaming of rewilding, saying it is an encouraging sign that the government was committed to pressing ahead with projects that had likely come under intense pressure behind-the-scenes as ministers faced a pandemic-induced budget squeeze.

“I’m delighted to see the popular discourse in the country now embracing discussions around some of these animals that have been missing for centuries and which have hardly been talked about until very recently, and to see the speed at which this discussion is going, and the warm embrace it’s receiving from the very top of government.”

While the benefits of rewilding may have gained traction in Downing Street, the prospect of expanding the projects across the country has resulted in opposition from some of those working most closely with nature, such as farmers.

One major project in Wales stalled in 2019 after a backlash from farming groups, while Tory donor and Defra board member Ben Goldsmith garnered national headlines after red deer he had released onto his Somerset farm escaped into his neighbour’s land and destroyed crops. Goldsmith even faced a police probe – later dropped – after he admitted feeding wild boar which had suddenly appeared in the area.

Juniper said while a coherent plan for rewilding was a crucial step, he believed opposition was already ebbing away, as the rate at which adverse weather events impacting on farmers and food producers across the globe continues to grow.

“The farming community can see the actual changes taking place,” he says. “The lapwings that used to nest in a field are no longer there. The extreme rainfall that runs for months on end, followed by droughts. The people closest to nature are the people growing our food and to that extent they don’t need to be convinced. They can see what is happening with their own eyes, and that has led to quite a big shift in appetite from the farming community.”

While farmers may be coming on board with helping create new woodlands and allowing natural habitats to develop naturally on their land, there is still resistance to some of the more ambitious elements of the agenda, especially around the reintroduction of predatory species, such as lynx. Just last month, a project to release white-tailed eagles in Norfolk was scrapped, apparently due to fears birds could pick off livestock or disrupt the shooting industry by hunting partridges and pheasants. Even the humble beaver has caused concerns that their dams could lead to small floods on nearby properties and roads.

For conservationists it’s a frustrating step back. They say “myths” that have developed through generations are scuppering the massive benefits that could be gained by these projects. Olivia Blake, Labour’s shadow minister for nature, agrees. She says overcoming hesitancy needs a much more coherent approach from those at the top of government.

“I would like to see much more from the government about what good rewilding would look like and a programme of work to address and support it,” she adds.

“At the moment, we just get ‘Build Back Beaver’ and other vague platitudes about how important wild things are.”

But she insists the policy should become a crucial plank of the UK’s approach, saying it can provide the general public with a tangible benefit they can witness in their own communities. With the work of inclusive, community-backed initiatives given a spotlight at COP, Blake says ministers should take the opportunity to massively increase funding and help build public support for the climate agenda that doesn’t rely on the usual decades-long targets and complex technological projects.

“Carbon is a quite complicated thing to get your head around, and some of [climate target] numbers are meaningless, but people understand that species are at risk,” she says.

“This is the stuff people contact their MPs about all the time. It’s the stuff people notice because it’s happening on their doorstep. People often reminisce to me about their childhood, and seeing lots of different species that either don’t exist anymore or aren’t in their communities. I think we underestimate how valuable nature is to all our communities.”

With UK ministers already playing down the chances of any major breakthroughs at COP, Johnson faces an uphill battle to persuade countries that without planting more trees, allowing nature to flourish and promoting biodiversity the chances of meeting their carbon targets and avoiding a major rise in global temperatures are vanishingly slim. For those involved in the plans, it’s an effort that cannot be allowed to fail.

“There is everything to play for in Glasgow,” Juniper says. “John Kerry, the US climate envoy, describes it as our last best chance. I’d describe it as our last chance.”

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