Few 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.
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