Beavers in licensed enclosures: licensees' objectives, opinions and experiences.
The key aims of this research were to provide evidence on (i) the objectives, opinions and experiences of licensees and (ii) to understand human and European Beaver (Castor fiber) activities occurring in the enclosures in the UK. Mixed methods research was used to assess the two key aims of this project. Qualitative data (words and meaning) was collected through interviews and quantitative data (numbers) was collected in an online survey. Eighteen licensees participated in this research (all from different sites), resulting in 67% of licensed enclosures being considered within this study. Four of the licensees participated in an interview, nine responded to the questionnaire and five participants did the questionnaire and an interview. In addition to the licensees' participation in this research, two beaver consultants from Natural England were interviewed. The beaver consultants were knowledgeable about beavers in licensed enclosures, had experience setting up licences and provide advice to licensees. The beaver consultant interviews were conducted halfway through the licensee interviews (due to availability) and the answers provided influenced the licensee interviews that followed them. Licensees participating in interviews identified seven key objectives for releasing beavers into the enclosure: (1) for ecological purposes, (2) to provide benefit to waterways (including preventing drought and flooding), (3) for engagement purposes, (4) for future wild releases, (5) to advance knowledge, (6) for personal enjoyment and (7) for the presence of beavers. Licensees participating in the online surveys were asked if pre-determined objectives were being monitored and achieved. The pre-determined objectives included flood risk management, improving water quality, restoring natural processes, part of a rewilding project, improving habitat, presence of beavers, improving biodiversity, education and awareness, tourism and visitor attraction and others. Eighty-seven percent of licensees' objectives were being monitored, and 68% of the objectives have been achieved. Of the eighteen licensees participating in this research, 50% reported previous beaver escapes. Beavers are normally quickly recaptured and no populations have been established in the wild from enclosure escapes. There was a difference in opinion between the licensees (and between the two beaver consultants interviewed) regarding the status of the beavers as wild or captive animals. Licensees participating in interviews supplied eight reasons for why they monitored: (1) beaver welfare, (2) check objectives, (3) enjoyment, (4) licence requirements, (5) engagement purposes, (6) advance knowledge (7) self-motivation and (8) advise on wild releases. A large number of monitoring activities conducted in the enclosures were discussed including wildlife, Beaver welfare and behaviour, habitat and vegetation, hydrology, water quality, fence line and engagement/social monitoring. One Beaver consultant was concerned that welfare monitoring was not encouraged or required. A wide diversity of positive beaver behaviours was identified by interviewees. This is supported by three licensees stating their beavers appear calm. There were some accounts of stress behaviours. Lodges, dams and beaver ponds were the most commonly added artificial structure in Beaver enclosures. Eighty-four percent of the artificial structures/modifications installed into enclosures have been used at some point by the beavers. Once their current licence had ended, six licensees participating in the online survey and three participants from the in-person interviews wanted to request the release of beavers into the wild. Six online survey respondents wished to extend their current licence and two online survey respondents (and one interviewee) were unsure. Some interviewees who wanted to request wild releases after their current licence had ended considered four measures that they thought would improve the success of wild releases: (1) increased collaboration between licensees, stakeholders, the public, Natural England and other potential partners, (2) employment of beaver officers (3) training and education and (4) the availability of funding for those who may experience conflict.