The Cropton Beavers
‘Something has survived.’ So warned the tagline for the 1997 Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, and as we stepped through the perimeter fence securing the 10 hectare enclosure, I couldn’t help imagining a herd of Compsognathus finishing us off beneath the trees. This patch of woodland had been almost untouched by humans for some time, as only the lead ecologist Cath held the keys to the gate, and without her we could only stare through the fence and wonder what lived within. We entered the enclosure, locked the gate behind us and started weaving our way through the trees to complete our mission - checking each of the trail cameras to see if they had captured any of the four creatures we were here to learn about. The creatures themselves? Elusive and enchanting, their existence confirmed only by the stumps of chewed branches encircling a large pond that was humming with life. Something new was living here - something had survived.
This was the site of a Eurasian beaver reintroduction project - not the first in Britain, but one of a series of reintroduction projects that have seen the beaver restored to its natural habitat in our waterways, 400 years after they were hunted to extinction for their meat, fur and scent glands. In April, two beavers were relocated from Tayside in Scotland after DEFRA decided beavers from the continent (specifically Holland) might be at risk of disease. The trial was arranged not only for beaver conservation, but to contribute to the Slowing the Flow project, a scheme aimed at reducing local flooding by, for example, installing structures to dam the river. As most of these structures were made of timber, and timber would eventually rot away, the theory was that the beavers might naturally build onto the structures and keep them maintained for decades to come.
The first two beavers introduced here were a pair - male and female - who were classed as ‘in a relationship’. When they were relocated, the vet scan revealed at least one tiny uncalcified skeleton in the female, but the ecologists were not sure the pregnancy would survive the move so didn’t raise their hopes. In July, it was announced that not one, but two kits had been born! They were both healthy and living in the enclosure with their parents, who were caught on camera carrying them around the enclosure. They will likely spend 2-3 years together as a family group before the young leave to form their own families. The enclosure is estimated to hold 12-15 beavers at full capacity, but most are hoping the project will pass its trial period and be expanded in future so that beavers can start to shimmy back into all our national waterways.
As with all situations where nature is given an inch of breathing space, some people have been resistant to the reintroduction project, citing tree damage and other potential problems. In reality, beavers have been proven to enhance their environments and prevent flooding - but more importantly, they were here first! Beavers belong in Britain, and a chance to have them back should be embraced by anyone who loves our countryside. I visited the beaver reintroduction project in Devon a couple of years ago and it was amazing to see them back - you can read about it in my new book Dark Skies, out this September!
Beavers are elusive creatures, so I held no hopes of seeing one in the middle of a July afternoon. But just as we were checking a camera close to their burrow (they chose to dig a burrow rather than a lodge), Cath pointed across the water - and there! Without a ripple, the female appeared for just a few seconds, floating across the murky water like something prehistoric before disappearing beneath the opposite bank. We had seen her.
With gentle optimism, I feel like our beavers are here to stay, although it may take some time and many DEFRA reports before they become common. But look at otters, water voles, red kites and buzzards - species that were almost extinct in the UK, but with a little breathing space have flourished and returned to our ecosystems for the good of us all. This beaver enclosure was only small, but it gave me hope that we are brave enough to set nature free and rewild our struggling countryside.