Beaver in Bavaria:
Lessons for Scotland 

If you want to take your knowledge of Beaver Management to a higher level, there is a simple solution: sign-up for one of the bi-annual 5-day courses in Bavaria led by Derek Gow, Roisin Campbell-Palmer and legendary beaver ecologist Gerhard Schwab. 

In early October, 11 representatives of nature organisations from the UK – mostly working for regulator bodies and NGOs – were given a bespoke tour of Bavarian beaver habitats. The group also given the opportunity meet key local stakeholders who have regular interaction with beavers  – the head of the farmers union, water management authority employees, a local mayor, ecology consultants and nature department representatives

Beaver wetlands in the midst of productive farmland, (Wettelsheim, Bavaria)

There are many factors that make the Bavarian beaver experience totally different from that in Scotland. Some key distinctions are listed below:

  • Beavers and humans exist in much closer proximity and far higher densities in Bavaria. (Bavaria has a human population of 12 million compared with 5.6 million in Scotland. They have a beaver population of 23,000 compared with a population of around 450 in Scotland).
  • Three legislative measures have had a dramatic effect on land ownership in Bavaria that are relevant to beaver presence:
    • Firstly, Bavaria took a political decision to relinquish active land use on 10% of all state-owned land. This returning of land to nature is an enormous boon for wildlife in general.
    • Secondly, whenever a new development is planned, “net gain” legislation requires the developer to buy agricultural land elsewhere, and return it to nature. This amazing scheme is a second source for much beaver habitat in Bavaria
    • Thirdly farmers are prohibited by law from farming within 5 metres of a water course – and often additional voluntary agreements exist which require farmers to leave a greater distance undisturbed. This is critical for “allowing the river to breathe” and minimising human-beaver conflict.
  • Bavaria has around 1000 “Beaver Consultants” – usually one in each local village district who have responsibility for working with landowners to minimise conflict and advise generally on beaver mitigation measures. The beaver consultants receive a week’s training before being certified and are entitled to draw a modest allowance for their work. (By contrast, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has two full time staff and a single consultant working on beaver mitigation).
  • A scheme exists in Bavaria whereby foresters, farmers and fisheries owners are entitled to receive compensation for beaver impact on their livelihoods. A second scheme exists whereby anyone (irrespective of profession) is entitled to reclaim costs for taking preventative measures to avoid impact. (In Scotland, SNH operate a pilot scheme whereby mitigation materials may be reclaimed under prior agreement).
  • Local power in Bavaria is far more devolved and decentralised than in Scotland. The town mayors are empowered to take key decisions regarding beaver dams (and beaver presence) in the surrounding areas – and can draw on municipal funds (e.g for dam removal) when required. County level agencies cooperate with the local mayors and “beaver consultants” to find solutions whenever human-beaver conflict exist.
  • Each year approximately 1900 beavers (approx. 8% of the population). are killed in Bavaria by authorised personnel as a measure of last resort. In the vast majority of situations, this involves trapping and then taking the beaver to a secure holding site where it is euthanised. Since 2008, the use of shotguns to kill beavers is prohibited.  Similarly, shooting beavers in the water is prohibited.
  • Although large parts of the Bavarian public are largely ambivalent to beaver presence, on-going education work by nature organisations is key to increasing understanding. As a result, there is growing awareness among the public that in many situations beavers can provide cheaper and more cost effective environmental solutions than humans.

Bavaria from above. (Photo by Derek Gow)

Public attitudes to beaver have fluctuated over time in Bavaria. The reintroduction programme started with high level of public support, and it continued to enjoy this while the beaver population was largely invisible. As the population grew in the 1980s, and the impact was increasingly felt within rural communities, public support wavered.  In the early 2000s, when it became widely understand that beaver impact could be successfully managed through beaver consultants, and that beavers provide ecosystem services, public support seems to have climbed again back to initial levels. Now beavers are largely regarded as legitimate and welcome neighbours. This sentiment was clear to see during the visit to the town of Winzer – where the mayor proudly reported that municipality had recently avoided 450,000 in costs for concrete flood defences after beaver dams have repeatedly held back flood waters in upstream creeks

A beaver dam near Winzer. One of several which have helped stopped flooding and saved money for the municipality. (Photo by Derek Gow)

In terms of both biodiversity and progressive beaver management, Bavaria seems a long way ahead of Scotland. They have come to terms with beavers and essentially learned to live with them again. As Gerhard Schwab says,

“if you give the river 20 metres breathing space, you will have solved 95% of beaver problems”.

The answer it seems is pretty simple.

James Nairne

Gerhard Schwab and Friend