Photograph courtesy of Ben Lee
It was summer 2008 and I was watching the beavers at Escot in Devon, where I had been monitoring the effects that they had on their enclosure's habitats. Since their release, they had been hard at work; feeding, building lodges, creating pathways and caching food. Their activities were already changing the woodland and aquatic habitats in which they lived. They had felled and pruned many different species of tree, both native and ornamental, including aspen, alder, bay, cherry laurel and rhododendron. They had also coppiced a large stand of willow, reduced the amount of water lily and bulrush in the ponds and added a huge volume of woody material to the lake (something that proved highly unpopular with the anglers that shared it). Earlier that day, I had come across a beaver dam, probably the first to be built in Britain for 800 years and a story which quickly became headline news.
I settled down amongst the meadow-sweet and angelica to watch the beavers as they swam silent laps of the pond. One of the beavers hauled itself onto the bank and waddled along a well-worn pathway towards the stream, dragging its tail on the ground like the tongue from an old trainer.
Its mate climbed onto the opposite bank, shook droplets from its fur and rested back on its haunches. In a sequence that is followed by all beavers, it started to groom. It ran its forepaws over its face, combed its belly fur, its forelegs and hind legs, and then reached behind to groom its flanks and back. And the end of its grooming regime and as the last of the sun was sucked from the sky, the beaver slipped into the black water and out of sight.
A few weeks ago, I was delighted to hear that the beavers at Escot had raised at least one kit, which was probably born at the end of May 2009. At around the same time, a group of beavers was released in Knapdale, Scotland, as part of a trial reintroduction of the species. If the scheme proves successful, it is likely that beavers will be restored to the rest of Britain and perhaps Escot’s British-born kit will be released, to live wild on our waterways.
Now you do it
See Escot's website to find out more about the beavers. They are fascinating animals to watch, carrying out a huge variety of different behaviours, from tree-felling to canal digging, dam-building to grooming and beaver watching at Escot can be arranged - email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beavers are also present at the Lower Mill Estate at the Cotswold Water Park, the WWT reserve in Martin Mere, Lancashire and at KWT's reserve Ham Fen in Kent.
A five-year trial reintroduction is underway at Knapdale in Scotland. As the beavers were only released in May, it is recommended that you visit the site later in the year, when the beavers have settled in and there are more field signs to look out for. You can’t miss beaver signs when you see them – look for felled trees, gnawed bark, cut vegetation such as reedmace, which may be floating on the surface of the water, lodges, food stores, footprints, well-used pathways, canals, dams… the list goes on!
The European beaver is legally protected under Annex IV and Annex II of the EC Habitats Directive and meets criterion 1b of the Species Action Framework as a species for conservation action. There is some debate about exactly when European beavers became extinct in Britain, although recent research shows that they may have still been present in 1800. As they were once native, Britain has a legal requirement to study the desirability of their reintroduction. Any such reintroduction would need to satisfy IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines.