Beavers, to me, are a North American animal. When I was in British Columbia, there were all sorts of tours you could go on that promised to show you a beaver dam, if not a beaver itself.
I’ve known for a while that there were beavers living on the River Otter, just a 30 minute drive from where I live. But I knew about it in the vague, almost abstract way that comes about when you don’t feel connected to something.
Perhaps this is our problem when it comes to wildlife conservation. We are vocal and determined about that which we have a connection with, which we have some personal tie to, no matter how tenuous. If it’s personal, we care.
So when I discovered that local wildlife photographers were capturing magnificent pictures of the River Otter beavers, I suddenly realised that perhaps I might be able to catch a glimpse too. I ordered a secondhand telephoto lens and started getting excited about the possibility. In short, I was getting myself invested, I was forging a connection.
On Saturday evening, I went out armed with my camera, tripod and patience and plonked myself down on the riverbank. Finding the right place wasn’t difficult, mostly because there were six other people there, each with a silent, breathless determination.
When you see six people crouching motionless on a riverbank, staring intently at the water, you absolutely want to join them.
Swimming through summer light
The sun was sinking through golden hour like golden syrup. The vibrant green fields behind me shone, the blanket of sun only broken by the silhouettes of Canada geese, muttering to each other.
I became aware of the beaver thanks to the shutter sounds of far fancier cameras than mine. My eyes searched the water and there it was, a brown head, calm eyes and an elevated nose, working its way across the river.
My heart soared. I have never seen a beaver, it’s not like they hang out in zoos like the meerkat or the giraffe. Beavers are elusive, self-reliant.
The beaver duck dived in a perfect single ripple and was gone.
There was a collective outbreath and we resumed our silent watch.
Over the next hour, the beaver reappeared several times, scooted around in front of us unfazed before returning to its dense, foliage-covered lodge.
The beavers are back in town
Today, 6th August 2020, these beavers have been granted the legal right to stay and live on the River Otter. It’s an enormous result for the beavers, the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) and all of us.
This community have been here since around 2013 when a small few turned up announced and made the river their home. With the government about to remove them, the DWT stepped in and convinced the government to allow the beavers to stay on a five-year trial basis. They capitulated and the trial ended in February.
Despite their wanton reorganisation of foliage, beavers aren’t destructive creatures. Instead, their alterations help prevent flooding downriver, aid water storage and prevent drying out, create healthier, welcoming habitats for other river wildlife and can even reduce pollution. And they’re not new. Beavers were here first and only became extinct in the UK 400 years ago.
The beavers on the Otter have already reduced peak flow in a local, flood-affected village and raised the biodiversity on the river and its tributaries. If you want to read the full DWT report on these beavers, you can do so here.
The government are conducting a study into the possibility of reintroducing beavers to other parts of the country, bringing back the beavers that could help do what they do best, manage water flow in a nation prone to flooding and depleted biodiversity. It’s a huge step in the right direction.
My trip to see the beavers was just the beginning for me too. I already love being in the outdoors but a greater understanding of the wildlife and environment will help me create a stronger connection to the nature that surrounds me. It’s all there for us to learn about. We just have to go out and reconnect.