28 Jan 2015

Devon beavers living in wild given reprieve

Beavers living on the River Otter in Devon are to be allowed to remain there, rather than be moved to a wildlife sanctuary, in what campaigners called “an historic moment”.

Government agency Natural England has decided that they should be left to live in the wild – for the first time since the 18th century, when beavers were hunted to extinction in England.

A licence will be issued to Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) to monitor and manage the impact of the beavers on the River Otter.

The trial is subject to confirmation the animals are free of a parasite, and are Eurasian beavers – the same species that was once widespread in the UK.

Two adult beavers and a juvenile were filmed by scientist Tom Buckley and are included in Channel 4 News Science Editor Tom Clarke’s report from July 2014 (see video above).

It's official. The "Devon 6" have been given a last-minute reprieve, writes Tom Clarke. But they must endure a fairly significant bureaucratic ordeal first. Because they escaped or were illegally released into the wild, Defra wants to ensure they're not carrying an intestinal parasite found in some European beavers that can be fatal to other wildlife. They also want to confirm that they are indeed the once native European beaver (Castor fiber) and not North American ones (Castor canadensis), which arguably don't belong here.

So before they can remain free Defra still plans to trap the beavers and test them for both disease and nationality. This brings some risks. Unless done expertly, beavers can drown in traps. They can also die in captivity and the testing process is likely to take many days. All today's licence allows is for Devon Wildlife Trust to re-release the beavers once they have a clean bill of health.

But assuming they do, beavers could become a permanent feature of the English countryside after centuries of absence.

It is not known how the beavers ended up in the river, but it is thought that there may have been an escape from captivity.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said in July that it intended to rehome the animals because they could be carrying the tape worm parasite and have an impact on the landscape (they build dams made of wood) and other wildlife (their dams can impede the movement of fish).

Local groups disputed this, saying the parasite claim was a smokescreen to placate anglers, who although seeing some benefits to the return of beavers to the wild, had concerns about their effect on the ability of fish to migrate.

Campaign to keep Devon's beavers from being evicted. Read Tom Clarke's blog.

The DWT argued that there was now an opportunity for Britain’s first ever wild beaver trial, which would last five years and monitor the effect they have on their surroundings.

It applied to Natural England for a licence to establish the project, while a petition to keep the beavers in the wild has attracted more than 13,000 signatures.

‘Generally positive’

Andrew Sells, Natural England chairman, said: “Reintroduction of a species is a complicated and emotive subject and we have considered this application very carefully.

“Responses to our written consultation and public meetings have been generally positive and we are now satisfied with Devon Wildlife Trust’s plans for managing and monitoring the project, which will allow important evidence to be gathered during the trial on any impacts which the beavers may have.”

Harry Barton, chief executive of DWT, said: “This is an historic moment. The beavers of the River Otter are the first breeding population in the English countryside for hundreds of years.

“We believe they can play a positive role in the landscapes of the 21st century through their ability to restore our rivers to their former glories.”

Beavers are being successfully reintroduced into the wild in Scotland.