After a gap of 800 years…there are beavers in Derbyshire again!

The UK has one of the worst records of any country in the world for protecting its historic biodiversity. This should come as no surprise to those of us who live on this crazy, crowded island where caring for the natural world has traditionally played second fiddle to making a quick buck. But the tide is beginning to turn: up and down the country many of us are fighting back, seeking to look after what we still have and, where possible, to reintroduce what we have lost. Which brings me to the inspiring story of Derbyshire’s beavers.

If the experts are to be believed, beavers were wiped out in my home county around 800 years ago. Now I’m not sure quite how they know that, I can’t quite believe that one of the local lords recorded the event for posterity in his diary, writing something like “Great news, just exterminated the last beaver in Derbyshire, so now our trees will be safe forever…until, that is, we want to chop them down for firewood, or to make floorboards or beer barrels or whatever.

To be honest, the exact date doesn’t really matter. The incontestable fact is that, following the end of the last Ice Age, beavers were common hereabouts for many thousand of years, before becoming extinct in the Middle Ages.

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Film of the first beaver being released at Willington Wetland Nature Reserve on a blustery day in late September 2021

On one level, the extinction of the beaver can be seen simply as the regrettable loss of one of this island’s few cuddly mammals, a mammal guaranteed to elicit sighs of “Ah, so cute” from ordinary folk encountering them going about their daily business in the wild. But there’s more to it than that. Beavers are landscape engineers, a keystone species that shapes environmental conditions in a manner beneficial to countless other species.

By digging canal systems and damming water courses, beavers create diverse wetland areas, places where fish can safely spawn and other animals such as otters, water voles and water shrews can make their homes. Insects thrive in the waterways constructed and maintained by beavers, and these in turn nourish a range of bird species. In creating suitable habitats for themselves, therefore, beavers help create robust ecosystems in which a whole range of species can flourish.

But it’s not just wildlife that benefits from these hefty rodents beavering away in the countryside – there’s a payoff for humans too. It is argued that beaver dams improve water-quality by acting as filters which trap soil and other pollutants washed into rivers from surrounding farmland.  The ponds created by beaver dams also impact on the flow of rivers, and can help mitigate downstream flooding after periods of heavy rain.

VIDEO CREDIT: (c) Helen Birkinshaw via Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. On Friday 8th October, the day after the second pair of beavers were released, the male was spotted swimming near the release site

Given these credentials it’s no surprise that environmental organisations have long been keen to see beavers reintroduced to the UK. Scotland led the way, and there are spots there where animals reintroduced from continental Europe are already thriving. In England the first major reintroduction initiative was in Devon, led by Devon Wildlife Trust in partnership with a range of other interested parties.

Having watched for several years the success of beaver reintroductions in other parts of the country, Mrs P and I were thrilled when our local conservation organisation – Derbyshire Wildlife Trust – announced its own plans for a project at the Willington Wetlands Nature Reserve in the south of the county. When the Trust appealed for donations to help fund the initiative we were pleased to help.

Progress stalled for a while due to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic. But at last, a few weeks ago, we got an email from the Trust inviting us to sign up to attend an online event at which a pair of beavers would be released into their new Derbyshire home. The animals had been captured on the River Tay in Scotland, where the species is now doing very well. After a period of quarantine and some health checks the beavers were transported to Derbyshire in special wooden crates on the back of a pick up truck.

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Camera trap footage of one of the beavers snacking on a branch. Plainly the beavers have already begun to modify the local landscape!

The release of the two animals went perfectly. We’d feared they would dash for the water the second the doors of their crates were opened, and immediately dive to disappear from view. Instead they took their time, seemingly untroubled by the stress of their long road journey, and put on a bit of a show for their adoring online fans. Huddled around our laptop at home, it was a privilege to watch the images of history being made just a few short miles away. At last, after an absence of some 800 years, beavers were back in Derbyshire!

A couple of weeks later the Trust released a second pair of beavers into their enclosure at the Willington Wetlands Nature Reserve, The enclosure is surrounded by a specially designed beaver-proof fence and large enough at 40 hectares, or just shy of 100 acres, to allow the animals to live entirely natural lives. The brook flowing through the enclosure guarantees a suitable wetland habitat, and a wide range of native plants and trees will offer the beavers all the food they need to live long and happy lives.

With a bit of luck, next year we will be celebrating the first beavers to be born in Derbyshire since the Middle Ages!

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. More camera trap footage. The Willington Reserve’s newest residents seem relaxed, and are making themselves at home!

* * * * *

For further information on the reintroduction of beavers in the UK see the following links

24 comments

  1. ThoughtsBecomeWords · October 27

    Wonderful! Actually brought tears to my eyes I was so happy for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 27

      I totally understand. I felt really emotional watching them being released from the crates and starting to explore their new home. Back where they belong, at last!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fingers and toes crossed for many beaverettes

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Laurie Graves · October 27

    Yes, yes! What a wonderful piece. Long may the beavers and their descendants thrive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 27

      Thank you! It’s great to be able to share a ‘good news’ story in these troubled times.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves · October 27

        You bet! Go, beavers, go! We have some who live in a pond near our house.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Paddy Tobin · October 27

    It will be interesting to see how they settle in and their effect on the environment

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 27

      Agreed. The environmental impact is being closely monitored so that conservationists can learn lessons about how best to manage the impact of this, and future, beaver reintroductions.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve Gingold · October 27

    The U.S. has its ups and downs protecting our native animals, along with flora, and if one threatens the economy away it goes. Sadly, beavers were almost hunted to extinction for their pelts as well as property owners killing them over flooding, along with many bird species for pies or ladies’ millinery, but the citizenry has fought to protect as many as possible and the beavers are back along with the long plumed birds such as egrets. Regrettably, passenger pigeons were baked into pies and out of existence.
    Congratulations on beavers being reintroduced and hopefully they will be fruitful and multiply.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 27

      Yes, we’ve been pleased to catch a few glimpses of beavers in the US. Although the demand for beaver pelts (particularly here in the UK) is credited for giving impetus to the opening of the West in North America, the impact on the species was terrible. Luckily things look a bit better now. Regarding egrets, we had a similar experience in this country, with the birds being driven to extinction to furnish ladies with feathers to adorn their hats. Fortunately the species survived in parts of continental Europe, and now that fashions have changed and conservation laws brought in they are making a comeback (naturally, without any need for humans to get involved in the process). Given a chance , Nature will always fight back!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The June Journal · October 27

    It is so interesting to read this! Last summer we saw a lot of beavers’ work – the cut down trees around the lake and Missouri River here (We didn’t go to the Katy Trail as much often this year). These smart animals used the trees to built the dams and lodges. But I was not lucky to see any beaver swimming. I am very curious about the British beavers😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 28

      Thank you. During our trips to the US we’ve seen evidence of the presence of beavers on several occasions – in particular beaver lodges – but only one brief glimpse of the animal itself, when one scuttled across the road in front of our car. It was quite a shock!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ann Mackay · October 27

    It’s good to hear about something so hopeful and positive. I hope that the beavers settle in and produce big, healthy families… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. shazza · October 28

    Aw it’s good news about the beavers. There have been some released in the Eden Valley of Cumbria too on the Lowther Estate. Exciting times. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · October 31

      Yes, there are several beaver reintroduction initiatives across the country now. Very uplifting, I think.

      Like

  9. thelongview · October 29

    Yay! Good luck to the new beavers of Derbyshire!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Adele Brand · October 31

    Great to hear that they’re back! I visited the beaver site in Devon a few years ago. I’m used to seeing all their woodwork in Canada and Poland and it was quite something to see it in the south-west.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · November 1

      We’re hoping to head out west within the next year or two and we’ll definitely visit the Devon site at some point during our trip, though I guess the chance of actually seeing a beaver (in daylight!) is fairly remote. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. tanjabrittonwriter · November 1

    Good news indeed, Mr. P. Thank you for sharing this inspiring story and the video clips. I’m seconding your good wishes for the beavers’ survival and successful propagation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · November 2

      Thank you Tanja. This is one of a number of beaver reintroduction projects in England right now, including another in our neighbouring county of Nottinghamshire. Prospects for the future of the species in England are definitely encouraging.

      Liked by 1 person

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