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The beaver kits on the River Otter.

The beaver kits on the River Otter. Photo: Tom Buckley / DWT.

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Devon's wild beavers have babies

The Ecologist

24th June 2015

Soon after Devon's wild beavers on the River Otter escaped capture by zealous officials, they have given birth to two or even three kits - a clear indicator that they are happy in their habitat, and there to stay!

The baby kits appear fit and healthy and the adults seem as if they are taking their parenting responsibilities very seriously. It tells us that the beavers are very much at home in this corner of Devon.

Devon Wildlife Trust has announced the arrival of baby beavers - kbown as 'kits' - born to the first wild colony of beavers in England. New film footage proves that England's only wild beaver population is growing.

The footage, taken by local film-maker Tom Buckley, shows the kits taking their first swimming lessons and being helped through the water by their mother at an undisclosed location on East Devon's River Otter.

Two of the kits have been seen together, however beavers often give birth to three in a litter, so there may in fact be three of them.

"We are thrilled that the beavers have bred", said Devon Wildlife Trust's Mark Elliott. "The baby kits appear fit and healthy and the adults seem as if they are taking their parenting responsibilities very seriously. It tells us that the beavers are very much at home in this corner of Devon.

"The slowly expanding population of these wild animals will help us to gain valuable insights into beavers and their environment - both in terms of animal behaviour and any benefits and effects on the surrounding river system."

Mark also makes a plea to people who might want to catch a glimpse of the new additions to a local beaver population:"The beavers have proved enormously popular with local people and we understand that many will now want to see the kits for themselves.

"But like all new parents, the beavers will need a bit space and peace at this time. So we ask that visitors take care not to disturb them. This means remaining on public footpaths, keeping a respectful distance from them, and keeping dogs under close control especially when near the river."

England's first free-living beavers in 400 years

A population of beavers was first confirmed on the River Otter in February 2014. This was the first time that breeding beavers were known to be living in the English countryside for as much as 400 years. In summer 2014 Defra expressed its intention to remove the animals and enclose them in a zoo, citing their potential disease risk and their unplanned introduction as reasons.

It was at this stage that Devon Wildlife Trust built a partnership of supportive local landowners, academic institutions and beaver veterinary and management experts to offer a different solution, to turn the situation into England's first wild beaver monitoring project.

Friends of the Earth also campaigned to prevent the beavers' capture, as first planned by Defra, and even commenced legal action last October under the EU's Habitats Directive, forcing a government climb-down. But today FoE's wildlife campaigner Alasdair Cameron was in celebratory mood:

"The fact that these beavers have given birth for the second year in a row shows that the animals are thriving in Britain - and should increase calls for them to be reintroduced to other suitable areas around the country. Beavers bring huge benefits to the countryside - boosting biodiversity and keeping the rivers clean - we're delighted they're back and doing well."

In January 2015, Devon Wildlife Trust received a licence from Natural England allowing the beavers to stay. The licence also signalled the setting-up of the River Otter Beaver Trial - a project which will measure the benefits and impacts of the animals on local landscapes, wildlife, communities and businesses, especially farming.

Natural England's licence stipulated that the beavers had to be health screened. This meant capturing all the adults which were known to be living on the river. The captures were carried out in February this year - the tests found them clear of disease.

Looking forward to a slow but steady recovery

Mark Elliott of Devon Wildlife Trust looks ahead to the beavers' prospects: "Beavers give birth to an average of three kits. If both mothers have given birth that could mean that there are now up to 15 beavers on the River Otter. Beavers are relatively slow breeders and it's possible that not all the kits will make it to adulthood.

"This means the expansion of their numbers during the coming years will be steady rather than rapid. The River Otter certainly has room for a slowly growing population. The kits present us with a unique opportunity to study the development of a beaver population in the English countryside."

Dr Sam Bridgewater, Nature Conservation Manager for Clinton Devon Estates, commented on the arrival of baby beavers: "The birth of the kits is very exciting as it indicates that beavers can thrive in the lower River Otter. We still have much to learn about the impacts of an expanding beaver population on the Devon landscape.

"Although we know that beavers can improve the ecological health of rivers, we also know that their damming - particularly in upper catchment areas - and tree-felling behaviour can cause conflict. One of the key objectives of the partnership over the five year trial is to gather evidence to clarify the positive and negative impacts of this species and the management techniques that will likely be required in the future to minimise any detrimental impacts of an increasing population."

An 'overwhelming experience'

Tom Buckley captured the fabulous footage of the beaver and kits. He said: "When I saw these new born baby beavers (kits) I was totally overwhelmed and thought it must be a miracle. My first sighting of this year's new born kits was when I saw their mother swimming with one of them in her mouth to an area nearby where their father was waiting to greet them.

"One of the kits, however, seemed extremely unhappy to be out in the big wide world and as soon as its mother let it go it rushed back to its burrow. Not surprising really - the world can be a very scary place. This was possibly their first experience of what lies outside of their burrow."

The births signal the latest chapter in a story which has attracted great support from the local community. Devon Wildlife Trust is leading the River Otter Beaver Trial in partnership with landowner Clinton Devon Estates, the University of Exeter and the Derek Gow Partnership.

 


 

The Wildlife Trusts are at the forefront of bringing back beavers to the UK.

 

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