It’s a mystery how they got there, but beavers living on the River Otter have won the legal right to stay – a move heralded as “groundbreaking” by campaigners
They have been squatting on the River Otter for seven years, their status insecure. Now 15 families of beavers have been granted the legal right to remain on the Devon waterway, after a five-year study revealed that the reintroduced animals had made a positive contribution to fish populations and the local environment.
Prized for their pelts and meat, beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK some 400 years ago, only to mysteriously reappear on the River Otter in 2013. Animal activists are thought to have released the mammals, but nobody is certain.
Despite initial opposition from some farmers, the beavers were granted a temporary right to stay on the River Otter and formed part of a study led by Devon Wildlife Trust and overseen by the University of Exeter. That study concluded this year and found that the mammals had boosted biodiversity, reduced the risk of flooding and improved water quality.
Presented with evidence of their efficacy, the government has now granted the beavers the permanent right to remain, a move that paves the way for them to colonise other parts of the river.
It is the first time an extinct native mammal has been given the government’s go-head to be reintroduced to England. Devon Wildlife Trust described the move as the “the most groundbreaking government decision for England’s wildlife for a generation.”
“Our rivers and wetlands really need beavers, and this is brilliant news,” said Mark Elliott, who led the trust’s beaver study. “Those of us involved with the trial have seen just how critical beavers are for restoring more naturally functioning rivers, which will be so important during the ecological and climate emergency that we now face.”
While the River Otter beavers now have settled status, it’s unsure what will happen to other wild populations living in other parts of England, including on the River Wye and River Tamer. In Scotland the reintroduced mammals are a protected species, but have been culled under licence to control the population.
Our rivers and wetlands really need beavers, and this is brilliant news
The return of the beaver is contentious. Some farmers oppose the animal’s reintroduction on the grounds that their dams could flood pastures. The Angling Trust, meanwhile, has expressed concern that the animal’s geoengineering could impact migratory fish species and said it would have liked to have seen further research done before a decision was reached.
Professor Richard Brazier, who led the University of Exeter research team, claimed the River Otter beaver study showed an overall positive impact on the waterway.
“The outcomes of our five-year study demonstrate the wide range of positive benefits that beavers can bring,” he said. “These include flood attenuation, water quality improvement, carbon storage, greater biodiversity and socio-economic benefits to local businesses through wildlife tourism.”
Main image: Svetozar Cenisev