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First Wild Beaver in 800 Years Confirmed in England? [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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eurasian beaverFew species recoveries have ever been as dramatic as that of the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). Once overhunted to near extinction, only 1,200 beavers remained by the year 1900. Today, after more than a century of intense management and reintroductions, the beaver population stands at more than one million (pdf), which can now be found in almost every country in their historic range in Europe and Asia.

One notable exception to that recovery, so far, has been England, where beavers were all killed off more than 800 years ago (they disappeared from the rest of the U.K. around 1600). Although a few small groups of captive beavers live in England and there are plans to eventually reintroduce some of the furry rodents back into the wild, none live there naturally, on their own.

Until now.

This week retired environmental scientist Tom Buckley released some incredible night-vision footage of a wild beaver chomping on some trees on a farm in the town of Ottery Saint Mary in the district of Devon. This spotting marks the first confirmed wild beaver in England in centuries. You can see the brief video below, courtesy of the Telegraph:

Buckley came to Ottery after farmer David Lawrence spotted some teeth marks on his trees. “I thought at first it was someone messing about with an ax,” Lawrence told the BBC, “but I contacted Tom who had his suspicions. He set up trail cameras and—hey presto—we saw what it was.”

The footage is actually a confirmation of something that has been suspected for some time now. Sightings of a beaver have been coming in from the region for several months. One local told The Independent this past July that she saw what appeared to be a beaver in the River Otter. “It seemed really friendly and swam in circles a few times before going back under a tree,” she said.

Of course the big question remains: Where the heck did the beaver come from? It seems just a wee bit unlikely that a beaver could swim over to the British Isles from France or Germany or Belgium, each of which have healthy populations. Could it have slipped away from captivity? There’s precedent: Three beavers escaped from the set of a planned wildlife photography business back in 2008; two females were quickly recaptured but it took until 2012 to locate the male. (The poor thing was found in a farmer’s slurry pit, covered in animal waste.) Could one of the females have secretly given birth while she was AWOL? Or could the beaver have slipped away from some other captive setting? The nearby Devon Wildlife Trust holds several beavers as part of a planned reintroduction, but they are reportedly all accounted for.

For now, the origins of the River Otter beaver remain a mystery. All the same, this is a beaver that appears to be thriving in the wild, in a habitat that has been devoid of beaver dams for centuries. Whether this animal was born in the wild, traveled to the U.K. through some as yet undisclosed epic journey or slipped its bonds from a captive setting, it still represents another stage of the Eurasian beaver’s remarkable recovery. That’s pretty dammed cool.

Photo: A Eurasian beaver in Sweden, by Marie and Alistair Knock via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Spironis 12:26 pm 01/28/2014

    a beaver that appears to be thriving in the wild” At least two beavers are required to thrive in the wild.

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 3:35 pm 01/28/2014

    Takes two to tango, eh?

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  3. 3. jgrosay 7:07 pm 01/28/2014

    In Spain, while some groups were holding conferences and meetings about if, and when and how to reintroduce Beavers, somebody released a few, of unknown origin too, in a northern province.

    Somebody introduced the american Catfish, that reaches sizes of several tenths of kg, in the Ebro river low basin, and the so called ‘Tiger Mussels’ that thrive in fresh water, and as having no predator feeding on it can block many water conductions with industrial and agricultural interest, were released there too.

    Would the Roman sewers’ crabs feed on these ‘Tiger Mussels’?

    The rainbow trout and the american river crab are very old problems, and in some places in Madrid, you can see colonies of white argentinian parrots, or of green parrots; sometimes seagulls were seen in the Madrid’s Manzanares river, but probably not now.

    How much I’d like seeing Capybaras -Carpinchos- in the Doñana marshes!

    A freshwater starfish is impossible as of today, but sounds equally beautiful.

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  4. 4. phalaris 2:02 am 01/29/2014

    With the establishment of a breeding population along a river in Bavaria, the effect on the trees along the bank was horrific. I think they’re trying to protect some of them with chicken wire round the trunks now.

    Of course, the predators that once kept them in check are missing. People ought to think this through before breeding populations get established.

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  5. 5. bearvarine 11:16 am 01/29/2014

    Presumably no one in England was interested in actually allowing beavers to recolonize the countryside? Why did it take an accident for this to happen?

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  6. 6. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 2:12 pm 01/29/2014

    Bear, there are reintroduction efforts afoot (as mentioned in the article), they just haven’t gotten there yet.

    Link to this
  7. 7. David Kelly 2:36 pm 01/29/2014

    “Presumably no one in England was interested in actually allowing beavers to recolonize the countryside? Why did it take an accident for this to happen?”

    As the article says England is the southern part of Great Britain a large island in the Atlantic off the north western coast of Europe. The nearest wild beavers live in eastern Scotland, but these originated from escapes. An official reintroduction project is taking place in western Scotland and there are various controlled, enclosed projects in Wales and England.

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  8. 8. mtzbeavers 6:06 pm 01/29/2014

    Love, and a sneeze will out, they say. Research tells us that beavers could easily swim the channel to seek out their own habitat – and it’s a lucky thing for Devon that they have. Beaver dams filter water, prevent erosion, increase the invertebrate community, add to the density and diversity of the fish population, and help amphibians and wildlife. Even beaver chewing of trees stimulates a natural coppicing that makes them grow bushy and more dense – turning into ideal nesting habitat for migratory and songbirds. When beavers cross the Tamar, everyone wins.

    Heidi Perryman, Ph.D.
    Worth A Dam

    Link to this

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