After an Absence of 400 Years, the Beaver is Back in the UK

The long-lost Eurasian beaver is a natural “engineer”, bringing new life to a river in Britain.

Jun 9, 2020

(cristi 180884 / Shutterstock.com)

The River Otter flows through Devon, a quiet, pastoral region of England. Cattle and sheep graze beside the river and egrets perch on its banks. Yet one rodent is bringing sudden fame to this sleepy part of England; the Eurasian beaver now floats in the water, having made a mysterious comeback after 400 years.

This species of beaver, known as castor fiber, has been extinct in England for centuries. Once hunted for its fur, meat and scent glands, it simply disappeared. Yet in 2013, a beaver was spotted in the river. Two breeding pairs were found and tracked and today, there are eight pairs busily constructing dams, doing what beavers do best.

No one is sure how the beavers made their comeback. Some say they escaped from captivity, while other claim they were set loose by “beaver bombers,”, a kind of wildlife vigilante.  

These furry rodents are creating quite a stir; a few local farmers and sports fishermen consider them a nuisance, while ecologists excitedly document the beavers’ contribution to the ecosystem. The River Otter Beaver Trial (ROBT), recently published by the University of Exeter, studied these beavers from 2015 until 2020. The report concludes that beavers have positive effects on the environment, wildlife and people.

Beaver dams are a complex feat of ecosystem engineering. They house double the amount of aquatic species than regular wetlands, creating a complex web of pools for fish and amphibians to safely spawn as well as a habitat for dragonflies, water voles and otters. Given that three-quarters of the ponds in England have disappeared and that ponds are home to one-third of aquatic species, beavers are crucial for preserving the ecosystem.  Today, there are 37 percent more fish living in those pools created by beaver dams than elsewhere in the river reports The Guardian.

The dams also filter out chemical pollutants and manure from the river water. One study from Bavaria found that dam building from one single beaver can help absorb 28 kilograms of soluble nitrates that seep into the water from agricultural fertilizers.

The busy beaver even has a hand in tackling climate change by protecting local villages from flooding. One beaver family constructed six dams just upstream from the town of East Budleigh, slowing down flood waters and saving the town from flooding.

Beavers are also capturing the hearts of the British who now gather along the River Otter to “beaver watch.” There are two walking paths along the river where ecotourism visitors can observe the beaver lodge and in season, watch the beavers at work. Local towns are also enjoying the spotlight, planning beaver-inspired events.

Ecologists and nature lovers are rallying for the beavers while the government decides on the fate of these rodents. Farmers complain of gnawed trees in orchards, beavers snacking on maize, collapsed river banks and flooded fields. The ecologists, on the other hand, are happy to placate farmers by installing “beaver deceivers,” small underwater pipes that allow water to flow without the beavers even knowing. 

One proposal is to place beavers in a caged area. Mark Elliott, from the Devon Wildlife Trust, reacted negatively to this plan. “We’re not zookeepers, we’re conservationists and it’s a native species to Britain so we shouldn’t be having to keep them in with fences in the long-term,” he said. The ideal plan would be to slowly reintroduce beaver pairs to select areas of the river and its tributaries.

As the beavers build, the river water is purified, aquatic species diversify and birds return to nest. Meanwhile, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is deciding on the fate of the Eurasian beaver. The government is slated to provide an answer to the beaver issue in September and if all goes well, the eminent beaver will gain recognition as a native species to England and can freely float down the River Otter.

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NICOLE NATHAN BEM, CONTRIBUTOR
Nicole is an editor, blogger and author who has recently left her urban life in order to be more connected with nature. In her spare time, she’s outdoors hiking in the forest, mountain biking or tending to her new permaculture garden.