A colony of beavers in a Devon river has brought social and economic benefits that "far outweigh the costs", according to a team of experts that is concluding a five-year study of the reintroduction scheme".
While mystery surrounds how the beavers, which have been extinct in England for 400 years, originally colonised stretches of the River Otter, Natural England confirmed in 2015 that the colony could remain in the area on a temporary basis, under a licence granted to the Devon Wildlife Trust.
Experts from the University of Exeter are now concluding their study into the beavers’ environmental and social impacts, with their full study set to be published in February.
Speaking to the Press Association, professor Richard Brazier, who led the research, heralded the project as “an amazing story, it’s far more change than we expected”.
He added that the benefits to biodiversity, water management and tourism from the animals’ dams “far outweigh the costs”.
In an interview on the BBC’s Today programme, Mark Elliot of the Devon Wildlife Trust said beavers have “the potential to reverse the declines in wetland wildlife” that the UK has experienced over the past decades.
Concerns from farmers about beavers building dams in land drains for fields have been managed well, he added, noting that flow devices known as ‘beaver deceivers’ have been successfully deployed to mitigate flooding.
He noted that the University of Exeter researchers found a “measurable and significant reduction in peak flows through a community that floods”, thanks to beaver dams holding back headwaters after periods of intense rain.
“2020 is a big year here for us,” Elliot said, “because we’re hoping that DEFRA will make a decision not only about the future of the beavers on the River Otter but potentially whether resources will be available for their reintroduction and management across the country.”
A DEFRA spokesperson said the government was “committed to reintroducing formerly native species, including beavers, where there are clear environmental and socio-economic benefits.
“A decision on any future work following the River Otter project will be taken after its conclusion,” they added.
Responding to the news, Alisha Anstee, countryside adviser at the National Farmers’ Union, noted that it was “important to recognise the potential risks associated with introducing beavers”.
She warned that they can “cause further flooding issues, impacting on British farmers’ ability to grow quality food”.
Several other beaver reintroduction projects are in the pipeline in England, with the National Trust announcing last year it had selected two enclosed sites where beavers will be released in the spring, with permission from Natural England.