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Beaver families thriving in the West Country after unofficial reintroductions

One Voice for Animals UK Guest Blog by James Ashworth

Article first published 28th March 2023 for Natural History Museum

13 beaver families are thought to exist along the River Frome and River Avon. Image © Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock

Beavers have returned to the waters of Somerset and Wiltshire, hundreds of years after being wiped out.

Escapes from enclosures and unlicensed introductions are suspected to be behind the rodent's return.

As many as 50 beavers could be living in the West Country, Natural England has revealed.

The government's nature advisor had been investigating the possibility of beavers in the region following reports of the rodents in and around the Rivers Frome and Avon. The resulting report, published earlier this month, found a wealth of evidence that beavers were thriving in the areas, including dams, gnawn trees and burrows.

In total, it is estimated there could be anywhere from 36 to 62 adult beavers in sections of the rivers near Bath, Chippenham and Trowbridge, living in 13 families. If baby beavers, known as kits, and family units living in areas of the river which couldn't be surveyed are included, then this figure could be even higher.

A spokesperson for the Avon Wildlife Trust previously described the presence of beavers in the area as 'extremely significant', adding that 'the presence of this beaver population will support other wildlife and help us to tackle the ecological emergency.'

The River Frome, in Somerset, is home to eight beaver families. Image © Graham Horn, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Geograph.

Where have the West Country's beavers come from? Eurasian beavers are rapidly being reintroduced across the UK, having been driven to extinction in the country over 400 years ago through hunting for the fur, meat and perfume trade. The mammals are now present across the country, from Scotland all the way south to Devon and London.

Officially, beavers can only be reintroduced into enclosures with a license from the government. However, many beavers are living wild following escapes from these sites, as well as unofficial introductions.

For instance, one of the UK's largest populations of beavers can be found in Tayside, Scotland, is thought to be the result of a mixture of accidental and illegal releases.

While beavers are now considered a native species in England, Wales and Scotland, it is still a crime to release them without a license, which can result in up to two years in prison as well as an unlimited fine.

Many of the beavers in the West Country are thought to have been released unofficially, with the report estimating that these have probably taken place since 2016. Others, meanwhile, may be the descendants of animals which escaped from a private collection in the 2000s.

While the tree-felling of beavers could one day become a risk for rail and road travel, this is not thought to be an immediate concern. Image © Fotorina/Shutterstock

The beavers have now spread widely, with the majority of the families found in the River Frome, a tributary of the River Avon. Four families are found in the Avon itself, while another is found on the By Brook.

Though there had been reports of beavers in the River Brue and Kennet and Avon Canal, the latest report didn't find enough evidence to verify their presence.

In total, the beavers may occupy as much as 11% of the available riverbanks in the areas of Wiltshire and Somerset where they live. Each family is estimated to have a bankside territory as long as eight kilometres, which is above average for England's beavers.

While they may cover a relatively large area, the beavers are not thought to be having a major impact on their ecosystem at the moment. Though some families have started building dams and felling trees, the majority are still getting established in their new home.

With beavers having been made a protected species in England in October 2022, it's thought that their populations will only grow if left undisturbed. While the report notes their activities could eventually pose a risk to transport, this is not likely in the near future.

Instead, it recommends further research to promote co-existence with these beavers. Assessing their genetic health, and coming up with management plans, can help to ensure these rodents can keep beavering away in the West Country.


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