Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers

On the trail of wild beavers

Reports of beaver sightings on the River Otter
Reports of beaver sightings on the River Otter

Last week I returned to the River Otter. When I was there a year ago, I didn’t believe a sign naming beavers as one of the species seen on the river. I knew beavers had been extinct in the UK for hundreds of years. But soon after my trip, video footage of a family of beavers was released, showing not only were a few beavers roaming free, they were also breeding.

So, curiosity (and a love of a good woodburner in winter) made me return to the River Otter. This time I was hopeful of seeing signs of beavers, if not the animals themselves. Our first walk along the river to the sea showed no indication of beavers to our inexpert eyes (although we did see plenty of birds).

The River Otter in winter
The River Otter in winter

Undeterred, we set out to walk 10km upstream. We were looking out for beaver-gnawed trees, or perhaps signs of dam building or a lodge. The first felled tree we came across wasn’t promising, unless beavers had bigger teeth than I thought. But soon we came across more convincing evidence: lots of tree stumps with chisel-like teeth marks.

Beaver chiselled trees
Beaver chiselled trees
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter

Most of the stumps were from young trees, only a few inches across. But on the opposite bank there were signs of more ambitious beaver work.

Beavers have been working on a larger tree
More ambitious beaver activities

I was thrilled to see these signs – it was only seeing them for myself that made it sink in – beavers really are back in the wild in the UK.

We didn’t manage to spot any obvious lodges or dams (although there were a few heaps of woody debris in the river that could have been, with a bit of imagination). If I had been cleverer I would have read up about beavers before heading to Devon. I had to wait until getting home before learning that Eurasian beavers tend to prefer holes in the river bank, rather than lodges, and only build dams if the river is suboptimal for them.

Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA
Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA

You’ve probably heard that the future of the wild beavers is in the balance at the moment, with DEFRA planning to remove them to test them for tapeworms. From what we saw, people who live near the river are very supportive of the beavers. They have organised patrols to keep an eye out for beaver trappers, and there were notices placed along the river asking people to report any signs of DEFRA activity. We even had a few people ask us what we were up to (making sure we weren’t beaver stealers…).

I was particularly taken with this demonstration of support, in the window of a shop in Ottery St Mary.

Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers

Devon Wildlife Trust have applied for a license to allow the beavers to be released back into the river, following testing, and monitored for 5 years. They need to raise £54,000 by the end of the year to show they can do this. If you’d like to contribute, go to the Devon beavers appeal website.

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