Bravo for the beavers!
Beavers used to be commonplace in Britain but tragically they were pushed to extinction in the 16th century, hunted for their meat, oils and fur. This is a particular shame because beavers bring so many benefits to their environment. Today, as we face climate change, weather extremes and a biodiversity crisis, bringing beavers back into our landscape will help us to restore habitats and tackle issues such as flooding.
Over the past five years (2015-2020), the River Otter Beaver Trial, led by Devon Wildlife Trust, has being overseeing and monitoring the impacts of England’s first wild breeding population of beavers for 400 years.
The science and evidence report which summarised the findings of the Trial, concluded that the beavers had brought significant benefits to people and wildlife living along the River Otter. So, in August, we were delighted when the government gave the green light for the beavers to remain here permanently.
This is one of the most important moments in England’s conservation history. It’s the first legally sanctioned reintroduction of an extinct native mammal to England. It means that the beaver population on the River Otter now has a secure future.
Why are beavers so special?
Beavers are what is known as ‘keystone species’. Keystone species shape the ecological environment in which they live and therefore impact on the lives of many other species living alongside them.
The River Otter Beaver Trial demonstrated that other wildlife – especially fish, insects, birds (including teal and snipe), and endangered mammals such as water voles – had greatly benefitted from the beavers’ presence because of the ways in which beavers enhance wetland habitats.
Beavers’ dam building activities can help to reduce the likelihood that human settlements will flood. The River Otter Beaver Trial noted that a sequence of beaver dams constructed upstream of a village at risk of flooding saw a reduction in peak river flows.
Also, during the Beaver Trial, the beaver dams had a significant impact on previously dredged and straightened streams. The activities of the beavers created new meanders, restored natural stream riffles and pools, and formed spawning areas for trout and bullhead. The deeper more silty pools that temporarily form behind the beaver dams provide habitats for lamprey, eels and the larger trout.
It is a common misconception that beavers eat fish. The truth is they are vegetarian. They feed on aquatic plants, grasses, herbaceous plants and shrubs during the summer months, and woody plants in winter.
Beavers also have a role in improving water-quality, with their dams acting as filters which trap soil and other pollutants from surrounding farmland.
Detailed health screening of the beavers by zoological specialists throughout the Trial concluded that beavers presented no significant risk to the health of humans, livestock or other wildlife.
Beavers in the Blackdown Hills
The beavers have made their way from the south of River Otter in East Devon right up as far as Otterhead Lakes, where our industrious friends have already built several dams. It’s likely that we’ll soon see beavers in the neighbouring River Culm too, as the rivers are so close to each other.
A managed approach
All the partners involved with the River Otter Beaver Trial recognise that beavers need management. Some small issues have been encountered in relation to land drainage and beavers accessing crops and trees. Mitigation techniques have been deployed very successfully but it is recognised that, should problems arise, landowners need quick and pragmatic advice.
Other populations of beavers are now cropping up elsewhere in the country, and decisions will need to be made about how they are managed and safeguarded.
You can read more about the findings of the River Otter Beaver Trial and the next steps in a blog by Mark Elliott, Devon Wildlife Trust’s Beaver Project Lead, on the Connecting the Culm website.
Eager to find out more about beavers?
If you’re keen to go beaver spotting, there are some tips on Devon Wildlife Trust’s website, but please go gently and take exceptional care not to disturb them or damage their habitat.
You can also experience the wonder of these industrious animals from the comfort of your own home! Here is our pick of some of the best ways to do this:
Online talk – Beavers in the Blackdown Hills
On Wednesday 20 January, Jake Chant, beaver field officer for Devon Wildlife Trust, will be talking about the findings from the River Otter Beaver Trial and explaining how members of the public can help to keep a look-out for signs of beavers spreading into neighbouring catchments. The talk will also cover how we can learn to live with a species after such a long absence from our landscape.
There will also be training sessions at Otterhead Lakes in January for local people to learn about surveying beaver activity and how to manage the impacts of beavers if necessary. There will be opportunities for further beaver volunteering in spring 2021.
The return of the beaver – BBC Witness History
BBC World Service Radio looks back at the Scottish Beaver Trial in 2009 when beavers were released into the wild in the Knapdale forest on the west coast of Scotland. The Scottish Beaver Trial was the first official beaver re-introduction programme in the UK.
Beavers without borders film
This brand-new documentary produced for the Beaver Trust, follows science communicator, Sophie Pavelle, on a journey of discovery, as she visits sites around Britain where beavers have been reintroduced. Meeting the extraordinary people behind their story so far, this film explores what a future might look like with beavers living wild in our landscapes and rivers across Britain.
Devon Wildlife Trust films
Devon Wildlife Trusts YouTube Channel has footage of the River Otter’s beavers and short films from the Beaver Trial, including this one: