Wetland ARCHITECTS
BBC Earth|January - February 2021
As the landmark River Otter Beaver Trial draws to an end, what has it taught us about the way these industrious dam builders influence the form and function of our wild places?
Sophie Pavelle

Marching over the bridge in Otterton, Devon, I steal a glance to the river below. It’s mid-March, and this is my final excursion before national lockdown.

Brown and churning, the river scurries another two miles to Budleigh Salterton, where it spills into the sea. It’s chilly and overcast, but spring is well on its way. A preening mallard murmurs sweet nothings at the edge of the bank; a bumblebee loses itself in blackthorn blossom.

Mark Elliott, project lead for Devon Wildlife Trust’s River Otter Beaver Trial, strides ahead.

Delighted, he suddenly crouches by coppiced aspen – the woody victim of an unmistakable assailant. A closer look reveals a repetition of linear grooves carved into a now pencil-shaped stump. “Classic beaver signs,” says Elliott.

A host of gnawed branches, felled trees and stick piles are scattered around the riverbank, all signs that we’re in beaver territory. After four centuries bereft of these native wetland architects, hunted to extinction in Britain for their fur and castoreum (an anal secretion used in perfumes, flavouring and early medicines), wild beavers are back – hopefully for good.

Today, in this glorious valley, I am wandering through one of about 17 beaver ‘territories’, each of which is home to three or four individuals. In this year of global uncertainty, and during a time of unprecedented species loss across the planet, this remarkable conservation story in a quiet corner of Devon is also one of hope.

Following the surprise discovery of a group of wild beavers living on the Otter in 2013 – their origins uncertain – the species found itself catapulted into the epicentre of conservation chatter. After a passionate plea from East Devon communities to Defra, imploring that the beavers be allowed to stay, Devon Wildlife Trust was granted a license in 2015 to conduct a lengthy investigation: exactly what impact do beavers have on the local wildlife, economy, and community?

After all, beavers are renowned for the benefits they can bring. Dam building retains soil nutrients, reducing peak water flow to slow the effects of flooding. Their industrious behaviour improves water quality, creating countless microhabitats for many species of plant and animal – all making for a more biodiverse landscape than before.

And thus the River Otter Beaver Trial was born. Devon Wildlife Trust, partnering with landowner Clinton Devon Estates and the University of Exeter, had five years to prove that beavers deserved their place in our wetlands across the country.

“The beaver is the first extinct native mammal to be brought back into the wild in England,” says Peter Burgess, director of conservation at Devon Wildlife Trust. “Its future is hanging in the balance – it’s the most exciting conservation project I’ve been involved with.”

Following In Their Footsteps

With the trial now complete, Defra has decided to give the beavers the permanent right to remain in their Devon river home. But what have Elliott and his colleagues learned? And how did they do it?

As the afternoon wears on, I start to find out. As a zoologist, the prospect of large mammals not only returning to – but transforming my local river – is beyond thrilling. We veer off the main path, ducking our heads below the saplings guarding an offshoot of the mother river.

Prints are visible in the loamy sand. “The back feet are much bigger than the front”, says Elliott. “People often mistake one set of beaver prints for two separate animals.”

These prints are a hopeful sign for the River Otter trial. Following the success of a release in Knapdale, Scotland, the Scottish Government reclassified beavers as a native species and granted them legal protection in 2019. “But this is the first and only licensed release of beavers into the wild in England,” Elliott says. A rousing thought when much of the country’s wilder state has been abandoned.

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