Nature conservation: beavers - nuisance or engine of ecological diversity?

With its snub nose, long gnawing teeth and forefeet resembling prehensile hands, the beaver is a droll animal.

Nature conservation: beavers - nuisance or engine of ecological diversity?

With its snub nose, long gnawing teeth and forefeet resembling prehensile hands, the beaver is a droll animal. But not everyone has a good opinion of the diligent master builder. In the meantime, the problem bear and problem wolf have been joined by the problem beaver, which penetrates into settlements and causes damage there. Even sewage treatment plants, water retention basins and fish ponds are not always safe from it.

Beavers build dams. Often many. Their goal is sufficient water depth all year round to be able to swim unhindered, as well as an entrance to the building, the skilfully designed beaver lodge, that is always covered by water. However, with their drive to build numerous dams, they can cause flooding and undermined roads. There is also forestry damage: shrubs and deciduous trees are on the menu for vegetarians and are used to build dams and castles.

By the first half of the 20th century, beavers were almost wiped out in Europe. Because of their fur and tasty meat, they were popular prey. At times only a colony of Elbe beavers in the Saxony-Anhalt area and a few other scattered occurrences were left. From the 1970s, the European beaver (Castor fiber) began to spread again, among other things in the course of resettlement projects.

Creative designers

The animals are often referred to as "master builders for biodiversity". They help to redesign straightened watercourses that have been heavily modified by man into near-natural stream and floodplain landscapes with a mosaic of the most diverse habitats. According to studies, species diversity and numbers are increasing significantly in beaver waters. The beneficiaries include amphibians, juvenile fish and many insect and plant species.

According to estimates, around 40,000 of the animals are living again in Germany alone. Even in the middle of Berlin, the largest rodent in Germany, with a length of 1.30 meters, feels at home: According to the Nature Conservation Union, there are more than 50 territories there, for example in the Charlottenburg Palace Park and in the Tiergarten.

"The beaver is now increasingly widespread in the east, south and west of Germany, and problems with the beaver are increasing in several federal states," says Steffen Pingen, who heads the Environment and Rural Areas department in the German Farmers' Association. He thinks beaver management is necessary. In addition to deterrence, "removal" - meaning the killing of the animals - must be possible. Nature conservation authorities are already giving the green light for this under certain conditions. In the beaver region of Bavaria, for example, more than 2,300 of the animals were deliberately killed in 2022 alone, with a population of a good 20,000 animals.

Beaver populations regulate themselves

"It's no longer possible to catch them and ship them to other regions, nobody wants beavers anymore," says Andreas Lindeiner, nature conservation officer in the Bavarian State Association for Bird and Nature Conservation (LBV). His association blesses the shooting if there is no alternative to killing. Self-regulation will do the rest, believes Lindeiner: Beavers would be thrown out of the "Hotel Mama" at the age of two and would have to look for their own territory. Since there are no longer any suitable places, at least in Bavaria, there are more and more deadly fights with rivals in the existing areas.

Whether Baden-Württemberg is also tightening its measures against beavers is to be clarified in the course of a model project initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Agriculture based on the Bavarian model. The aim is for people and the approximately 7,500 beavers in the south-west to live together as conflict-free as possible. To date, 30 problem cases have been registered in the project area on the young Danube. It's mostly about beaver families expanding their territory.

For project manager Konrad Frosdorfer, killing animals would only be the last possible step. He emphasizes: "We rely on education and prevention." This includes beaver advisors who look for solutions on site with those affected. Mats that keep beavers from digging, wire coverings for trees to protect them from damage caused by feeding, fences and drainage pipes are helpful. In addition, affected farmers can exchange their land with that of the municipality or sell it to them. Above all, Frosdorfer is looking for hunters who volunteer to take care of people's concerns without losing sight of animal welfare.

The European beaver is strictly protected by the EU Habitats Directive. However, some representatives of agriculture and hunting believe that the species is no longer endangered and are in favor of a reclassification and inclusion in hunting law, which would make it much easier to kill the species.

Forester Frosdorfer takes a critical view of such projects: "We can't say, come back here, and when the animals show up at our house, say, now there are too many." The beaver is a blessing for flora and fauna, he emphasizes. By increasing the water surface and reducing the flow rate, beavers created habitats for many other water-bound species. "Beavers are an engine of biodiversity."