As The Guardian reported, this January saw the announcement that wild beavers living on the River Otter in Devon would be allowed to remain, providing they are ‘proven free of disease and of Eurasian origin’. This is a potentially historic decision, as it is thought that beavers became extinct in the UK at the end of the 17th Century.
Update as of March 2015: The wild beavers have now been released back into the River Otter after being confirmed disease free.
Beavers are considered a keystone species due to their beneficial impact on biodiversity. As John Lister-Kaye, director of the Aigas Field Centre, describes it, “Beavers shift everything, tirelessly, instinctively, creatively. That’s why ecologists call them a ‘keystone species’. By doing their own thing, they create habitats and opportunities for just about everything else”.
A nine-year study of essentially wild beavers carried out at the Aigas Field Centre found that, when measured against adjacent wetlands the beavers had not utilised, biodiversity had expanded by a factor of four.
As well as this benefit for wildlife, the wetlands created and restored by beavers can trap sediments, reduce pollution and slow water flows through a river catchment. This can help improve water quality and reduce flooding downstream, helping sustainable management of the water cycle and benefiting human communities in nearby areas.
The Devon beavers are not alone in the UK, as there could currently be around 300 wild beavers, including those in an official beaver trial in Knapdale, Argyllshire and the beavers ‘unofficially’ living wild on the River Tay, Perthshire. However, aside from the Devon beavers, no decision has been made regarding the future of beavers in the UK.