Beavers back from the brink

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An animal that has been extinct in England for almost 1,000 years has today been released at a wildlife reserve as part of a reintroduction programme.

Six European beavers were released at an enclosed site at the Cotswold's Water Park in Gloucester.

This is the second attempt to reintroduce the species to England after a previous attempt in 2001 in Kent ran into difficulties with the animals failing to breed.

The beavers from Bavaria were kept in quarantine in Devon for six months before their release today.

The release is seen as the first step in a programme to reintroduce the European beaver into wetlands across the area.

The beavers' 15-hectare enclosure on the Lower Mill Estate is protected by electric fences and monitored by closed-circuit TV.

The beavers will be split into two families of two females and one male and they will be free to roam in a lake and woodland environment.

If the beavers breed successfully, it is hoped their enclosure can be significantly widened to cover a larger area in the estate.

The European beaver was once native to Britain but was hunted almost to extinction in England in the 12th century before eventually dying out in its stronghold in Scotland in the 16th century.

Dr Simon Pickering of the Cotswold Water Park Society was coordinating today's release.

He said: "I hope I live to see the day that beavers are freely roaming across the countryside once again. I really hope that this programme can be successful."

The beavers were vital in wetland areas as they helped to maintain the environment by clearing trees from lake edges, he added.

He added: "Beavers are a key wetland species, they manage the environment brilliantly. At this site they will eat mainly willow trees.

"They are essentially very lazy animals and will spend much of their time lying about sleeping and eating.

"The European beaver is much more gentle than the Canadian beaver and causing damage will not be an issue with them. Unlike their Canadian cousins, they don't tend to build as many dams."

The beavers were released into two purpose-built straw lodges with an access shoot to the lake which will become their home.

The animals, which are nocturnal, will quickly leave these lodges and set up permanent homes.

Some 10 beavers were released at the site in Kent by the Kent Wildlife Trust in 2001.

But many died and the remaining beavers are now considered too old to breed.

Dr Pickering said the beavers had no natural predators in England and the main problems they would face would be not settling into their environment and struggling if this year's winter was unusually cold.

The beavers cannot be released into the wild until the scheme is deemed a success and the projects can then gain a licence.

The Cotswold Water Park is made up of lakes, wetland and woodland, covers 40 square miles and is an important wetland site for animals, plants and birds.

Jeremy Paxton, owner of the Lower Mill Estate, which boast seven lakes and two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, said he was delighted the beavers were being reintroduced on his land.

He said: "We now just need to leave them alone and let them get on with a bit of breeding.

"Beavers are an environmental architect and they improve the diversity of the places where they live.

"They have been away from England for far too long. They are one of our indigenous species.

"It feels very good to have them back."