Petition signed by 8,000 people against Defra scheme to trap and rehome creatures spotted near river Otter in Devon.
Mike Flynn was fly-fishing for brown trout when an unexpected creature hove into view. “We often see otters here – they are lithe, playful things – but this was quite different,” said Flynn. “It chugged down the middle of the river a couple of rod-lengths away from me like a tug boat. There was no doubt it was one of the beavers. It took no notice of me; it was an amazing sight.”
If the government gets its way, the presence of these beavers in a corner of Devon – the first to be sighted in England for 500 years – will be a short-lived affair. This month, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it planned to trap the colony and transfer them to a zoo or wildlife park, arguing they are an invasive non-native species and could carry disease.
The move has caused consternation. Almost 8,000 people have signed a petition against Defra trapping the beavers and animal rights campaigners are patrolling the banks of the river Otter, ready to raise the alarm if the hunters move in. There are whispers that hunt saboteurs are preparing to disrupt any moves to trap the beavers.
“I’m absolutely horrified that the government is going to destroy our wild beavers and is already making gruesome preparations for this,” said Tom Buckley, a retired environmental scientist.
Buckley thinks government scientists may already be in the area. He saw a “sheepish-looking” man with a rucksack near the beavers’ home and is keeping a watchful eye on a helicopter that has been buzzing up and down the river. More cheerfully, he also glimpsed two beavers grooming each other a few days ago – so he knows they are all right, at least for the moment.
There have been rumours of wild beavers on the river Otter for the best part of a decade, but earlier this year Buckley found proof when he took video images of the creatures, confirming that after being hunted to extinction 500 years ago, they were back.
Word got out of Buckley’s film and beaver tourists have arrived in nearby Ottery St Mary, but so too have Defra officials.
Buckley said there was no proof the beavers were doing harm. “The government is going to take us back over 500 years to exterminate beavers from their natural wild habitat, taking away the immense enjoyment these beavers bring to so many people,” he said. “Why not give these beavers a chance to demonstrate how they can exist in harmony with us?”
His stance seems to chime with most local people. District councillor Claire Wright said there was no logic in removing them. Like many, she disagrees with the government’s definition of them as invasive. “They are a native species. The obvious way forward is to monitor them carefully and see what impact they have,” she said.
Derek Gow, a Devon farmer and one of the UK’s leading experts on beavers, said the animals were brilliant managers of the river bank. By coppicing trees, for example, they let in more light, which allows other species to thrive. The woody debris they create provides sustenance for young fish and their dams can alleviate the risk of flooding by slowing water down naturally.
In Scotland a government trial to reintroduce beavers was heralded an “outstanding success” by the team of ecologists who brought them back. The results will be presented to Holyrood, which will make a decision on the future of beavers in Scotland next year.
Gow said there were problems with trapping the English beavers. For a start, it is hard to be sure how many are in the river. Three were seen on Buckley’s film, but there may be more. “How can they be sure they will capture them all?” asked Gow.
The river level in the Otter changes quickly and a beaver caught in a trap could drown if the water rose quickly. Gow said young beavers relied on their parents for food and warmth. Trap the adults and the young could be left to die slow, painful deaths.
The government does not understand the natural world, Gow said. “These decisions are made in meeting rooms and clubs, not out here in the country.” The joke going round is that the Tory/Lib Dem coalition is targeting every animal beginning with “B” – badgers, buzzards [the government was slated in 2012 after proposing to look for ways of stopping the birds of prey gobbling up pheasants] and now beavers have all come within its sights. “But it’s really not very funny, it’s sad. Beavers are 40m years old, they have a deep and profound relationship with the river and its banks. They must be left.”
Defra said it was deciding on the best way to recapture and rehome the animals. A spokesman said decisions would be made “with the welfare of the beavers in mind”. He said beavers could be carrying a disease not currently present in the UK and had not been an established part of our wildlife for 500 years. “Our landscape and habitats have changed since then,” he said.
The Angling Trust agrees, arguing that rivers have changed since beavers were common and any reintroduction would harm migrating fish runs. The trust claims “too many people” want to see lost mammals reintroduced, but they would be coming back into an altered world and could do huge damage.
Where the Otter beavers come from remains a mystery. There are captive beavers in Devon, but nobody is admitting to have lost any and, certainly, nobody is confessing to having deliberately re-introduced them. Dairy farmer Dave Lawrence took the Guardian to the spot where the beavers are usually seen, close to an island in the river thick with nettles, willow and thistles. Kingfishers flashed by, bright white egrets pottered around but there was no sign of the beavers.
Back at his kitchen table, Lawrence said farmers were “the first to moan if there’s something out there that could cause harm”. “The beavers are living there happily, they’re not a problem.They should be left alone.” His daughter Phoebe, ,(aged two and three quarters), who was eating her tea, put down her knife and fork and began to chant: “Save our beavers.”
On Wednesday it was reported that a beaver on the river had given birth to three young.
Related post: Take Action, Save the Devon Beavers: https://catdraggedin.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/take-action-save-the-devon-beavers/
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