They are back after five hundred years! A tiny colony of beavers is living on the River Otter in Devon.
Strangely a DEFRA spokesperson reportedly described these beavers as non-native and "invasive". The Eurasian beaver castor fiber is in fact native to Britain but was hunted to exinction at some point in the sixteenth century. Hunted not only for its pelt but also for castoreum from its scent glands - yes, the castor oil much loathed by our parents or grandparents as children was derived from beavers.
Invasive? The original family of two adults and a juvenile has now been increased by the birth of three kits - still hardly an invasion.
See delightful video footage here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-28324584
Beavers are one of the largest living species of rodent. Pairs are monogamous and may rear one litter per year, so the Devon colony is a true family unit. At the beginning of the twentieth century only around 1200 beavers survived in Europe and Asia but by 2003 their populations had recovered to an estimated 640 000 including 25000 in Germany.
What do beavers do?
They build dams of course, which impacts upon the flow of water and can impede movement of fish. This is one reason why, predictably, angling groups have called for their removal. Paradoxically their presence has been shown in various studies to actually increase fish stocks as their dam-building activities help to create pools which are beneficial to young fish and provide increased cover and forage for salmon and trout.
Beavers are one of the “keystone species” which increase biodiversity: they coppice trees and shrubs on the riverbank which produces dense growth, an important habitat for water voles and shrews. Their dams trap sediment and can improve water quality.
So what’s the problem with beavers?
DEFRA has stated its intention to trap the beavers and condemn them to a life of captivity in a zoo or wildlife park. Aside from pressure from angling groups, the main reason is that the beavers could be carrying echinococcus multilocularis, a variety of tapeworm not currently found in the UK. DEFRA’s own assessments of the risk seem to place it somewhere between negligible and low, resting on three factors: a) the parasite is actually present in one of the beavers; b) this is transmitted to another species, possibly a fox feeding on an infected carcass; and c) it is passed to a human via a dog coming into contact with the fox or the carcass itself.
Considering the statistical risk of developing cancer, heart problems, stroke etc. the probability of contracting a serious health problem from a tiny beaver population recedes into insignificance.
Where did the beavers come from?
No one really knows; there are fenced-in populations of beavers in Devon, Kent, Argyll and Perthshire and the Tay wild beavers are believed to have originated from escapees from a captive population. The Scottish beaver trial at Knapdale encourages visitors to become a “beaver detective” and try to spot the signs of their presence. Scottish Natural Heritage will present the results of the trial to the Scottish Government in May 2015.
Is there any hope for the Devon Beavers?
DEFRA have acknowledged that trapping will take time and will not be easy (and could be dangerous for the beavers – if left in traps for long periods as badgers were in cull zones they could drown). A young beaver trapped in Scotland died in captivity.
There are petitions in support of leaving the beavers alone, which at the time of writing have nearly 40 000 signatures in total:
The DEFRA document Code-of-Practice-Beavers1 states in the section “Safe Sourcing Options” that second-generation beavers will not be infected as they cannot contract the infection from their parents which suggests that the kits should not be regarded as a health risk.
The last word has to go to George Monbiot: “Stop the control freaks who want to capture England’s wild beavers”:
Our current government has to be one of the worst for wildlife, which it seems to regard as little more than litter making a mess of our increasingly tarmacked country.
Castor Anglicus' excellent page "Save the Free Beavers of England" https://www.facebook.com/groups/savethebeaver/
library.asp In the beavers folder: DEFRA Code of Practice; echinococcus risk assessment; research on impact on fish stocks.