Good news for nature conservation recently. Natural England, the Government agency responsible, has decreed that the beavers living on the ironically named river Otter in Devon can stay. They are to be monitored by the Devon Wildlife Trust for five years. This means that after a gap of about 500 years beavers are once again living wild in England.
This is good news because beavers are a ‘keystone’ species. They have a profound effect on their immediate environment, in this case as natural water engineers. They build canals, fell trees and build dams, creating pools which in turn provide refuge and breeding areas for many other creatures. In addition they slow down the flow of water, mitigating both floods and drought, and improving wetland habitats for wildflowers and birds.
No one knows where the beavers on the Otter have come from but, together with another wild population on the river Tay in Scotland and a number of enclosed groups of beavers, they are part of restoring a once much-loved and useful animal to our countryside. The Wildlife Trusts are at the forefront of these efforts. In a project run by the Welsh Wildlife Trusts there may shortly be more beavers, living under controlled conditions in the Ceredigion Mountains. They will be the closest to Birmingham.
Natural England’s intervention was necessary because, despite their proven worth to, for example, fish stocks and flood control, both anglers and farmers objected to their presence. One of the grounds for objecting was that beavers may carry diseases: well people should know by now that the world is full of pathogens carried by animals, birds and insects. One or two more are unlikely to be significant, although during the five year reprieve the beavers will be monitored for disease. The objections are, sad to say, typical of land owners and others who have a knee-jerk reaction to any changes they have not themselves instigated: they do not like not being in control. The Scottish NFU has said that it is ‘implacably opposed’ to beavers. Such people often claim to ‘know’ about issues whilst wilfully ignoring scientific evidence.
Mind you this has happened before with beavers. Centuries ago the Catholic Church decreed that, because they have a scaly tail, beavers were fish, and their meat could, therefore, be eaten on Fridays during lent.