We are delighted to say that our beaver’s have been given the all clear and are here to stay on the River Otter. Here is a fantastic report from Devon Wildlife Trust, posted last night, Wednesday 25th March 2015. It makes great reading…
On Monday 23 March 2015 something magical happened on a quiet part of the river Otter in East Devon, writes Harry Barton. We got the distinct impression that they were returning to home territory, it was as if they had never left.
In the gathering gloom, three substantial cages were lifted from the back of a large off road vehicle and carried with considerable effort to the water’s edge. Their precious cargo? An animal that was once widespread in the UK but which was hunted to extinction 300 years ago. Then, at an agreed moment, the front flaps of the cages were removed and with an affirmative splash that marked a milestone in conservation history, the beavers were back.
For those of us lucky enough to witness this event it was hard not to be emotional. For one thing, few of us get to see such a large and charismatic beast in the flesh and so close at hand. Then there were all the years of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into arguing the case, providing the science and winning people round; the weeks of long nights and working over weekends, thinking through every scenario, every little thing that could possibly go wrong and answering all the questions posed by doubters. And then. of course. the build-up of months’ worth of stress and worry – worry that the licence might not have been granted; that the animals wouldn’t be caught; that they would test positive for disease; that they would have failed to thrive while in captivity.
As the three beavers swam into the oxbow lake that recently formed as the river Otter dramatically changed its course after a flood last year, we didn’t just experience an overwhelming release of all that accumulated stress. We got the distinct impression that they were returning to home territory. it was as if they had never left.
Am I over-dramatising this? These beavers were, after all, living here quietly and unobtrusively for some years before we all got involved. Why the fuss, and why in heaven’s name remove them from the river in the first place? The simple answer is the threat of disease. Echinococcus is only one of the infectious diseases that the animals could at least in theory have been carrying, and testing for these was a crucial element of managing risk and winning trust.
The animals have received a clean bill of health, of course, as we expected. But the real reasons go deeper. There was a time when species were introduced liberally – one only has to think of all the garden plants that have escaped into the wild with unintended consequences and mammals whose presence we now take for granted like the grey squirrel. But we are now much more cautious and inclined to focus on the possible threats than the likely benefits. A small, isolated population of a controversial animal without protection and with no legal right to be there would be doomed to failure, even if the authorities hadn’t decided to take a tough line. Moreover, without a licence and a monitoring plan, we would have been no further forward in persuading landowners, politicians and others that beavers and people can live side by side, that they should be tolerated and that subsequent releases elsewhere should be considered.
They open up areas to light and diversify the structure of the vegetation and landforms around rivers. Beavers are not like most of the others animals we write about and try to conserve. They are a keystone species, shaping the environment in which they live. They create dams, ponds and channels. They coppice trees and build lodges. They open up areas to light and diversify the structure of the vegetation and landforms around rivers.
And this is where much of the controversy lies. We’ve grown used to river environments that we carefully manage, and we have replaced many of the management techniques that beavers use with our own, somewhat blunter approach. So we hear claims that beavers will harm other species, that they will damage fish stocks, that they will contribute to flooding.
I don’t believe the science supports any of these claims. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the exact opposite – beavers help fish, reduce flood and create space for a greater diversity of wildlife. This is certainly the experience in beaver enclosures, including the one that Devon Wildlife Trust operates in North Devon. But most of this research is based on the continent, and in the USA, so we need to know a lot more about what these animals do, the benefits they can bring and how to deal with any problems that arise.
And just as important as research is keeping everyone informed and on-side. Beautiful and lush though it is, the river Otter valley is intensively farmed and reasonably densely populated, so if we can be sure of anything it is that beavers and people will come into contact from time to time. As has been proved the world over, a successful wildlife conservation project is one that has the support of local people and landowners.
Good fortune as well as hard work has almost certainly played a role in the story of the beavers and the river Otter.
And so to the next stage of this landmark project. We have five years to prove that beavers and people can live successfully side by side in East Devon. We have the licence, the healthy animals, the supporters, the plans and strategies. But we need the funds. The appeal we held earlier this year raised an impressive £50,000, and this money has enabled us to get to where we are today. We now need to raise ten times this figure to fund the work over the coming five years. Some people have remarked that half a million pounds sounds like a lot of money. True. But then we are talking about the return of a keystone species to its former habitat. This is big.
Last week many of us witnessed a near total solar eclipse. Just as fascinating as the visual spectacle – at least as far as I was concerned – is the amazing science behind this, and our knowledge of these immense and varied cosmological cycles which ‘miraculously’ come together at certain times to give us these moments of celestial wonder. I was reflecting on this as I watched the beavers, and it struck me how everything had come together in just the right way at exactly the right time: the committed local enthusiasts who spotted the animals; the organisations willing to take a risk; the warm reception from the people of Ottery St Mary; the landowners prepared to stand out and welcome a reintroduction instead of reviewing it with suspicion; the list goes on.
Good fortune as well as hard work has almost certainly played a role in the story of the beavers and the river Otter. But whether this is all down to sweat, providence or destiny, one thing is clear. The beavers are back.
Harry Barton is chief executive of Devon Wildlife Trust
Photography by Mike Symes/Devon Wildlife Trust