The secret movement bringing Europe’s wildlife back from the brink
- Photography by Frankie Mills
It was 1998. Olivier Rubbers, then 29 years old, came up with the idea of returning beavers to his local rivers. “My level of knowledge about nature was extremely poor,” he now confesses. But he’d read a magazine article about how the beaver was indigenous to Belgium, though it had long been nearly extinct. Bringing beavers back, he thought, “would be a great project.”
“Beaver bombing” or “beaver black ops” — as it’s become known in conservation circles — is the practice of illegally releasing the humble beaver into a waterway and leaving it to do what it does best: fell trees, build dams and construct lodges. Beavers are known as “ecosystem engineers,” or a “keystone species,” because they create an ideal habitat for all kinds of other wildlife.
Rubbers borrowed his father’s car and drove to Germany to pick up the beavers, then crossed the border back into Belgium and dropped them in a river. Throughout 1999 and 2000, Rubbers repeated the feat with 97 more beavers, bringing them from Bavaria to Belgium in a van kitted out with homemade beaver crates. “We wanted them all,” he said.
Rubbers and his accomplices soon learned that the best time to beaver-bomb was not at night but in the middle of the afternoon, preferably on a Sunday, when everyone was having lunch.
He procured almost all the beavers from Gerhard Schwab, a wildlife manager based in Bavaria known as “the Pablo Escobar of beavers.” Over the years, Schwab has bred beavers and helped numerous communities across Europe with reintroductions — always in partnership with local wildlife management schemes. Rubbers showed Schwab some official-looking papers, all stamped and in French. Schwab had no idea that Rubbers was introducing the beavers into their new surroundings without local approval.
“I had all the authorizations I needed,” Rubbers said. “Which, in my mind, meant no authorization.”
“He bombs quite a bit,” Schwab admitted about Rubbers. “He wanted to do something for nature.”
Rubbers was eventually fined 500 euros for detaining and transporting a protected species, although he told me that the local administration forgot to claim the money. He has spent the following years watching with satisfaction as the beavers spread across Belgium, transforming its waterways. Frogs and fish came to lay their spawn in the slowed, dammed-up water, while bugs and beetles thrived in the rotting wood of the felled trees. Birds followed in their wake, feeding off the fish and insects. “Belgium should thank me for services rendered to the nation,” Rubbers said.
Rubbers is part of a secretive, underground network of wildlife enthusiasts who are returning species back into the landscape without asking permission first. It’s not just beavers: There are boar bombers, a “butterfly brigade” that breeds and releases rare species of butterfly and a clandestine group returning the pine marten — one of Britain’s rarest mammals — to British forests.
Some, like Rubbers, have no background in conservation. Others have scientific credentials and feel an urgent need to restore nature’s ecosystems by taking matters into their own hands.
The movement is facing backlash from farmers who don’t want wild animals wrecking their crops and a number of scientists who believe that the reintroduction process should be regulated and controlled. They say rogue rewilding is a crime, however you dress it up. The mavericks argue that the bigger crime is not to reintroduce keystone species in a biodiversity emergency.
At the beginning of the 20th century, beavers were on the verge of extinction in Europe. They were hunted for their prized pelts and scent glands, and by 1900, there were just 1,200 left. Now, beavers are back from the brink, with the current European population estimated at about 1.5 million — and conservationists and rewilders agree that beaver bombers are partly to thank.
Floods, wildfires and droughts have become multi-trillion-dollar problems in the 21st century, ravaging the landscape from Bangladesh to Belgium. As the world burns and biodiversity hits a crisis point, rewilding — the process of letting nature restore itself — can feel like a hopeful refuge. Beavers, ecologists say, may be part of the solution.
The healthy wetland systems beavers create can sequester large amounts of carbon, according to climate scientists. Slowing down river flow helps the land act like a sponge, storing and holding more water, so it is more resilient to flooding and drought.
“Beavers work for free, they work weekends, they work round the clock increasing the groundwater and being a motor for biodiversity,” Schwab said.
In the U.S., after Oregon’s devastating forest fires in 2021, beaver wetlands remained green and lush, acting as natural firebreaks in the land. On aerial images of the charred landscape, the beaver’s habitat stands out, a wide and verdant ribbon running through the blackened trees.
“I think beaver bombers are the heroes of our time,” said Ben Goldsmith, a British financier, writer and environmentalist who is a passionate supporter of rewilding. “A human lifetime is short — why should I not be the one that gets to see wildcats back on Dartmoor? Why should I not live in a country with beavers when they’re supposed to be there?”
I asked Goldsmith if he’d participated in rogue reintroductions. “Had I been involved in beaver bombing more widely,” he said, “I don’t think I’d tell you.” Until last year, Goldsmith served as a director for the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. His older brother, Zac, is a former member of parliament and the U.K.’s current international environment minister.
For ecologist and author Alex Morss, the fringe of the rewilding movement and its powerful backers are a problem. “Who cleans up the bill for illegal anonymous rogue rewilding if things go wrong?” she wrote to me in an email. Alongside a number of scientists working in ecology and conservation, Morss worries about the pitfalls ahead if people are encouraged to take matters into their own hands to address species loss.
Maverick rewilding, she says, could increase the chances of conflicts between humans and wildlife, spread disease and actively harm biodiversity by introducing the wrong animals into the wrong environments. “There are also releasers who are skirting around the law or outright breaking it,” Morss added. “Or making decisions based on personal bias rather than ecological expertise, rather than lawful, professional and evidence-based conservation done carefully and less glamorously.”
Beavers are capable of destroying valuable trees, eating crops and flooding farmland. In Tayside, Scotland, where beavers were illegally introduced around 2006, farmers shot the animals on sight. There was no law to stop the farmers from doing so because, although the beavers were endangered, they also weren’t officially there. It was, as one ecologist explained to me, a “wild west.”
Morss said she welcomes “true” rewilding but is concerned that the movement is being co-opted by a privileged few who want to turn nature’s last refuges into “eco Disneyland.”
As rewilding and the prospect of nature restoring itself has caught the public imagination in recent years, projects have sprung up all over Europe, often led by philanthropists and enthusiastically backed by politicians. But many of these projects have also become entangled in bureaucracy and an intense debate over the scientific practicality of rewilding.
Many in the rewilding movement say that political leaders are not doing enough to restore biodiversity — leaving the mavericks with little choice but to act unilaterally and reintroduce species themselves.
“The British government and European governments are foot-dragging,” said Tim Kendall, who wrote a book about beaver bombing with his wife, Fiona Mathews, the chair of Mammals Conservation Europe and a professor of environmental biology at Sussex University. “You can’t go through the official channels and make it work.”
Goldsmith is vocal about what he sees as a reactionary fifth column within the nature conservation movement. “There are these gray figures that lurk in the background of government agencies and other bodies, who kill off these projects before they have a chance to happen,” he said. “These are people who are governed by caution and say, ‘We’ve got to make sure every possible angle is researched to death.’ They don’t feel the urgency.”
The rewilding fringe believes that something more radical than scientific reintroduction and conservation programs that are implemented at a sloth-like pace is necessary. According to Mathews, there is a “grudging acknowledgment” among scientists that without the maverick rewilders, “we’d just get nowhere. We’ve been talking about reintroducing beavers in many countries for years and years, and basically, nothing happens.”
Derek Gow told me that he believes change will never come if the rules are always followed. Gow, 58, worked for a decade as a sheep farmer in Devon, in southern England, but is now one of the loudest voices in the maverick rewilding movement. He had his moment of reckoning when a pair of curlews — a European wading bird species — disappeared from his farm. They died, Gow says, because there was nowhere left for them to take cover, feed or breed. “How solemn and how sad that is,” he said. “They died because we had mowed everything to a bowling green with the sheep.”
After the birds were gone, Gow began to see his farm work as a model for perfect destruction. He observed the men alongside him, who had worked in agriculture all their lives. “They can remember the last of the gray partridge or the glow worms. And even though they’ve done nothing for nature, they’ve done nothing other than continue their destruction; when their time finishes, that’s the thing they’ll remember.”
Gow now runs a 300-acre rewilding project in Devon with financial support from Goldsmith, among others. He spends his days among wildcats, Iron-Age pigs, wild horses, beavers and storks. He wakes up every morning to a cacophony of birds singing from the trees. He describes them to me as we talk on the phone: bluetits and stonechats flit above him, a water shrew runs past his feet.
Gow is resolute: He thinks the time has passed for doing things slowly and carefully. “I do wonder how the people who administer these things — who display the most incredible caution and naivety and a lack of willingness to do anything — really feel when they finish a long, long career and have achieved absolutely fuck all.”
I ask if he sees himself as a beaver-bomber, a maverick or a rogue rewilder. “I would describe myself as a human being concerned about the fate of the natural world,” he said, “at this time of colossal extinction, crisis and ecological collapse. I’m not interested in any other titles.”
Gow recently gifted former Prime Minister Boris Johnson a beaver pelt. Johnson has been vocal and enthusiastic about rewilding. “We’re going to rewild parts of the country and consecrate a total of 30% to nature,” he said in 2021 to rousing applause during his speech at the Conservative Party conference. “Beavers that have not been seen on some rivers since Tudor times, massacred for their pelts, are now back. And if that isn’t conservatism, my friends, I don’t know what is.”
“Build Back Beaver!” he added. Johnson tried to give his father Stanley a pair of beavers for his Somerset farm but was reportedly thwarted by his own government’s regulations.
Rewilding has become a popular activity among Britain’s landed elite. The medieval 3,500-acre Knepp Castle estate in Sussex, owned by Baronet Sir Charles Burrell, is perhaps the country’s most famous rewilding project. King Charles III has a wildlife retreat in Transylvania, a rewilding mecca known as “Europe’s Yellowstone.”
Goldsmith jokingly described an emerging black market for wildlife trade unfolding in the gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair. “You’ve literally got conversations happening over the lunch tables of White’s where one landowner is passing beavers to another,” he said. “You know: ‘I've got beavers on my farm in Perthshire, old buddy old pal. I could bring a few to you in Herefordshire.’”
This is a sticking point for Morss. “Is it healthy that a class of elite unelected people are using their wealth and privilege and influence to make changes to places, rather than with places and their communities of ‘plebs’ who live and work there and don't get a say?” she said. “It feels like a form of ecocolonialism.”
In Scotland, a cohort of millionaires, billionaires and corporations known as the “green lairds” have bought up huge swathes of the Highlands for rewilding and carbon-offsetting nature restoration programs. Among them is fast-fashion Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, Swedish Tetra Pak heiresses Sigrid and Lisbet Rausing and pension funds Aviva and Standard Life. The green laird movement has been criticized as “a greenwashed land-grab” that’s pushing up the price of land in the country and shutting out local communities. The Scottish Land Commission has reported to the Scottish government that the ownership of land by so few people in Scotland is tantamount to a monopoly.
“It is not democratic or always particularly wise when restoration ‘'rewilding’ is led by unqualified, rich hobbyists,” said Morss.
Across Holch Povlsen’s land, forests are beginning to regenerate. The project has been praised by Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as “Scotland’s most exciting and celebrated forest recovery project.” There have been increased reported sightings of ospreys, golden eagles, red squirrels and pine martens — all incredibly rare creatures in modern Britain. The manifesto for Holch Povlsen’s project, Wildland, says it aims to build “a culture of mutual respect with our communities” and “to support the viability of the local economy and improve quality of life.” But British online retail giant ASOS, the company that helped Holch Povlsen make his billions, has been criticized in the past for having an entirely different mission, with investigations revealing how the brand has used child sweatshops and contributed to the fast-fashion industry’s substantial carbon footprint.
Holch Povlsen and the Rausing sisters have contributed funding for a study exploring the implications of reintroducing the lynx to the Highlands, a predator that hasn’t been seen in Scotland since the Middle Ages. They’re still known in Holch Povlsen and the Rausings’ native Scandinavia as “the ghosts of the forest,” moving silently through the land while they hunt their prey.
Reintroducing the lynx could well be in the plans of rogue rewilders too. “I wouldn't be surprised,” said Goldsmith, “if we started seeing lynx popping up in different parts of Europe where they've been absent.”
The hope in bringing back the lynx to the Highlands would be to see it help naturally control Scotland’s deer population and restore the overgrazed landscape, with minimal human interaction.
Thomas Cameron, a senior lecturer in ecology at the University of Essex, is skeptical. “It’s just cloud cuckoo land, scientifically speaking,” he said. “It sounds nice. It's really pretty. It's a good story. It attracts lots of money, but it's not going to reduce deer numbers.” He added that it would take hundreds of years to have an effect — “and we need less deer tomorrow.”
Cameron works on an above-the-table beaver reintroduction project in Essex, which he said is already helping to reduce flooding in the local area. But he said he is wary of “false promises” made by advocates for species reintroduction. “Beavers aren't going to save biodiversity. They're not going to stop climate change by improving carbon sequestration,” he said.
Species reintroduction has limits — and it’s not going to fix the planet’s problems, he said. “The idea that that’s somehow some kind of utopia to get to is also quite dangerous.” The science, he insisted, “tells us that it's simply not true. And the science tells us we’re at a crisis point.”
Cameron, who hails from northeastern Scotland, is also frustrated by how much Scotland, rather than England, features in the imagination of the people who want to reintroduce predators to the ecosystem. “It’s always about Scotland — ‘Oh it’s wild, let’s go to Scotland’ — despite the fact that people are poorer there than they are in the south. They lead shorter lives. Making a living from the rural environment is more challenging. We've got people with limited opportunities, and we want to put it on them.”
In continental Europe, rifts are emerging between rewilding projects and local agricultural communities. In Asturias, in northwestern Spain, some farmers are furious about the presence of wolves among them. Spain’s wolf population, once close to being wiped out, has grown since the 1970s to become the largest in Europe at around 2,500 wolves. They kill around 11,000 livestock a year, for which farmers are compensated by the state. But when the government introduced a law banning people from shooting or hunting the wolves, it led to outrage. In May, a protest culminated with locals dumping two decapitated wolf heads on the steps of a town hall.
“The human-wildlife conflict isn’t far away,” tweeted local wildlife photographer Luke Massey with a photo of the bloody heads.
In Italy, the far-right government is busy dismantling hunting regulations and laws protecting wildlife. When a rewilded bear in Trentino mauled a jogger to death in April, the right-wing governor of the region took a reactionary stance: cull the bear. The governor has since embarked on a one-man mission to deport 70 more bears from the region. There were wider calls for rewilding projects to be scrapped. “We need to kill them all and close the discussion,” wrote one Twitter user when the jogger was attacked. “Fuck bears and animals,” said another. Viewers on Italian TV were invited to answer “yes” or “no” to the question, “Should the bear be put to death?”
In May, news spread that beavers had turned up on the River Tiber, upstream from Rome. “They must be removed,” said Claudio Barbaro, the Italian undersecretary for the environment. He added that the beavers had “entered illegally,” using language that surreally echoed the government’s anti-migrant rhetoric.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, up by the Belarusian border, beavers and humans are working together. Ukrainian military commanders say beaver-made wetland systems, with their swampy terrain and waterlogged landscape, are helping to protect the country from Russian attacks, creating a natural barrier along the frontier that’s difficult for tanks and infantry to traverse.
With his bandana and grizzled white beard, Gerhard Schwab stands out among the dark-suited crowd of business travelers at the Munich airport arrivals gate. We drive straight out into the Bavarian countryside. Swinging on his keyring in the ignition is a fat little cuddly-toy beaver.
“When I was a child, there were a lot more edges between the fields,” he says, as we drive past huge, featureless pastureland, the neat green crops rippling in the early summer sunshine. “Now it’s just fucking green. Back then you had everything. All kinds of wild plants. All the small ditches, all the small creeks — they’re all gone.”
He takes me to a rare scrap of wilderness. The pocket of meadow, right next to a busy autobahn, has been transformed into a vibrant wetland. Bright blue dragonflies dip across the water, and the air seems to vibrate with birdsong. Schwab points to something in the distance, and I can see a pile of sticks: a beaver lodge.
We hear the two-note call of a cuckoo. I’ve never heard it before, though it was a familiar sound for my mother, who grew up in Surrey in the 1960s. Europe has lost 550 million birds since she was a child, and in Britain, cuckoo numbers have crashed by 70%. The cuckoo’s distinctive call is a traditional symbol of the start of summer. But most children in the U.K. will grow up never hearing it.
The strange sorrow we feel when we confront this world without our fellow creatures has a name: “species loneliness.” Isolated from nature, we feel an existential loss for how the world once looked and sounded.
For Ben Goldsmith, his despair over the destruction of our wild places intersects with his own grief over the sudden loss of his teenage daughter, Iris. A lifelong lover of nature, she died, aged 15, in a farm vehicle accident in 2019. He has since given his farm over to rewilding. The spot where Iris died is marked with a stone circle. Not far off, along the stream threading through his land, a family of beavers has appeared.
“The family on my land happened to make their own way there, which is sort of a beautiful irony,” Goldsmith said. “They appeared by magic at a time in my life when I really needed and wanted that. It was one of the happiest events of my life.”
Beavers are resilient creatures. When the Khakova dam collapsed in Ukraine in May, it unleashed a torrent of chemicals and toxic oil into the surrounding landscape, with untold amounts of debris flowing into the Black Sea. But amid the waterlogged wreckage of Kherson, a lone beaver was seen wandering the streets. “OK, I’ve got work to do!” one British tabloid quipped in a caption of the video. Beavers are used to rebuilding, restoring and fixing what’s been broken.
Schwab feels sure beavers will long outlive us. After all, they have roamed the Earth far longer than humans — the oldest fossil is around 30 million years old. “When my bones and your bones are gone,” he says, “the beaver will still be here.”
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