• Restoration attempts often fail, but may benefit from utilising ecosystem engineers.
• Impacts of beaver released onto drained pasture were studied for 12 years.
• Beaver increased habitat heterogeneity and plant richness at plot and site scales.
• Ecosystem engineers can contribute significantly to meeting common restoration goals.
Potential for habitat restoration is increasingly used as an argument for reintroducing ecosystem engineers.
Beaver have well known effects on hydromorphology through dam construction, but their scope to restore wetland biodiversity in areas degraded by agriculture is largely inferred. Our study presents the first formal monitoring of a planned beaver-assisted restoration, focussing on changes in vegetation over 12 years within an agriculturally-degraded fen following beaver release, based on repeated sampling of fixed plots.
Effects are compared to ungrazed exclosures which allowed the wider influence of waterlogging to be separated from disturbance through tree felling and herbivory. After 12 years of beaver presence mean plant species richness had increased on average by 46% per plot, whilst the cumulative number of species recorded increased on average by 148%. Heterogeneity, measured by dissimilarity of plot composition, increased on average by 71%. Plants associated with high moisture and light conditions increased significantly in coverage, whereas species indicative of high nitrogen decreased. Areas exposed to both grazing and waterlogging generally showed the most pronounced change in composition, with effects of grazing seemingly additive, but secondary, to those of waterlogging.
Our study illustrates that a well-known ecosystem engineer, the beaver, can with time transform agricultural land into a comparatively species-rich and heterogeneous wetland environment, thus meeting common restoration objectives. This offers a passive but innovative solution to the problems of wetland habitat loss that complements the value of beavers for water or sediment storage and flow