A five-year study into the reintroduction of beavers on the River Otter in Devon has been a “brilliant success”, ecologists have said and the government will now consult on further releases after the species was shown to increase biodiversity and reduce flood risks.
The trial has shown how rapidly beavers can bring a “wealth of benefits” to the areas they inhabit, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said.
These include creating new wetland habitat, improving water quality, reducing flood risks and boosting populations of fish, amphibians and water voles.
The Eurasian beavers first appeared on the River Otter in around 2008, following either an unlicensed or accidental release.
When evidence emerged the beavers had given birth to kits in 2014, the government planned to have them removed from the river.
However, the Devon Wildlife Trust opposed the removal and suggested the five-year study to monitor their effect on the environment.
Two family groups of beavers were identified and have now bred and dispersed through the river system, building 28 dams.
As a result of the study, the government has now confirmed the animals will be allowed to remain permanently, and said they are expected to naturally expand their range into new areas.
Devon Wildlife Trust’s director of conservation Peter Burgess said Defra’s support represented “the most ground-breaking government decision for England’s wildlife for a generation”.
During a visit to the project, environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “The River Otter beavers reintroduction trial has proven highly successful — improving biodiversity and water quality, mitigating flooding and making the local landscape more resilient to climate change.
“We are firmly committed to providing opportunities to reintroduce formerly native species, such as beavers, where the benefits for the environment, people and the economy are clear. But we also understand that there are implications for landowners, and take care to ensure that all potential impacts are carefully considered, and today we can confirm a new government consultation on our national approach and management will open later this year.”
The official end date of the five-year trial run by the Devon Wildlife Trust and licensed by Natural England is 31 August 2020.
Later this year, the government will consult on a strategy for the management of beavers in the wild and a “national approach for any further releases”.
Until the formal consultation has finished, Natural England will not be licensing any further releases of beavers into the wild, the government said.
But Natural England said it is seeking to discuss the “next stages” of beaver management in the UK.
Natural England chair Tony Juniper said: “The River Otter trail has been a brilliant success, thanks to the professionalism and dedication of the team at Devon Wildlife Trust and Natural England scientists who have worked with them.
“This work, carried out under a licence issued by Natural England, has confirmed the positive transformations that these animals can create, including the benefits they provide for many other species, such as fish, improving water quality and smoothing flood peaks.”
He added: “Reintroductions of iconic species like the beaver will be an important part of the Nature Recovery Network. We now look forward to working towards the next stages of management of beaver more widely across England.”
Devon Wildlife Trust’s Peter Burgess said beavers “have the unrivalled ability to breathe new life into our rivers”.
“At Devon Wildlife Trust we’ve worked hard with our partners and local communities along the River Otter over the past five years to see what impact beavers have had,” he said.
“In that time, their population has grown steadily so that they have successfully colonised nearly all of the river’s catchment.
“As their numbers have grown, so has local people’s awareness and appreciation of them. We’re delighted that these beavers have now been given leave to stay permanently.”
The government said it “is committed to providing opportunities for the reintroduction of formerly native species, such as beavers, where there are clear benefits, as part of wider efforts to leave the environment in a better state for generations to come”.
Defra highlighted the extent to which beavers’ dam-building creates more storage for water.
At the Clyst William Cross County Wildlife Site, west of Honiton in Devon, there is now 6,880 square metres of standing surface water on the floodplain up from 1,400 square metres before the beavers were introduced.
The government said this has helped the site move from a red alert status indicating “declining environmental condition” to amber, meaning the environment is now recovering.
Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK by the beginning of the 16th century due to demand for their meat, fur and scent glands.
But numerous reintroductions are now underway, including in Scotland, the Forest of Dean, North Yorkshire, Devon, Somerset and Essex. More reintroductions are due this year, including in Norfolk, West Sussex and Dorset.
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