Leave it to Beaver

For the best part of a decade rumours had been circulating in Devon of an elusive group of unusual rodents. And with evidence of felled trees and unconfirmed sightings in 2013 the case grew stronger and stronger.

However it wasn’t until February 2014 that a population of wild Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) were caught on motion sensor cameras by a retired environmental scientist on the River Otter in Devon.

It is thought they may have been living under the human radar for years and are potentially the first sightings of wild beavers in England for around 500 years. It is believed the group of six, consisting of two adults, one juvenile and three more recent additions born this year are the sole representatives of their species in England.

As to where exactly they came from, no one is really sure. The Devon Beaver Project has held two adult beavers (one male, one female) in a secure enclosure in the north-west of the county since 2011 but is reportedly not the source of this new population. There are other wild populations in the UK, but they reside a good few hundred miles away in Scotland and are hence even less likely to be the source.

Wild beavers in the UK were hunted to extinction in the 16th century for their pelt, meat and a secretion they produce which was thought to have medicinal properties. Since then they have left a beaver-shaped hole in our ecosystems; no longer did we have an animal able to impose such a positive effect on biodiversity in our countryside. By modifying their habitats through coppicing and dam-building, beavers provide endless benefits for a range of native wildlife from fish and invertebrate life to otters and other water rodents. Not only do the dams themselves provide lodgings for the fat tailed rodents, they hold water during spells of drought, regulate floods and improve water quality by catching silt and agricultural run-off. Furthermore, coppicing and felling of trees reveals the floor of wooded areas to light and hence encourages the growth of new plant life.

Since the discovery earlier this year the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has intermittently intended on capturing the newly discovered population to test them for disease (specifically the tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis) before rehoming them in captivity in order to ‘safeguard human health’, claiming that beavers are an invasive, non-native and potentially disease-transmitting pest.

However, under the EU’s Habitat Directive, the government is obliged to consider the reintroduction of extinct native species.

Furthermore, in October environmental charity Friends of the Earth launched a legal challenge over the government’s description of the species. And with an online petition currently hovering around 13,000 signatures, pressure has been building on the government to reconsider their objectives.

Because of this, it has now been proposed that the animals be tested for disease and if all clear should be re-released to continue their lives in the Devon countryside.

If we take a brief look at the benefits that newly reintroduced beavers have had in Argyll, Scotland, it is clear to see the potential benefit this Devon beaver colony could bring to the county. Declared ‘an outstanding success’ by ecologists, four pairs of reintroduced beavers have produced at least 14 young, built dams the length of two double-deckers and considerably boosted tourism in the area. This not only puts money in local pockets but educates the public on conservation issues, wildlife management and reintroduction programs; paving the way for a future of knowledge and understanding.

With such successful and encouraging reintroduction stories in Scotland, and more planned, maybe England should be following suit and getting on board with the beavers.

 

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Nicola Bleach

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