The Last Wild Beaver in Britain
The Last Wild Beaver in Britain.
The Beaver Castor fiber used to be very common in the British Isles. Its former spread is recognised in place names like Beverley, Beverstone and Beaver Hole amongst others. Sadly it is believed to have become extinct back in back in the Sixteenth Century. I sometimes wonder though. Did I catch the last wild Beaver in Britain?
Beavers are the second largest rodent after the South American Capybara Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris. There are two species of Beaver, the European Castor fiber and the North American Castor canadensis. Like the Capybara both species of Beaver spend most of their lives in and around water.
Beaver were hunted to extinction in England mainly for their fur. Their North American cousins are hunted for the same reason today but also for the scent gland secretion castoreum which is valued by the perfume and medicine market.
Since 2000 there have been a number of planned projects to return the Beaver to the wild within the United Kingdom and these continue.
The first animals were 'let go' in Kent in 2001. These failed to breed. The next 'release' was in 2005 at South Cerney in the Cotswolds. These animals actually bred.
Further animals were 'introduced' to Martin Mere in 2007 where they bred as well.
So far all 'releases' in England have been into large enclosed areas and not actually into the wild proper. A genuine release in England would have to be licensed by Defra and no such licence has been given. In Scotland some very closely monitored animals were 'free' released. One of these was shot only a short time later.
There was some excitement in 2008 when a pair of Beavers in Ottery St Mary built what was believed to be the first Beaver dam in Britain for centuries (untrue as it turned out).
There was further excitement when Beaver escaped from a private collection in Devon in 2009.
In 1974 I was curator of Cricket St Thomas Wildlife Park (The West Country Wildlife Park) located between Chard and Crewkerne in Somerset in South West England. This was a small mixed collection located in a beautiful river valley. Sealions frolicked in the river and the Elephants bathed with them on some days. It was an extremely attractive and beautiful place to work. The whole ambience was added to by the surrounding woodlands in which there were wild deer. In their turn the wood and copses were interlaced with large fields feeding three large dairy herds.
Down river from the Park was tree nursery which grew on a huge number of ornamental trees for sale to the public. One day we had a telephone call from them to say that they had shot and killed one of our 'Beaver' as it had destroyed a large number of saplings. The other 'Beaver' had escaped they said, but they would shoot that too if they saw it again.
This was mystery. The park did not have beaver. What's more it had never had Beaver. There were no other collections in the locale which had Beavers. We knew of no-one with Beavers. To be honest I did not believe them. Coypu perhaps. Just a remote possibility. Maybe mink. We had terrible problems with mink...only they did not eat trees and were tiny in comparison. What on earth?
To be honest I did not believe the story, though my boss was more convinced. He asked me to keep an eye open for it. I did. I saw nothing. Reports from the tree nursery said that the Beaver had returned during the night and had done yet more damage.
I only had one day off a week and my working day was a very full one. I did not have time to waste looking for an imaginary Beaver. That said, on my next day off I set off with my Alsation dog on a Beaver Hunt.
I suppose I could have gone downstream but decided to go up first. Perhaps just quarter of an hour later I was shocked to the core. I came across a Beaver Dam, a Beaver Lodge, a series of channels leading into a large pond and there swimming across the middle was a Beaver. The setting was exactly like a Disney Movie. This was classic Beaver.
Even now I only half believed what I was seeing. This was a Beaver. This was a wild Beaver. Truly wild. This was no introduction into a monitored area. This was a beaver doing its own thing in its own time in its own place. The lodge, the dam the canals. There was evidence of other lodges. This was no recent set up. This was long established. This though was going to be a dead Beaver unless I caught it. How to go about it? I was alone apart from the dog and he was getting very excited at the scent of Beaver and had picked up on my interest in the beast. I decided to take him home,
I returned carrying a box in which to put the Beaver and a catchpole and set about trying to capture the animal. It went straight into the lodge. I don't know if you have ever broken into a Beaver lodge but it is no easy feat. I was actually loathe to damage something I considered a thing of beauty but it really was needs must. It was difficult and time consuming but once through to the inside the Beaver moved out into the pond once again.
The water was deep and the bottom muddy. I toyed with the idea of swimming after the Beaver but eventually decided against it. I thought then to drain the pond and actually started doing it but stopped on a rethink. I returned to the park and came back with a companion and a small aluminium rowing boat.
I did catch the Beaver and took him back to the park. We kept him there for a week or so before he was taken up to Regent's Park Zoo in London. I know nothing of the history from there on.
I am not suggesting that the Beaver I caught was a remnant of the 16th Century population but it was a wild Beaver. It, and its mate had been living in the wild in Somerset for quite some time. To this day I have no explanation as to where they came from. So, in effect, I did catch the last 'wild' Beaver in Britain!