Beavers to gain legal protection as native species

Until now the river Otter is the only place in England where the Government has allowed the release of “wild” beavers. In all the other 17 licensed sites, beavers are supposed to live behind fences. Welcome back to the wild – Owl

Ben Webster

Beavers will return to rivers across England under government plans to be announced this week to grant licences allowing them to be released into the wild.

They will also gain legal protection as a native species in England, meaning that it will be an offence to capture, kill, disturb or injure them or damage breeding sites or resting places without a licence from Natural England.

However, if they do cause significant damage landowners may be allowed to apply for a licence to kill them as a last resort after attempts have been made to trap and relocate them or prevent their dams from flooding fields.

At present landowners can apply for a licence to keep beavers in enclosures and there are about 17 sites in England where they live behind fences.

The only place where the government has permitted wild beavers in England is on the River Otter in Devon, where a family who may have been released illegally were allowed to remain last year.

Research on the River Otter beavers found that they improved water quality, reduced flood risk downstream and benefited other wildlife such as otters and kingfishers.

But the decision to allow more to be released into the wild will dismay many anglers and farmers who argue that beaver dams prevent salmon and trout from migrating upriver to spawn and destroy riverside trees.

A public consultation due to be launched this week will set out the criteria for allowing what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will describe as “the cautious release of more beavers into the wild”.

Ben Goldsmith, a multi-millionaire financier and non-executive board member of Defra, said that he expected many wildlife charities, water companies and other landowners to apply for licences to release wild beavers.

He said that there might be problems finding enough beavers to meet demand. Some will come from Scotland, which has about 1,000; 87 were killed there under licence in 2019.

Goldsmith said that beavers could be imported from many parts of Europe, including Bavaria, Norway and the Netherlands.

The Caen, a river in Braunton in North Devon, could be one of the first new places where beavers are released into the wild.

James Wallace, chief executive of the Beaver Trust, said that about 50 farmers in the area had said that they would “tolerate beavers on the basis they might help with the considerable flooding issues they face, having had little success with human-made engineering in the past”.

Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, said: “Restoring the health of England’s natural environment will in part be achieved through the recovery of animals and plants that have become very rare, or which in some cases have disappeared completely.

“The beaver is one such species, and following the successful trial introduction on the River Otter in Devon we can see the benefits these fascinating creatures can bring, including the creation of wetland habitats for other wildlife, cleaning up the quality of water and helping to smooth out flood peaks.

“The launch of Defra’s consultation marks an important moment for the future of these animals across England.”