Beavers in Britain? They’re back, after more than a century

European beaver Photo by PhotocechCZ/Shutterstock

Update: On August 6, the U.K.’s Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs announced that the beavers reintroduced in the River Otter Beaver Trial will be allowed to stay permanently.

Soon, it may not be unusual to see beavers in Britain.

It’s always a bit nerve-wracking when new neighbours move in. Will they throw nightly parties until 3 a.m.? Do they have a burgeoning hobby playing the saxophone? What about felling trees and building ponds at unpredictable hours? Residents of England are now learning to live alongside a new type of neighbour: the European beaver (Castor fiber).

Previously eradicated in the U.K., European beavers are now returning to English rivers and ponds through a trial reintroduction program. The findings from these trials will help the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs assess whether to provide legal protection for the animal by officially recognizing the European beaver as a native species in England.

The European beaver is similar in appearance to the North American beaver (Castor canadensis) that roams the wilds of Canada, but they are a genetically unique species, and the two species cannot interbreed. A 2009 report on the feasibility of reintroducing European beavers by Natural England, the government’s advisor for the natural environment, states that beavers were once common throughout Europe but experienced severe declines because of hunting and habitat loss. They had completely disappeared from the U.K. and many other areas by 1900.

If beavers have been missing from England for more than a century, why bring them back now? The report acknowledges that beavers are a “keystone species” and have a positive effect on biodiversity by creating wetland habitats for amphibians, birds, and fish. Beaver dams and ponds can also help people by regulating river flows to reduce flooding and improve water quality. And in the end, you can’t forget that the European beaver was once a natural part of the English landscape, and its disappearance is entirely the result of human disturbance.

One of the obstacles in reintroducing European beavers in Britain is that the English landscape that existed prior to 1900 is gone. Alan Puttock, a research fellow in geography at the University of Exeter, is assessing the environmental impacts of the reintroduction. Puttock says that the beavers are being reintroduced to a very heavily managed and densely populated landscape. The trials will help determine whether beavers can “thrive in a modern English landscape.” That includes tracking how the new furry neighbours are received and assessing any possible conflicts that could arise between people and beavers if the animals divert waterways and feed extensively on trees.

But some English landowners are welcoming the return of beavers with open arms. The Guardian reports that there is currently a waiting list for beaver licences issued by Natural England. The licences allow landowners to release beavers in large fenced-in trial enclosures on their properties.

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In southeast Devon, a five-year project called the River Otter Beaver Trial, led by Devon Wildlife Trust in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Derek Gow Consultancy, and Clinton Devon Estates, was initiated following the discovery of two wild beaver families in 2015. Puttock says that the project works closely with landowners in the region to manage any conflicts between beavers and their human neighbours. The River Otter Beaver Trial Science and Evidence Report shows promising results: in 2019, there were 13 beaver territories in the River Otter Beaver Trial, showing that the environment is capable of supporting a wild population of beavers in Britain.

Researchers still don’t know whether wild beavers will be able to call England home permanently. The project has been given a six-month extension to allow the British government to make a decision regarding their future, says Puttock.

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