European beaver, now back in Britain

UK beavers – how we helped bring them back

Wild beavers were thought to be extinct for hundreds of years in Britain. Now they're back and thriving – with help from Friends of the Earth.
  12 Oct 2017    |      5 min

UK beavers extinct? Not any more. We're on a mission to bring nature back to the UK. So we couldn't be more chuffed that beavers are back in British rivers. Especially as we played an important part in their reintroduction. (Beavers video courtesy of Sylvie Meller.)

photo of European beaver
European beaver
Credit: istock

Beavers are iconic, distinctively flat-tailed, semi-aquatic mammals that were historically found in rivers all across mainland Britain. They were renowned as nature's landscape architects and river engineers.

But appallingly, beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain several hundred years ago. Their gorgeous furry pelts were irresistible, it seems, and their anal glands were harvested for traditional medicine, perfume and even flavouring.

Things started to change in the 2000s. Wild beavers were sighted in Perthshire in Scotland, and in 2009 a population was officially released at Knapdale, out west in Argyll.

In the rest of the UK, though, you’d still only be able to glimpse beavers in wildlife parks where they’d been specially bred. But then, in 2014, a pair of beavers were suddenly spotted swimming near the banks of the River Otter in deepest Devon.

Nobody was sure how they’d got there – the best theory was that they’d escaped from captivity and made a home in the wild. But most people, including us, were just overjoyed to see beavers back in their natural environment, where they belong.

That's until we heard that the government’s environment department, DEFRA, was planning to trap and permanently remove the newly discovered beavers from the wild. Firstly because, DEFRA claimed, beavers shouldn’t really be there, having been absent for so long – and secondly because of the fear they might be harbouring some nasty infectious diseases.

Beavers belong in Britain

We opposed the UK government's knee-jerk reaction, launching a legal challenge against the plan to remove the beavers. We argued that, on the contrary, those beavers do belong in the wild. Beavers are a native, natural, even essential part of our ecosystem.

European beaver, now back in Britain
European beaver, now back in Britain
Credit: iStock

We pointed out that instead of being removed, beavers even deserved legal protection under European wildlife laws.

We also uncovered documents which suggested that fears of disease were overblown. We proposed that any worries could easily be allayed by quickly testing the beavers and returning them to their river if all clear.

Beavers benefit biodiversity

There were concerns voiced about beavers felling trees (they are known for their gnawsome teeth) and interfering with fishing and agriculture. But again we disagreed. Beavers’ persistent nibbling actually stimulates tree and plant growth, which in turn also helps shore up riverbanks and can prevent flooding. Lots of our riverside trees and plants actually evolved in response to the beaver’s behaviour in the past.

Being strict vegetarians, beavers don’t deplete fish numbers either. In fact their activities often create cleaner and healthier environments for river life – helping fish stocks and other biodiversity.

All-in-all, we insisted, beavers in the wild are a good thing. And thousands of you agreed – getting behind the campaign, run by the Devon Wildlife Trust, writing letters to the environment minister, to help change the government’s mind.

It worked. We’re pleased to say the government listened and, once their vets had judged the beavers free of infection, released the animals back into the River Otter. And they're thriving! By 2017 there were over a dozen beavers on the river, including several new offspring – kits, as they're known.

It’s not just adding important new wildlife to our landscape, it’s bringing a great source of joy and pleasure to everyone who sees them.

Here's some more lovely footage of the beavers at work and play on the River Otter, filmed by Sylvie Meller...

Beavers, bees and beyond

We’d really love to have beavers back in more rivers all across the UK, whenever and wherever it’s appropriate. We're also in favour of wider “rewilding” projects around Britain, Europe and the US. Rewilding aims to restore natural systems and expand wildlife environments, reintroducing or increasing various wild species, from the pine marten to the lynx. 

Over our 40-year history, Friends of the Earth has been, and still is, at the forefront of campaigns to protect British wildlife.

In the 1970s, for instance, we successfully campaigned for an end to otter hunting. We’ve persistently pushed for the creation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We were at the forefront of campaigns to get the Wildlife and Countryside Act passed in the 1980s, as well as the Habitats Directive in the 1990s and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in the 2000s. More recently we've led the campaign to protect Britain’s beleaguered bees.

And we couldn’t do all this without the generosity of our supporters. A huge thank-you again to everyone who has helped us over the years in our aim of creating a richer, better environment for us all, and generations to come.

You can help our work by donating to Friends of the Earth right now.