Beavers win ‘right to remain’ in Devon habitat

The government has given beaver families the “right to remain” in their East Devon river home.

The decision, which was announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been hailed as a “landmark”, as it signals the first legally sanctioned reintroduction of an extinct native mammal to England.

The beaver families, England’s first wild breeding population of the animals for 400 years, live on the River Otter and is estimated there is up to 15 family groups who now have a secure future.

The announcement comes after the successful completion earlier this year of a five-year trial overseeing the animals and their impacts led by the charity Devon Wildlife Trust. 

In February, the project published a ‘Science and Evidence Report’ overseen by independent researchers from the University of Exeter, which concluded that the beavers’ presence had brought benefits to people and wildlife living along East Devon’s River Otter.

The report found that other wildlife such as fish, insects and water volves benefitted from the presence of the beavers.

It also found that their dam building activities helped to reduce the risk of flooding to human settlements and that beavers’ dams could act as “filters” which trap soil and other pollutants.

Peter Burgess, Director of Conservation at Devon Wildlife Trust said the decision was the “most ground-breaking” government decision for England’s wildlife “for a generation”.

Beavers benefit the wildlife around them and their dam building reduces the risk of flooding to human settlements. (Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust)

“Beavers are nature’s engineers and have the unrivalled ability to breathe new life into our rivers and wetlands. Their benefits will be felt throughout our countryside, by wildlife and people,” he said.

“At Devon Wildlife Trust we’ve worked hard with our partners and local communities along the River Otter over the past five years to see what impact beavers have had. In that time their population has grown steadily so that they have successfully colonised nearly all of the river’s catchment.

“As their numbers have grown so has local people’s awareness and appreciation of them. We’re delighted that these beavers have now been given leave to stay permanently.”

The report highlighted some localised problems for a small number of landowners where beavers were present, but that these had been “successfully managed” with support and intervention from Devon Wildlife Trust.

Beavers were driven to extinction in the UK more than four centuries ago as they were hunted for their meat, fur and castoreum – a highly prized secretion used in medicine and perfumes.

In 2013, a family of the semi-aquatic rodents – which can grow to more than 20kg and live on an exclusively vegetarian diet (they do not eat fish) – were found to be living on the River Otter in East Devon.

The population’s origins are still unclear and at first they were threatened with removal by officials.

Mark Elliott, who works for Devon Wildlife Trust, has led the charity’s beaver work since its beginnings in 2010.

He said the rivers “need” beavers that the beavers are “critical” to restoring naturally functioning rivers which will play a part in tackling the climate emergency.

A family of beavers was spotted on the river in 2013. (Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust)

“Naturally functioning rivers support healthy fish populations and also protect us from the extremes of weather that can bring so much misery to communities that live in floodplains, and to those suffering from acute water shortages in summer,” he said.

Mr Elliot also called on decisions to be made for the status of beavers which will allow them to be reintroduced in “other river systems” in England.

“There also needs to be funding to support landowners who wish to allow beavers to restore wetlands on their land, and to assist landowners who do not wish beavers to affect their farming practices. This is vital if we are to see beavers welcomed back into the English landscape after such a long absence,” he added.

In 2014, with local community support, Devon Wildlife Trust and a partnership including the University of Exeter, Clinton Devon Estates and the Derek Gow Consultancy, successfully secured  a license from government which would allow the beavers to stay and be studied over a five-year period.

This license established the River Otter Beaver Trial which ran until August  2020 and the new decision that the beavers can remain permanently in their Devon home is based on evidence submitted by the Trial.

Professor Richard Brazier, who led the University of Exeter research team which has studied the impacts of the Devon beavers said the five year study highlighted “a wide range of positives” and that “the overwhelming majority of society” would like to see beavers rehomed in English waterways.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts called the news a “testament” to the hard work of Devon Wildlife Trust and stressed that just talking about conserving wildlife is “not enough”.

“It’s not enough to talk about conserving wildlife anymore – instead, we need to reverse these declines and put nature into recovery, and help create robust, flourishing, fully functioning ecosystems at landscape scale once again. Beavers will play an important role in this,” he said.

“Now we need to see the Government produce a national beaver strategy which will provide a roadmap for their future across the rest of the country.

“Bringing beavers back where they belong is part of a bigger story. The Wildlife Trusts aim to put at least 30% of our land and sea aside for nature’s recovery by 2030 – creating more space for nature, and protecting and connecting those areas to bring our wildlife back.”

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