Beavers return home with clean bill of health

24/03/2015 in RZSS

Devon Wildlife Trust has expressed 'delight and relief' at the re-release of five healthy beavers on to a Devon river. The news comes after the animals were temporarily removed from the wild in February for testing for disease.

The release took place on Monday 23rd March in the evening at a location on the River Otter, close to Ottery St Mary, East Devon. Speaking from the scene, Devon Wildlife Trust's Peter Burgess said:

"Today's re-release means that these beavers are back where they belong, in the wild on the River Otter. We're delighted and relieved that they've coped very well with a short period in captivity and been given a clean bill of health. They've tested free of serious infectious diseases and we're now looking forward to starting the next phase of our work: studying the long term effects of these wild beavers on the local landscape, on local communities and local wildlife."

The beavers are thought to have been living on the River Otter for a number of years, but they became national news in February 2014 when film evidence emerged showing kits (youngsters) with their parents. This proved that a population of breeding beavers were present in England, the first time this had happened since the animal's extinction through hunting several centuries ago.  

Five beavers including four adults and a juvenile were caught in February by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. They were taken to a specialist facility in Devon where they were tested for a range of diseases. The trapping and testing were done as a condition of a licence granted by Natural England to Devon Wildlife Trust. The licence allows the beavers to stay on the River Otter for the next five years. Natural England's Chairman, Andrew Sells, said:

"I am pleased that the beavers were found to be in good health. In accordance with their licence, Devon Wildlife Trust has supplied in-depth information on its monitoring programme and management strategy. We are satisfied that the plans have formally met the licence conditions. This is an exciting time for conservation and I will take great interest in how the trial progresses."

Environment Minister, Lord de Mauley said:

"I am pleased the beavers are disease free. They have now been returned to the river so that we can understand their effect on the environment better. Natural England has worked closely with the Devon Wildlife Trust to ensure any reintroduction of the beavers was carefully considered and meets the strict licence conditions. I look forward to hearing how the five year trial progresses."

During their temporary absence from their riverside home the beavers underwent a range of health checks. These proved them to free of diseases including bovine TB and a tapeworm known as Echinococcusmultilocularis (EM). The testing was undertaken by beaver and leading veterinary experts from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). The Society's Conservation Projects Manager, Roisin Campbell-Palmer, said:

"We were delighted to lend our expertise developed during our work with beavers in Scotland. As these beavers were of unknown origin it was important to establish that they were the correct species and in good health. All individuals were Eurasian, in good body condition and free from parasites and diseases of concern. There is no evidence that beavers are failing to survive and adapt to English landscapes."

With a clean bill of health the re-release of the beavers signals the start of the River Otter Beaver Trial, which will be a partnership project led by Devon Wildlife Trust and involve Clinton Devon Estates, Derek Gow Consultancy and the University of Exeter. Over the next five years the project will measure the impact of these animals on the local landscape, economy, communities and wildlife. At its conclusion in 2020 the project will present Natural England with its evidence. Using this information a decision will be made on the future of the beavers.

One of the largest local landowners in the wild beaver's territories is Clinton Devon Estates. Their Nature Conservation Manager, Dr Sam Bridgewater said: 

"We look forward to working as a key member of the reintroduction trial partnership over the coming years and building our understanding of the behaviour and impacts of this species on the River Otter. An important part of the trial is to clarify how beavers are to be managed in the long term - a lesson learnt from similar introductions on the continent."

Devon Wildlife Trust's Chief Executive Harry Barton summarised the challenges that lay ahead for the River Otter Beaver Trial. He said:

"Our biggest challenge is now funding this work. The beavers have proved enormously popular with local people. An initial call for donations led to £50,000 being raised in just three months. However the cost of the five-year monitoring project will run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. Our message to supporters of the beavers is to donate what they can. By giving you'll be part of a unique chapter in our nation's natural history."

Donations can be made at www.devonwildlifetrust.org or by phone on 01392 279244.

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