Tag Archives: Natural England

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.


Dormouse license!

After four years of volunteering at box checks, scrambling over and under fallen trees, battling holly and brambles, and being stung by nettles and bees, I now have my dormouse license! Dormice are a protected species in the UK (as there are so few of them), so to do anything that may disturb them you need a license from Natural England. To get the license you need to prove that you are capable of handling dormice safely, and have considerable experience of doing so under the supervision of license holders.

When I started volunteering at box checks I didn’t really have ambitions to be a license holder – it was just a pleasant way of spending a Saturday morning, and seeing adorable little animals. But I kinda got hooked, and Surrey Dormouse Group supported to pursue my interest further. At the time they were running an excellent training scheme, having clear requirements for what I needed to have experience of before putting in for my license. This included courses of dormice ecology, surveying and handling. I needed to know how to do a nut hunt, maintain nest boxes (a bit of DIY), set up a new site, record data, use a map to find boxes, give directions to volunteers, deal with other box occupants (like woodmice, birds, bees and shrews), and of course handle dormice at all stages of development.

Hazel dormouse

By Björn Schulz (= User Bjoernschulz on de.wikipedia) (selbst fotografiert von Björn Schulz) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s taken me a while to build up the necessary experience (mainly because the sites I usually volunteer at don’t have many dormice). As part of my training I’ve had the privilege of learning from many experienced license holders, as well as other volunteers with wide-ranging knowledge of nature.

Torpid dormouse
Dormouse found during regular monitoring by Surrey Dormouse Group

I’ve been on checks where it’s so cold my fingers have got too numb to undo the wire catches to the boxes, and others in the steaming heat of summer. I’ve had a few war wounds (bee stings, nettle stings, and been bitten by a dormouse – quite a rare occurance) and tripped over once or twice. I’ve seen many bluetit nests with chicks, and dormice from tiny pinkies to obese adults ready for hibernation. I’ve also witnessed a few tragedies – the dormouse who shed its tail (like lizards they can do that if they’re stressed), and nests of dead chicks or dormice. But overall the experience has been a joy –  even if we don’t find any dormice on a check, it’s a pleasant way of spending the morning. And having a torpid dormouse snuggle up to your thumb is just adorable…

So, now I’ve got my license, what does that mean? Sadly it doesn’t allow me to hibernate all winter (my employer would have something to say about that…). It does mean I can lead box checks. I’m hoping to get a site of my own to run next year, but if not I will help out when other site leaders in Surrey Dormouse Group can’t do a monthly check. It’s a big responsibility, looking after the wellbeing of those lovely little mice, but I think it will be rewarding.


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