Wildlife experts have said they are amazed, delighted and a little bit baffled after discovering a family of beavers living wild on the River Avon near Bristol.
It is the first time beavers have lived in this part of the world for almost 500 years – the Eurasian beaver is native to Britain but they were hunted to extinction in this country in the 1500s.
But now, out of nowhere, a family of beavers with a year-old kit and three more born this year, have been discovered, monitored, and now photographed and filmed at a secret location in the River Avon catchment area not too far from Bristol and Bath.
The discovery took months to confirm. It was back in 2019 that the first reports of people seeing the famous signs of beavers – bits of trees and branches gnawed off to look like pencils – on the riverbank, and when the covid lockdown meant a growing number of people were out and about on riverside walks, the reports kept coming in to Avon Wildlife Trust.
So a team led by Amy Coulthard, the director of nature’s recovery at the trust, began investigating if it really was true that this long-extinct mammal was living on the rivers of the Avon catchment area once again.
In February this year, a wildlife group managing a nature reserve on the River Frome in Somerset said they’d found beavers had set up home, and this year, the Avon Wildlife Trust set up cameras in the area they thought the beavers were living – and sure enough, captured the evidence in stills and on video. They found a pair of adult beavers had quite the family – a yearling, a kit that was born in 2020, and this summer, three kits have joined the brood.
“We’re not entirely certain how they’ve ended up on the River Avon. We’re only going to know that for sure if we can do DNA testing and match it up with other samples taken from other places,” said Amy.
“But we don’t want to interfere with them too much, so we’re just going to leave them to it. There have been a number of enclosed releases and open releases, most notably in Devon, back to the 2000s, but it is remarkable that they have reached this far.
“I’m absolutely delighted that they are present, because they are bringing so many positives for the environment.
“Beavers are just so fascinating and their ability to hide in plain sight is incredible.”
Having known and confirmed the presence of beavers in the Avon catchment area, the Avon Wildlife Trust is now going public with the news, and urging people to look out for the signs if they are out and about near a river in the area.
The Trust has set up a special management group, which brings together everyone who needs to be involved – the landowners, the local farmers, anglers, the statutory organisations and the wildlife experts. Because while beavers are fascinating creatures, they do have an impact on the environment.
Amy said that is almost entirely a positive one. And while the beavers of Bristol haven’t yet built a dam – they don’t really need to where they are – if they spread out and go upstream, they may well do.
“Beavers can be hugely beneficial to the environment, they are a natural part of our river systems, and where they do build dams and create ponds, it is a massively positive thing. It effectively cleans the water, it creates a diverse and dynamic river system which has a large number of invertebrates, and when that happens you then get fish and bats and birds. Where they are felling or really coppicing trees, you’ll get lots of re-growth and a lot of studies have shown that there is a general increase in the amount of wildlife where there are beavers present,” she added.
Amy said beavers and their dams are also proven to help prevent flooding further downstream – indeed some landowners in Cornwall have introduced beavers upstream of regularly flood-hit villages to make sure heavy storms don’t bring flash floods because the beavers and their river management work have slowed the peak flows of that water down.
The Avon Wildlife Trust has also set up a special online reporting system on its website so people can report if they have seen the tell-tale signs of beavers in the Avon area.
“A new sighting of wild beavers is extremely significant. Beavers are a keystone species and they have an extraordinary ability to change habitats to suit their needs while creating ecosystems for other species to thrive. The presence of this beaver population will support other wildlife and help us to tackle the ecological emergency,” added Amy.
The specific location of the beavers that Avon Wildlife Trust know about is not being divulged – they don’t want loads of people turning up to disturb them. “It’s on private land, for a start, and the footpath doesn’t really go near the river, but there are plenty of other places along the rivers of the Avon catchment where there could be beavers that we don’t know about.
“What we’d love is for people to keep an eye out for the tell-tale signs – it literally is like the cartoons where beavers gnaw trees and branches to make them look like pointy pencils,” she said.
“If they see that, let us know,” she added. “People should also keep in mind that they could be there – this is an important development, so keep dogs on a lead around a river and keep an eye out.”
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