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BEK5KW Eurasian beaver / European beaver (Castor fiber) feeding on leaves in pond, Poland

A European beaver feeds on leaves in a Polish pond.

Photograph by Arterra Picture Library/Alamy

Christopher Werth

for National Geographic

Published August 4, 2014

Tom Buckley was overjoyed. Earlier this year the retired environmental scientist proudly documented the first family of beavers living wild in England since the species was hunted to near extinction in Britain several hundred years ago—a discovery that came almost by accident.

He first noticed a few tree stumps gnawed to pencil-like points on the River Otter, a shallow watercourse near his home in the town of Ottery St. Mary. The find prompted him to place a night-vision camera on the riverbank that soon produced a grainy, black-and-white video of three beavers happily frolicking in the water. "It was marvelous to see," said Buckley, whose images made international headlines.

But if it sounds curious that beavers should suddenly reappear on an island like Britain after a centuries-long absence (in a river and in a town named after otters, no less), the British government certainly isn't pleased. Following those initial news reports, it announced plans to trap and remove the beavers.

While one theory suggests they escaped from a nearby nature reserve, it's far more likely they were released illegally by what's known in the trade as "beaver bombers"—in other words, wildlife vigilantes who operate under the cover of night. And with animals of such questionable origins, Britain's environment department cites the risk of a tapeworm sometimes found in beavers in continental Europe.

That is, assuming they're Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) and not the North American variety (Castor canadensis), a separate species that, like many things American, can grow larger than its European counterparts.

Environmental Change

More important, however, beavers cut down trees, build dams, and flood waterways. Apart from humans, no other species alters its environment more. And in its decision, the British government raises a much broader question about the animal's place and potential impact in modern Britain.

"Beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the past 500 years," said a department spokesman. "Our landscape and habitats have changed since then."

In truth, no one's sure exactly when the beaver went extinct in Britain. The rodent was highly valued for its fur and medicinal glands. The last written record is a bounty paid for a beaver head in Yorkshire in 1789, although the species would have vanished from other regions of the country long before then. What is certain is that the beaver is native to Britain and the River Otter is just the latest front in a contentious, decades-old battle over whether to reintroduce the species, with a cadre of ecologists on one side that touts the beaver's environmental benefits, and farmers, landowners, and fishermen on the other who fear the animal could disrupt a way of life to which the British have grown accustomed.

Picture of the English beaver.
The beaver seen here, at night along the River Otter, is thought to be the only one of its kind living wild in England.
Photograph by Tom Buckley/Rex Features via Associated Press

In Ottery St. Mary, Jenny Hill, a local resident, wiped crumbs from a tablecloth after a church social event. "I think it's awful," she said of the government's intent to capture the beavers. "I really just hope they leave them alone." To rally support, Buckley has plastered shop windows around town with signs that read "Save Our Beavers," urging people to sign a petition.

Instead of killing the animals, the government hopes to find them a new home in captivity. But even then, the decision has infuriated Buckley. "I can't think of anything more horrifying," he said as he gazed out on the River Otter. "I've spent so much time with these beavers, probably more than anyone else."

Since his initial sighting, the 61-year-old has diligently chronicled the beavers. He can identify each one by the markings on its tail, and earlier this summer, he filmed three brand-new, baby kits. If the adult beavers weren't born wild on the river, Buckley asserts, their offspring most definitely were.

On the opposite side of the debate is Mark Owen of Angling Trust, an organization that represents the interests of anglers in England. It has lobbied ministers in London to remove the beavers, concerned their dams will block the migration of salmon and sea trout. "All fish species need to move around the river system in order to properly complete their life cycles," Owen said.

A Country Transformed

Although beaver and fish would have coexisted in Britain for tens of thousands of years, and continue to do so in other countries, he believes the British countryside has been transformed beyond recognition since the last beaver disappeared.

"The majority of our rivers have been impacted by man, either by dredging, straightening, or widening. We also presumably, at that point, had very good and high fish stocks. Now we don't," Owen argued.

"Not enough scrutiny has been given to the effects of beaver reintroduction."

However, most pro-beaver folks will tell you the case in favor of beavers is already well established. Britain lags far behind the rest of Europe, where the beaver's comeback is widely regarded as an environmental success story. Reintroductions on the Continent began in the early 20th century, after the population sank to a mere 1,200 survivors. It now stands well above 300,000.

Map of Eurasian beaver range in Europe. Inset of the United Kingdom showing beaver reintroduction sites (illegal, legal and proposed).
NG STAFF; JOEY FENING. SOURCES: SCOTTISH BEAVER TRIAL; NORWEGIAN INSTITUTE FOR NATURE RESEARCH

Likewise in North America, where the fur trade decimated the species, millions of beavers are now thriving across Canada and the United States. Under European Union law, an onus is placed on member states like Britain to consider reintroducing lost species, but Scotland is the only territory to have made any real strides on behalf of the beaver (the Scottish government makes its own decisions on such matters).

Wildlife conservationists there have just completed a five-year reintroduction trial, and a public poll found 60 percent of Scots support reestablishing the beaver as a native species.

Beavers Easy to Reintroduce

"Beavers are one of the easiest extinct animals to reintroduce," said Derek Gow, an ecologist who operates a farm a short drive from the River Otter. "It's something we should have done a very long time ago."

In conservation circles, Gow is often referred to as "The Beaver Man." And with his large frame and round, bearded face, the man very much resembles the creature. He sees the beaver as an essential keystone species that's vital for creating the kind of complex wetlands that support greater biodiversity and, in response to the Angling Trust, healthier fish stocks.

To demonstrate, Gow has released dozens of beavers into large, open enclosures on his land. We made our way down into a wooded ravine where the animals have been reengineering an ordinary stream into a cascade of small dams and shallow pools filled with amphibian eggs.

"Before we put the beavers in, there were no clumps of amphibian eggs at all," Gow said. "By the time the beavers finish manipulating this site, there will be thousands and thousands. If there are no beavers building dams, then things like amphibians simply can't exist. And of course, these amphibians are, in their own right, a very important prey base for a host of other species."

It's a habitat Gow says Britain has been missing for the past few centuries.

If Adrian Lloyd Jones had his way, beavers would already be hard at work in the Welsh countryside. For nearly a decade the 45-year-old has run the Welsh Beaver Project on a shoestring budget, working to bring the species back to Wales, which like Scotland has its own say on reintroductions. When we met, he was showing off a taxidermied beaver named Hanc to a group of children at a summer funfair on the Afon Rheidol, a small river that winds through a bucolic valley full of sheep and spindly hedgerows.

Jones plans to release beavers nearby and needs as much local support as he can get, so he had made the trip down in a beat-up old van, sleeping in the back next to Hanc to save money. He smiled as the kids prodded the stuffed animal and their parents politely asked questions.

"I haven't had one person against," he said.

Welsh Government Opposition

Elsewhere, though, Jones has run into fierce resistance, including heated town hall meetings, and his experience proves just how fraught species reintroduction can be. The Welsh Beaver Project was supposed to have released its first batch of beavers this summer, but as Jones claims, the Welsh government scuppered those plans.

The minister for natural resources in Wales, John Griffiths, who oversees such decisions, declined a request for an interview. That's perhaps because beavers can be a political minefield in Britain. While polls like the one in Scotland reveal general support for beaver reintroduction, farmers often abhor the idea, and they're an important voting block, particularly in Wales where agriculture remains a key component of the economy.

"Over 90 percent of the farmers and landowners have signed a petition against having any beavers on the river," said Gareth Daniels, a tall, 62-year-old sheep and cattle farmer who owns 190 acres along the Rheidol. His family goes back several generations in the river valley, which saw intense flooding in 2012, and he worries beaver dams would only exacerbate the problem.

Daniels drove his pickup truck across the Rheidol's shallow gravel bed as his cows watched from the riverbank. "I call the beaver a vermin," said the Welshman, using the term applied to a number of species hunted to extinction, or very near it, under England's so-called Vermin Acts of the 16th century. "I'm not really interested in bringing species that have been extinct back. I would rather it not happen."

Dafydd Jarrett of the National Farmers' Union in Wales agrees. While Jones argues that beaver-created wetlands would actually retain water and minimize flooding, Jarrett isn't convinced farmers will have the liberty to remove problematic dams or even kill particularly troublesome beavers.

"The public outcry ... could potentially put any control program at risk," said Jarrett, who fears beavers in Britain could earn European legal protection just as they enjoy in other countries.

He points to places like Bavaria in Germany, where farmers frequently come into conflict with beavers whose underground burrows can erode farmland next to riverbanks.

"Epidemic" Destruction

And in the U.S., growing beaver populations have been known to cause what the U.S. Department of Agriculture called "epidemic" destruction to crops and other property.

In response to such complaints, Jones has moved his proposed reintroduction off the main trunk of the Rheidol, away from farmland. He hopes the Welsh government will finally give him the go-ahead next spring.

On the River Otter, Tom Buckley says he's seen wildlife agents scouting for a place to set their beaver traps, although the environment department declined to confirm this. Rumors abound of other beaver families living up and down the river, and a local wildlife trust is pleading with the government to let the beavers stay so it can study their environmental impact.

George Eustace, the British undersecretary who announced the planned capture, did not respond to an interview request. Yet even if the British government removes the animals, or if Wales never grants permission for a release, many proponents believe beavers will recolonize Britain, whether farmers and anglers like it or not.

"If we don't do an official reintroduction, it'll happen anyway," said Jones as he strapped Hanc into the back of his van with a bungee tie. He points to the Tay in Scotland, currently home to an estimated 200 to 300 beavers living wild on its banks and tributaries.

Beaver advocates claim their numbers have grown out of a handful of escapees from nearby enclosures over a decade ago. But privately, other beaver experts admit a population of that size would have to be the result of illegal releases, and the future of the Tay beavers is uncertain. Scottish ministers are expected to decide next year whether they can stay.

"There's no doubt that beaver bombers are putting pressure on the government," Jones said. "If they don't do it properly, it's going to happen by the back door, and happening by the back door wouldn't be a good thing. It's far better to do it in a planned, coordinated, and organized way."

But he warns many beaver proponents have grown increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of progress. Off the record, some express a willingness to take matters into their own hands. "You can't stop people doing this. I've heard, probably third hand, people say, 'For every one beaver they take, we're going to put ten back,' " said Jones. "There's probably, in truth, enough beavers out there that in 30 years' time, they'll start to appear on lots of rivers."

14 comments
Heidi Perryman
Heidi Perryman

Why would you publish this entire article without mentioning that beaver are reintroduced all along the pacific specifically to restore salmon? Why wouldn't you mention the research from NOAA about the importance of beavers to salmon and steelhead? Who on earth  fed you the rubbish about 'beaver bombers'. That's a ridiculous name and notion and oif there were 'bombers' why wouldn't this story be true all over England?  Had you considered that beavers reintroduce themselves and can go 100's of miles by water (even salt water) and 50 miles over land to find new homes? Did anyone tell you that a beaver expert can see differences between castor fiber and castor candensis on site by the facial structure?


You spent a lot of time in this article publishing rumors, and not enough time on research.


Heidi Perryman, Ph.D.

Worth A Dam

www.martinezbeavers.org


Adrian Jones
Adrian Jones

Just to be clear, Welsh government didn't deliberately scupper the Welsh reintroduction plans. It's just that the wheels of government move slowly, not least when Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is still establishing itself as the new single government environmental body in Wales. Procesess just couldn't move quickly enough for a release in 2014. However, NRW is a partner in the Welsh Beaver Project and we continue to work together. Also, for the record, the Minister, John Griffiths, is supportive of the Welsh Beaver Project and would like to see beavers return to Wales if it can be done without causing significant negative impacts. He was newly in post at the time of this article and I suspect had not been briefed so did not wish to comment. All is looking good for managed reintroduction to Wales in 2015.

Adrian Lloyd Jones

Prosiect Afancod Cymru/Welsh Beaver Project

Roxanne Roxanadanna
Roxanne Roxanadanna

These agents of Vladimir Putin brought Giardia lamblia into Canada, then the US. Now all have to avoid drinking water directly from the river, a pleasure once believed the birthright of all Americans. None cannot blame the UK for disliking these Russian spies.

Brian Edwards
Brian Edwards

Farmers always claim to care about the environment but when push comes to shove...

Judith Brooke
Judith Brooke

In Canada we've lived with Beavers forever.  Yes they can be destructive, but we put chicken wire at the base of young trees (which Beavers love) & remove dams. Sometimes we remove the beavers and let them out elsewhere.  They are beautiful creatures and should be left alone.

Rich ChickenRock
Rich ChickenRock

Humans should preserve nature, not destroy it! And therefore, use her for whatever positive purposes which seem fit!!!

Although modern medical use of castoreum is rare, it was still in the materia medica in the 18th century, used to treat many different ailments, including headache, fever, and hysteria. The Romans believed the fumes produced by burning castoreum could induce an abortion. Paracelsus thought it could be used in the treatment of epilepsy. Castoreum was also used as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antipyretic. Castoreum was described in the 1911 British Pharmaceutical Codex for use in dysmenorrhea and hysterical conditions (i.e. pertaining to the womb), for raising blood pressure and increasing cardiac output. The activity of castoreum has been credited to the accumulation of salicin from willow trees in the beaver's diet, which is transformed to salicylic acid and has an action very similar to aspirin.

It is one of the 65 ingredients of mithridate, a semi-mythical remedy used as an antidote for poisoning. It is also an ingredient of theriac, a medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the 1st century AD as an alexipharmic, or antidote, considered a universal panacea.

More here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castoreum

Stelio Kardami
Stelio Kardami

Beavers in Britain, crocodiles on Crete! I mean WTF! :P

Peter Stallard
Peter Stallard

I live in a ski town in Colorado which has had one of the largest concentrations of beavers in the State for over ten thousand years and generally they are no problem at all.There are dozens of beaver dams on a local river just a few hundred yards from my house and  I often watch them from the river bank being very busy as always, mostly at night. They have never shown interest in any of the numerous trees that surround my garden.If they are ever a problem and they threaten trees that need preserving the problem can be very easily resolved by putting netting around the base of a tree.

Beaver dams replenish fresh water wetlands , their ponds  and wetlands  support high species diversity and population levels for plants, insects, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.Also, contrary to what many fishermen might think, beavers do not eat fish and they actually produce ponds that are often teeming with them.

 In reality living with these creatures is a real joy and there isn't one valley in the mountains of Colorado that would be the same without them.These awesome creatures are one of natures marvels and they deserve the greatest respect.They should be welcomed back to Britain instead of being relocated. It may be a challenge at first but once they settle in and disperse all the anxiety that seems to surround them they will just merge in with the environment and the real benefits of having them around will soon be realized.

JF Media
JF Media

"Nice beaver!"  (Lt. Frank Drebin, from Police Squad!)

LM Bowland
LM Bowland

Salmon leap waterfalls to spawn. They can handle a few beaver dams.

Mark Fergerson
Mark Fergerson

I'm seeing a rather pointed polarization here. On one side are the Brits that want a manicured landscape, on the other those who want Nature to rule unfettered. Beavers cause property and crop damage, they provide microhabitats for essential food web species. They negatively impact trout and salmon runs, they help minimize flooding.


The reality is that each side has points the other must accept. Britain should ask itself whether it is even possible to have a completely managed environment, or whether a little randomness is a good thing.

Earnest Beauvine
Earnest Beauvine

Beavers are just giant rats, but they're still pretty cool...

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