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A beaver in Scotland, where they are being re-introduced. Photo: Paul Stevenson via Flickr.com.

A beaver in Scotland, where they are being re-introduced. Photo: Paul Stevenson via Flickr.com.

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Save the free beavers of England!

Alasdair Cameron / Friends of the Earth

25th September 2014

Deep in rural Devon, the word is that the Government intends to trap the wild-living beaver family on the River Otter next month, and consign them to captivity. But as Alasdair Cameron writes, this is not only unnecessary and unpopular, but probably illegal as well.

There are rumours that traps have been ordered and moved into the area. Locals fear that the capturing could begin as soon as October.

After an absence of more than two centuries, wild beavers have returned to Britain. For me that is an exciting thing to say.

At first they reappeared in Scotland - through escapees in Perthshire and an official reintroduction programme in Argyll. Now they are in England too, living and breeding on the River Otter in Devon.

Like most people I was thrilled when I heard the news. An iconic species was returning, enhancing biodiversity and enriching our environment. And it was happening with minimal fuss. or trouble.

Sadly, not everyone has seen it that way. The response from the government and some special interest groups has been depressingly familiar.

The animals they say, are a threat. They will harm fish stocks, they could carry disease. And, just to make it final, they have been gone too long. The landscape has changed too much. We cannot live together.

Across Europe, people and beavers mix

None of this is true. In virtually every country in Europe people and beavers manage to live side by side. These are not animals which require true wilderness but a species which live happily in modern agricultural landscapes.

They bring many benefits - enhancing fish stocks, increasing biodiversity and helping with flood prevention. There is a reason there have been 157 beaver reintroductions across the continent.

Despite this DEFRA, egged on by a few lobbyists, announced in early summer that it was planning to capture the beavers and "rehome" them. That could mean only one thing, a life in captivity and no more beavers in the wild. The uproar that followed was predictable. Columns were written, petitions were signed and local action groups came together.

In the weeks since, everything has gone quiet. Yet behind the scenes it seems preparations are still continuing to catch the animals.

There are rumours that traps have been ordered and moved into the area. Locals fear that the capturing could begin as soon as October.

Removing the population from the wild may be illegal

Friends of the Earth does not work much with beavers, and we do not run nature reserves in the UK, but we do know about the law, and in this case it seems to be very much on the beaver's side.

The European Habitat Directive, a piece of law the UK agreed to, sets out clear rules for the protection of native species. The beaver is listed in Annex IV, and for these species Article 12 prohibits

  • all forms of deliberate capture or killing of specimens of these species in the wild;
  • deliberate disturbance of these species, particularly during the period of breeding, rearing, hibernation and migration;
  • deliberate destruction or taking of eggs from the wild;
    deterioration or destruction of breeding sites or resting places.its capture or killing in the wild.

It also obliges the government to establish a system of strict protection for all Annex IV animals.

The fact that the animals are not listed in the UK's domestic regulations, due to the fact that they have been absent for some time, does not matter provided that the beavers are within their natural range.

And they are.

European beavers (Castor fiber) were once common throughout the continent and were found in almost every region, including Great Britain, where they were widespread, occurring right across the island.

Archaeological remains have been discovered from Cornwall to the North of Scotland. There are towns named after them. They are a recognised component our river systems. Natural England, the body that will no doubt be tasked with overseeing their removal, recognises this.

Netherlands, France, Belgium - so why not England?

Just as importantly, the modern British landscape is a perfect example of the kind of modern habitats they thrive in. In its 2009 feasibility study on reintroducing beavers to England, Natural England stated that it was 'evident that many if not most of England's rivers would provide suitable habitat to support beavers'.

The physical characteristics of the River Otter match the criteria they laid out. That there are beavers living and breeding there proves it.

The fact too that the beavers have just recently arrived is likely to be irrelevant. The concept of natural range outlined in the Directive is not static, and the guidance makes it clear that where the animals spread to a new area, that area must be considered part of its natural range.

Even if the beavers on the River Otter are escapees, this is no reason to consider them as being beyond their natural range. Indeed, the return of the beavers to England is just the latest stage in a process that has seen them rebound all over their territories.

From a population of just over a thousand a hundred years ago, they are now found in over 30 countries, including some of the UK's nearest neighbours in the Netherlands, France and Belgium. Beavers have been seen swimming in the sea off Kent, and of course there are already populations in Scotland.

Little threat of disease

The Habitats Convention's Article 16 does provide a let out that could, in specified circumstances, allow trapping. 'Derogations' from Article 12 may be permitted, for example:

  • in the interest of protecting wild fauna and flora and conserving natural habitats;
  • to prevent serious damage, in particular to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water and other types of property;
  • in the interests of public health and public safety, or for other imperative reasons of overriding public interest;
  • for the purpose of research and education, of repopulating and re-introducing these species and for the breedings operations necessary for these purposes.


Perhaps that's what Lord de Mauley had in mind when he wrote a letter to the Angling Trust, raising the spectre that the animal might be carrying disease as a reason to catch them.

But this is a red herring. The disease in question, Echinococcus multilocularis, cannot be transmitted simply from beaver to beaver. In any case it can be easily tested for.

If the beavers living on the river were found to be free from disease, as they almost certainly are, it would be unjustifiable, disproportionate and potentially unlawful not to re-release them back onto the Otter, precisely because they are protected by the Directive.

As for the other circumstances provided in Article 16, DEFRA would be hard to argue that trapping the beavers was a matter of public health and safety, overriding public interest, or preventing serious damage.

None of the let outs appear to apply in this case where the beavers are causing no problems to anyone, and can only enhance the quality of wildlife habitat.

Community support

When the Scottish government tried to get rid of the wild beavers the community rallied round, eventually creating enough fuss for the issue to be dropped.

In Devon too everyone from farmers to shopkeepers to local councillors has spoken out in favour of the continued presence of the beavers.

It is still not too late. It is not clear how much the government really wants to catch these animals. By raising our concerns, we hope that DEFRA will realise that its actions will not just be unpopular, but potentially illegal.

We are not saying that our countryside should become a free-for all, but rather that we should take this opportunity to stop and think and work out the best way forward.

In the future beavers may need to be controlled, and the Habitats Directive allows this where genuinely necessary. We fully accept that and there are people who know how to do this.

At a time when so many species are under threat, and where the loss of biodiversity has become so constant that it almost loses its meaning, the ability to see a native species re-establish itself is a privilege, and one we should not give up lightly.

 


 

Alasdair Cameron is a wildlife campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

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