Beavers’ engineering endeavours are examples of outstanding environmental practice. It’s time we accepted it, says PETER FROST
A complete about-face from the government, Defra and Natural England has saved a small colony of wild beavers on the River Otter in Devon near the village of Ottery St Mary.
It is believed to be the first population of wild beavers in the English countryside for over 500 years.
Local and national environmental campaigners had feared the small colony would end up in a zoo or even culled like the badgers.
The Devon beavers were first caught on film a year ago but rumours and sightings had been happening for some time before that.
Nobody knows where they came from.
Last summer, coalition farming minister George Eustice and Defra said they wanted to get rid of the Devon beavers by capture or cull.
Defra claimed beavers were an invasive non-native species and could carry a rare parasite called Echinococcus Multilocularis (EM).
A vigorous public campaign by Friends of the Earth and Devon Wildlife Trust has changed the government’s mind. Even I wrote in support of the Devon beavers back in July of last year.
Now clearly embarrassed by the expensive fiasco of the badger cull Eustice has seen sense and listened to expert opinion.
Defra has now decided that the Devon Wildlife Trust can manage a reintroduction programme for the beaver as part of a carefully regulated five year trial.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Alasdair Cameron told us: “This is great news for Devon’s beavers. If, as seems likely, they can now remain in the wild.”
Natural England, which is part of Defra, has approved a five-year scientific study of the beaver and this could open the way to the wider reintroduction of what was once a common species across England.
Meanwhile beavers have been reintroduced into Scotland and are breeding happily on several Scottish rivers where their dams make a spectacular addition to the river-scape.
The first significant recent Scottish population of wild beavers became established on Scotland’s River Tay as early as 2001.
The hugely intelligent European beaver (Castor fiber) is the largest rodent in Europe. They build amazing architectural structures for their dams and lodges.
This fascinating and historically much hunted animal is coming back to it’s natural homes all over Europe and its time we made much bigger efforts to bring it back to the rivers and countryside of Britain.
I first saw wild European beavers and the good they can do for the wetland environment on a visit to the Biesbosch National Park in the Netherlands where they were reintroduced in 1988 after being completely exterminated in the 19th century.
After the reintroduction in the Biesbosch the overall Dutch population has spread considerably, supported by additional reintroductions.
The beaver was once widespread all over Europe and Britain. The animal was hunted to near-extinction for both its luxurious fur and an extract from its anal glands known as castoreum. This is used in the perfume industry and was once believed to have magical medical properties.
Beavers typically grow to 80–100cm (31–39in) and the tail adds another 25–50cm (10–20in). Adults weigh between 11–30kg (24–66lb), with an average of 18kg (40lb).
They usually have one litter of three kits per year. Unlike most other rodents, beavers are monogamous, staying together for many breeding seasons.
Beavers help support wetland ecosystems by creating sustainable wet landscape with lakes and pools, which increase biodiversity and provide habitat for threatened and rare species such as water voles, otters and water shrews.
They gnaw branches from waterside trees and shrubs so that they re-grow denser, which provides useful cover for birds and animals.
Their dams trap sediment and improve water quality and can help regulate river flows and reduce flooding.
Last July I wrote in these pages: “Now is the time to encourage the reintroduction of beavers to suitable sites in both England and Wales.”