Tag Archives: Devon Wildlife Trust

Beavers get a reprieve

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 been working on a larger tree
More ambitious beaver activities

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.

Beaver chiselled trees
Beaver chiselled trees

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.

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

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.

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Hope for the River Otter beavers

I’ve been following the saga of the River Otter beavers for the last year or so. This week there appears to be a new twist in the tale. In brief, beavers have been discovered living wild on the River Otter. No-one is quite sure how they ended up there, but they have successfully bred. These are the first beavers to breed in the wild in the UK for hundreds of years.

While the locals have generally welcomed the beavers with enthusiasm, DEFRA have been threatening to capture the beavers and rehome them at a zoo, saying they are concerned the beavers may harbour a disease that could be passed to humans. This has caused lots of upset, with thousands of people signing petitions to let the beavers remain on the river. The Devon Wildlife Trust have applied to Natural England for a license to release beavers into the wild. And Friends of the Earth have launched legal proceedings against DEFRA, claiming beavers are protected in Britain under European law.

On Friday the Guardian reported that DEFRA seem to be softening their stance, saying the beavers will now be tested much closer to their Devon home than originally planned. This will reduce distress for the animals, and may make it easier to release them back on the River Otter.

Apart from it being exciting to have another species of large mammal in the wild in Britain, beavers could offer other benefits as well. Beavers are nature’s engineers, and the dams they build may help fish stocks in rivers, and also reduce the risk of flooding. Having said that, they do change the landscape, so the support of landowners is vital if they are to return to the wild in Britain. They seem to have that support on the River Otter, so, if allowed to return, it will be interesting to see how the relationship between people and beavers develop.

Beavers back in the wild

Last autumn, while staying on the banks of the River Otter, I was surprised to read a sign at the local mill listing beavers as well as otters and kingfishers as local wildlife highlights. In fact, I didn’t believe it.

I knew there were projects to reintroduce beavers into carefully enclosed areas of Scotland. But it turns out that the first beavers breeding in the wild for centuries in England are actually to be found in Devon. Camera trap footage has now recorded three individuals, including a young beaver, on the River Otter.

No one is quite sure where they’ve come from. It’s illegal to introduce beavers into the wild in England. While Devon Wildlife Trust are carrying out a pilot beaver reintroduction into an enclosed area, that’s at the opposite side of the county, and all their beavers are accounted for.

Personally speaking, I’m quite excited by the thought of beavers roaming free in England once more. But it is quite controversial. Beavers are by nature engineers – they shape the landscape they live in. Their dams can create pools where once there were woods and fields. If I were a landowner, I’d be concerned about the effects beavers may have.

The Mammal Society have recently suggested that beavers should be reintroduced to help reduce flooding. They are also thought to be beneficial to plant diversity, creating wetland areas. Their river engineering also creates good habitats for fish, invertebrates, amphibians, and some mammals and birds.

It’s going to be interesting to see what effect the beavers have on the River Otter, whether they breed and spread, and whether we can live peacefully with a wild creature that can dictate the course of rivers…