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!

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

The Devil is back! – Conservation programme enters new territory

The Tasmanian Devil is the world’s largest surviving marsupial predator. Once common throughout Australia, for thousands of years these iconic animals have been confined to the island of Tasmania. But even there they are now in big trouble due to a killer cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). Conservation groups have been working tirelessly to protect the species, and a few weeks ago news began to circulate of a ground-breaking reintroduction programme in mainland Australia. The Devil is back!

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Exactly four years ago we were at the start of our first and only visit to Australia. At the heart of our adventure was a road trip through Tasmania, where we spent five blissful weeks feasting our eyes on magnificent scenery and feisty wildlife. And the wildlife doesn’t come any feistier than the Tasmanian Devil, the island’s iconic marsupial predator.

tasmania-devilscradle-2016-16

Tasmanian Devil at the Devils@Cradle Sanctuary, November 2016

As well as visiting sanctuaries that are part of the captive breeding programme, we were privileged to see some truly wild Devils at the Mountain Valley Private Nature Reserve run by Len and Pat Doherty. Here’s how I described the experience in my blog of our Tasmanian road trip.

We are back in our cabins when Len arrives with a bucket full of chopped up wallaby, roadkill that is about to be recycled.  He spreads the meat about outside our cabin window.  A light on the porch means that lumps of flesh are illuminated and clearly visible from the cabin.  We settle down and wait for the action to begin. 

And wait … and wait.

At midnight we reluctantly decide to give up. Our quarry isn’t going to show tonight and, disappointed, we stumble off to bed.  However we leave the outside light on, and a floor-to-ceiling window means I can see the feeding area while laying in bed.

I’m soon asleep, but at 1.15am I wake up with a start.  Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I peer outside, and to my amazement glimpse the unmistakeable sight a Devil tucking into chopped up roadkill.

I nudge Mrs P, who is snoring softly in my ear’ole. “Devil,” I whisper urgently, “Devil!”

She grunts, but otherwise doesn’t respond.

“No, I’m not joking, there’s a Devil outside,” I say again, nudging her harder this time.

At last, it sinks in. Now she’s awake, creeping from the bed, groping silently in the dark for her camera. The light outside the cabin isn’t great for taking photos and flash is out of the question, but Mrs P does the best she can:

Encounter with the Devil: 1:15am, 23 November 2016

We watch, captivated, for about 15 minutes as the Devil systematically works his way through about 20 pieces of chopped up wallaby. Devils can eat 40% of their own bodyweight in a single night, so this is no more than a light snack.

The window is closed, of course. It’s bloody cold outside, and for that matter we’re bloody cold inside, halfway up a mountain in an unheated log cabin, clad only in our nightwear! But we ignore the discomfort, transfixed by the action just outside our window. And as we listen we can clearly hear our diabolical guest crunching ravenously on the bones, which he gobbles down together with the gory lumps of wallaby 

The next evening, the same thing happens. We go to bed at midnight and I’m woken shortly after 1:00am … only this time there are two Devils rather than just one.  They bicker and snarl at one another, battling over the spoils.

The light’s not great and flash is out of the question, but who cares? What an experience!

On the final evening of our stay at Mountain Valley three Devils turn up, thankfully a little earlier this time. We only ever see two at any one time, but we know there are three individuals as their size and white markings vary.

Again we relish watching the animals interact as they squabble, hurling abuse and grappling with one another over prime feeding rights.  They are feisty little things, and it’s great to see them going about their business blissfully unaware that every snap and snarl is being scrutinised.

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Devils disappeared from mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago. The reasons are thought to be the introduction of dingoes, as well as other human activity and an increasingly arid climate. However they hung on in Tasmania, where there are no dingoes and the climate is more temperate.

When Europeans arrived in Tasmania they encountered a healthy population of Devils, which they named for their unearthly screams, snarls and growls. But peaceful co-existence between settlers and the Devils quickly proved impossible.

Sheep farming was big business amongst the settlers, and – although scavenging is their preferred way of getting a meal – the Devils were identified as sheep killers. Persecution followed, and Devil numbers plummeted.

Tasmanian Devil at the Devils@Cradle Wildlife Sanctuary, November 2016

Devils became very rare, and were seemingly heading for extinction. But in June 1941 they were given legal protection, and for the next 55 years numbers gradually recovered.

However in 1996 it became evident that the animals were again under threat, this time from Devil Facial Tumour Disease. DFTD is characterised by cancers, generally around the mouth and head. It is invariably fatal, and has resulted in a huge decline in Devil numbers.

In recent years the Tasmanian government has invested heavily in its Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which includes advocacy, annual monitoring, captive breeding and active management of wild, disease-free populations on Maria Island and the Forestier-Tasman Peninsula.

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Meanwhile, back on mainland Australia the conservation organisation Aussie Ark has been building an “insurance population” of Devils. It says

To date, more than 390 devils have been born and raised at Aussie Ark in a way that fosters natural behaviour in the animals, preparing them for release into the wild. Aussie Arks ‘Rewild Australia’ strategy is a key component, alongside Species and habitat recovery, in returning Australia to it pre-European state.

Aussie Ark website, retrieved 27 October 2020

During 2020 Aussie Ark have released 26 Devils into a 400-hectare (1,000-acre) sanctuary at Barrington Tops, around 120 miles north of Sydney in New South Wales. The animals won’t be living a completely wild existence: they will be confined within the boundaries of the sanctuary and receive supplementary feeding. Researchers will monitor them by remote cameras to learn more about how they adjust in their new environment.

However the long-term aim of the programme is to release Devils into targeted, non-protected areas in mainland Australia. Here it’s hoped they will contribute to keeping feral cat and fox populations under control, and thereby help protect native wildlife.

Tasmanian Devil at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, November 2016

This is a bold, ambitious programme, and has been compared with the project to return wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Over the past 12 months the wildlife news from Australia has been bleak, dominated by the huge losses that resulted from the devastating bushfires, so it was great to come across this inspiring good news story.

Having been privileged to see Tasmanian Devils in the wild, they will always have a special place in my heart. Let’s hope Aussie Ark’s project is successful, and they quickly make themselves at home on the mainland.