Beaver colony granted right to stay in Devon

The Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs has legally sanctioned a beaver colony to remain on the River Otter in east Devon, after the success of its five-year reintroduction trial. The colony are the first wild beavers to live in the English countryside for four centuries.

Emma Love

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) granted permission today (6 August) for an established beaver colony to remain on the River Otter in east Devon following the successful completion of a five-year reintroduction trial.

Beavers were driven to extinction in the UK more than four centuries ago as they were hunted for their meat, fur and castoreum – a highly prized secretion used in medicine and perfumes.

In 2013, a family of beavers was found living on the River Otter, which was believed to be the first sighting of its kind in the English countryside for 500 years. After threats of removal, the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) and community groups traced the beavers’ origins back to Europe, gaining a license for a five-year reintroduction trial.

The trial, entitled the River Otter Beaver Trial, proved to be a success, helping landowners and the local community understand the environmental benefits of beavers. Dam-building can reduce pollution and boost local wildlife populations, and can be particularly useful within the context of climate change – damming slows the speed of floods downhill when there is too much rainfall, and can help provide water storage that prevents rivers running dry during droughts, two functions which will be increasingly helpful as flooding and drought periods are set to become more likely due to global heating.

Beaver Project Lead at Devon Wildlife Trust, Mark Elliott, said: “Our rivers and wetlands really need beavers, and this is brilliant news. 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. 

“Naturally functioning rivers support healthy fish populations and also protect us from the extremes of weather that can bring so much misery to communities that live in floodplains, and to those suffering from acute water shortages in summer.

“Whilst this announcement by Defra is very welcome, it’s now vital that decisions are made on the national status of beavers that allows them to be reintroduced into other river systems in England. 

“There also needs to be funding to support landowners who wish to allow beavers to restore wetlands on their land, and to assist landowners who do not wish beavers to affect their farming practices. This is vital if we are to see beavers welcomed back into the English landscape after such a long absence.”

In February, Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack called for the reintroduction of beavers as a native species across England and Wales, after the animal was thought to have played a major role in preventing flooding in Yorkshire during Storm Dennis. 

The Green Party set up a petition calling on Defra to reintroduce the animal more widely.