The humble beaver has been part of the Canadian landscape for centuries and the quest for beaver pelts shaped the nation's history. But now these industrious rodents are making a comeback in Britain where their engineering prowess is being used to help stop flooding and regenerate wetlands.
Beavers hadn't been seen in Britain for around 400 years after they were wiped out by hunters who prized the animals for fur, meat and glandular oil, which was used as a treatment for headaches. Now they are returning, thanks to a handful of pilot projects in England and Scotland that have reintroduced colonies into the countryside. Scientists say the small number of beavers has already transformed the local landscapes and changed the flow of water, which has cut down on flooding and created new habitats for a wide array of plants, insects and birds.
Earlier this month, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced that four beavers will be released into a 6.5 hectare enclosure in the Forest of Dean, a woodland in southwestern England, as part of a program to alleviate near constant flooding in nearby villages.
If all goes well, Mr. Gove said more beavers will be sent out across the country on a controlled basis over the next few years. "The beaver has a special place in English heritage and the Forest of Dean proposal is a fantastic opportunity to help bring this iconic species back to the countryside 400 years after it was driven to extinction," he said in a statement.
Last year, the Scottish government officially recognized beavers as a native species and it protected two populations that have been reintroduced in the southern and western Highlands. The Welsh government is also considering a trial project that will see 20 pairs released in an enclosed area.
But not everyone is happy about their return. Farmers and sheep ranchers worry that beavers will become pests by blocking waterways and spreading diseases that can be harmful to humans and animals. A recent Scottish study found that 21 beavers in the controlled areas had been shot in the past four years and the National Farmers' Union has insisted that there must be appropriate precautions in place for farmers before any widespread release of beavers.
Those who have worked on beaver programs say the benefits of the creatures far outweigh any problems for farmers.
"We're a small island and we're slightly small-minded often when it comes to sharing our island with species that we've gotten rid of in previous centuries," said Stephen Hussey of the Devon Wildlife Trust,
which has run a beaver project along the River Otter near Exeter since 2015. "They are a species that could come back very rapidly into our landscape and, we think, do a really good job for human beings as well."
The Devon beaver project, the first in Britain, began almost by accident. It came after reports surfaced that someone had released a group of beavers into the river illegally, prompting environment officials to call for their removal.
Mr. Hussey said the release was likely by wildlife enthusiasts who have become frustrated that Britain lags other European countries in reintroducing beavers to the countryside. Whatever the case, the trust stepped in and received government approval to set up a program to protect the beavers and monitor their activity.
Today, there are about 26 beavers in the colony and their presence has led to the creation of a marsh area filled with wild flowers, water beetles, frogs, herons, kingfishers, grass snakes, bats and a host of insects. The dozen or so beaver dams have also controlled the water flow and helped filter out phosphates and excessive fertilizer.
"Beavers are ecosystem creators," said Mr. Hussey. "They are what we call keystone species. And that's why we are so interested in them." He added that beavers found in Europe differ genetically from those in Canada, though they look the same.
Richard Brazier, a professor at University of Exeter who has studied the Devon project, said he has been surprised at how quickly the dams have helped limit flooding. He said the surrounding agricultural area is lined with drainage ditches, which move water off the land quickly but can also cause flooding during heavy rainfall.
"We initially started to monitor beaver dams because we thought they'd be causing problems by flooding all the agricultural land, and we are seeing some agricultural land being flooded but we are seeing a very strong downstream effect, which is to slow these flood flows down. That's been quite exciting for us," Prof. Brazier said. "We've been monitoring a whole range of different things and the story is overwhelmingly positive."
Mr. Hussey acknowledged that any plan to release beavers on a large scale has to be done carefully. Britain isn't like Canada with its vast amount of wilderness. Much of the country is cultivated, meaning that most beavers have to live side by side with farmers. "If we are going to have beavers back in the landscape we need to do it properly and we need to think about how we manage that relationship with that animal going forward," he said. He cited programs in Germany that provide compensation to farmers and move beavers around to other areas if they are causing problems.
Some farmers don't see any problem with having beavers around. Derek Gow operates a 300-acre sheep farm in western England near Exeter and he's been a strong advocate of reintroducing the animals. "I've always been interested in nature conservation."
Mr. Gow brought some beavers from Poland in the 1990s and let them loose in a waterway on his farm. The colony now has around 20 beavers and they've remained largely in the same place, building dams that have helped control the flow of water and create a small wetland.
"What we've seen in Britain is a landscape that's essentially been drained of life over the course of the last 200 years," he said. "I wanted to bring back beavers because at the end of the day, with a degree of compromise, they are not a big problem to live with. And beavers bring back life."