In 2020 the fate of Devon's River Otter wild beavers will be decided. With Chris Packham backing the campaign to save the species and the protection of beavers into Scotland recently getting the go-ahead, the outlook is bright for the species. LAURA BRIGGS reports.
After an absence of 400 years, beavers in Scotland have been formally recognised as a native species, and the same is hoped for the Devon beavers, with Devon Wildlife Trust and Rewilding Britain two of the campaigning organisations hoping the English beavers will get the same treatment.
Mark Elliott, leading the Devon Beaver Project said: "Beavers are incredible animals for creating and managing wetland habitats - and a wide variety of species benefit from them inclding amphibians, birds, fish, bats, dragonflies in particular, water quality.
The species is also very important for reducing flooding impacts, and the University of Exeter has just published some of its initial findings from our work in Devon in the academic journal Science of the Total Environment on this very subject."
Despite the enthusiasm of wildlife groups for the beavers' return there are the sceptics, including landowners who don't take lightly to the creatures felling trees on their land.
Mark Elliott says that the reintroduction of the species will have to be managed carefully. "Legal protection of beavers in Scotland will allow populations to expand and fill the available habitats, but in order for them to be welcomed back into the landscape by the farming community, the reintroduction needs to be implemented pragmatically.
"Landowners need to be able to easily manage beaver impacts, and in many parts of Europe and North America varied techniques are applied to deal with different types of conflict. We're working closely with Clinton Devon Estates and other landowners in the River Otter valley to develop a Management strategy for beavers and to pilot techniques down here."
The Scottish Beaver Trial was a five-year partnership project between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and host Forestry Commission Scotland to undertake a time-limited, five-year trial reintroduction of Eurasian beavers to Knapdale, Mid-Argyll. It concluded in 2014 and the good news about recognising beavers as a native species came on November 24, 2016.
Jonathan Hughes, Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: "This is a major milestone for Scotland's wildlife and the wider conservation movement. Beavers are one of the world's best natural engineers. Their ability to create new wetlands and restore native woodland is remarkable and improves conditions for a wide range of species including dragonflies, otters and fish.
"We're now looking forward to continuing to work with the Scottish Government and other partners in the next phase of this initiative. The Scottish Beaver Trial is a textbook example of how to approach the reintroduction of a keystone species that should set the standard for future projects."
This reintroduction of beavers to the wild is the first formal reintroduction in UK history, and the Devon trial is hopeful that it will follow suit.
Helen Meech, of charity Rewilding Britain, said: "We are delighted that beavers will be allowed to remain in the wild in Scotland. As recent trials have shown, beavers can deliver huge benefits for both people and wildlife through improved water quality, reduced flood risk and the creation of habitats for a wide range of other species.
"We also welcome measures to manage the impact of beavers on farmers and other landowners. We urge the UK Government to put in place the same measures to protect and manage beaver populations in England and Wales."
Barbara Smith, Chief Executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: "Establishing a clear and comprehensive management plan for the species should now be our top priority, drawing upon IUCN best practice guidelines and bringing together stakeholders from across the conservation, land management and farming spectrum. We would urge government to take a lead on this issue and firm up plans ahead of the breeding season this spring.
"We also feel strongly that further release sites will need to be considered in the short- to medium-term if the species is to fully re-establish itself as part of the Scottish landscape."
Devon Wildlife Trust is a small charity and its Beaver Trial has secured the backing of wildlife expert and presenter Chris Packham, who added: "We have just four years in which to work with local people to prove to the government that beavers are good for the environment and can live in harmony with local people. If we don't then the beavers will be removed.
"I have to tell you this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to help a magnificent and long lost mammal to thrive again."
He is urging the public to help DWT's crowdfunding campaign as it receives nothing for Natural England or Defra, and you can support the project at http://supportdevonbeavers.org/
A selection of photographs and video from the Scottish Beaver Trial can be found here:
or Youtube link: https://youtu.be/PsXzbYvrbWg
Laura Briggs is the Ecologist's UK news reporter specialising in stories about ecology and ecosytems
Contact her via @WordsbyBriggs
This article is part of a new content-sharing arrangement with the environmental magazine The Ecologist.