Good news: Natural England have granted Devon Wildlife Trust a license to monitor the beavers on the River Otter for the next five years!
Beavers have been extinct in the wild in England for centuries. Last year news broke that a family of beavers had successfully bred on the River Otter in Devon. It’s unclear how they ended up there, but the most pressing question was what should happen to them. DEFRA seemed determined to deport them to a zoo.
There’s lots of evidence that having beavers on a stretch of river improves biodiversity. A demonstration project in Scotland found that beavers quadrupled biodiversity compared to similar stretches of river without beavers. There were more different types of plant, insects, fish, mammals and birds – everything seemed to benefit. They can even reduce the risk of flash flooding.
Beavers have such a big effect because they are fantastic engineers. They gnaw down trees, build dams and lodges, and create new pools. This brings benefits to all sorts of creatures. But we’re not used to living closely with such large-scale wild engineers. We’re used to being the only animals who change the course of rivers.
Luckily the landowners around where the wild beavers are living are willing to find out whether it will work. And local residents have been very protective of their new neighbours. When plans were announced to trap and exile the beavers, beaver patrols were formed, petitions launched and a fundraising campaign started to find a way to persuade Natural England to let them stay, closely monitored, for at least the next five years.
I visited Otterton late last year, and was impressed by the support the beavers had. It had all the ingredients for a fine Ealing Comedy – faceless bureacrats from faraway threatening a defenceless creature, a local community coming together to defeat their plans, and plenty of potential for subversive activities on the riverbank at night.
Anyway, as many of the best Ealing Comedies do, this one seems to have an ending where the little guy (or beaver) triumphs over the bureaucrats. But, of course, the story doesn’t end here. No-one knows whether the engineering of the beavers will lead to unacceptable conflicts with humans along the river. The support of landowners is crucial. Devon Wildlife Trust will be closely monitoring how the beavers are getting on, and what impact they are having. They’ve already raised a large chunk of the money needed to do this, but need to raise more to ensure they can continue for the full 5 years.
I am really excited to see how this story continues. I love the thought that animals can come back from extinction in the wild, and hope that they, and their human neighbours along the River Otter, can learn to thrive together.