A victory of science and conservation ensures that several families of beavers will be allowed to live in southwest England. It’s the first time an extinct native mammal has been given the official right to remain in England.
The European beaver was once common across much of Europe and western Asia. However, they were hunted to near-extinction, and at the turn of the 20th century, there were only around 1,200 beavers surviving in relic populations.
In England, beavers had been extinct since the 16th century — until 2013. In 2013, a surprising video showed a family of beavers on the aptly-named Otter River, in Devon, England. It’s not clear how the beavers got there in the first place, and authorities were planning on having them removed.
The Devon Wildlife Trust, the local branch of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, stepped in to help the beavers. Along with the University of Exeter, Clinton Devon Estates, and the Derek Gow Consultancy, they were granted a five-year delay to study the beavers and their effect on the wildlife.
Beavers feel safer in deeper water, so they have mastered the art of building dams and pools. They also build complex homes with underwater entrances, that keep them safe. These behaviors have the ability to reshape the entire ecosystem to their liking — but their liking can be helpful for the environment. In the five years in which researchers studied the effects that the beavers had on the local environment, they concluded that “the positive impacts of beavers outweighed the negatives”.
The benefits that the beavers provided helped not only the natural ecosystem but also the local human settlements. They boosted biodiversity by creating new, wild wetlands, and the structures the beavers built also helped filter pollutants from water. Their dams worked as a natural defense against flooding, and the water became cleaner and clearer. Overall, the local ecology was replenished and supported. Professor Richard Brazier, from the University of Exeter, also notes that the activities of beavers help to lock up carbon and are also encouraging “wildlife tourism,” as people wanting to spot then inject revenue into the local economy.
In light of these findings, the English government has granted the beavers a ‘legal right to remain’ in the area.
The decision was hailed as a landmark precedent, with envronment minister Rebecca Pow saying that the project is “informing how we think in the future” and that the beavers can be a “natural management tool”. There are now at least 50 beavers at the site in Devon, and there is evidence that beavers are also active in other parts of the country — and it’s not clear what will happen to these populations.
The situation in England seems to mirror that in Scotland, where beavers were reintroduced a decade ago and seem to be doing well.
However, not everyone is convinced. The Angling Trust, a representative body for all anglers in England and Wales, expressed disappointment at the protection that beavers were offered instead of other protected migratory fish species — although researchers note that the beaver activity has actually increased fish biomass. However, despite this decision, the British beaver battle is only just beginning.
In Scotland, farmers have also raised concerns about the dams flooding valuable agricultural land, and the Scottish government has authorized the cull of 87 beavers, out of a population of 450 individuals (although beavers are a protected species under European law).
Those involved in the Devon beaver trial emphasize that any wider reintroduction requires careful management. However, if things are done right, the benefits strongly outweigh any such costs.
After centuries of near-extinction, European beavers may finally get a breather.