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To the delight of eager U.K. ecologists, London welcomes its first baby beaver in centuries

Hunted to near-extinction during Elizabethan times, there is now a concerted effort to bring beavers back to Britain for the benefits they offer in flood management, water quality and fostering biodiversity.

Beaver believers say the industrious rodent could be key in landscape management

A brown beaver flecked with bits of green algae appears to nibble on a stick while lying in a pond.

Footage from a diligently watched night vision camera revealed a happy surprise to the team monitoring the new beaver enclosure on the Forty Hall Estate in North London this summer.

A baby beaver was spotted splashing about with its parents in the stark, black-and-white video recording captured by cameras set up around its habitat. The baby, known as a kit, is believed to be the first to be born in the area in hundreds of years.

"We didn't have eyes on the female beaver, so we were a bit concerned," said Meg Wilson, animal collections manager for Capel Manor College, one of the groups leading London's first beaver reintroduction program.

That concern turned to excitement two weeks later when the female appeared again on camera with swollen teats, an obvious sign of feeding, Wilson said.

"We had an inkling that she might have had a baby and we just hadn't seen it yet … and then that's when we found the little one swimming around with the adults," Wilson told the CBC in a phone interview, with a smile in her voice.

WATCH | Baby tests the water inside Enfield's beaver enclosure:

London’s newest beaver makes a splash

1 day ago

Duration 0:13

Featured VideoVideo provided by Enfield Council and Capel Manor College shows the baby beaver splashing and diving in September 2023. Officials say the timestamps of the cameras surrounding the Enfield beaver enclosure are reset when the batteries run down.

Back from near-extinction

Unlike in Canada, where the species is thriving and its population is estimated in the millions, beavers in Britain number in the low thousands, with likely only around 500 in England.

Hunted to near-extinction during Elizabethan times, there is now a concerted effort to bring beavers back to Britain for the benefits they offer in flood management, water quality and fostering biodiversity.

Flood defence is precisely why Wilson and her team applied to set up a beaver enclosure in Enfield, a town on the northern border of Greater London.

A bonded pair of beavers were relocated from Scotland in December 2022 and have since created a wetland that almost one metre deeper than what previously existed.

"They haven't even been here a whole year yet and and they're already doing great things … shaping the landscape into a much better, more productive area," said Wilson.

Close-up of a beaver's head as it swims through a pond.

What happened to the beaver?

Castor fiber, or the Eurasian beaver, is no stranger to this side of the Atlantic. Fossil evidence indicates beavers lived across most of Europe and parts of Asia 10,000 years ago until an appetite for their meat and fur brought them to the brink of extinction by the 1500s.

While some European countries like Sweden, Germany, and Austria began their beaver reintroduction programs in the 20th century, efforts in the U.K. didn't get underway until 2009. That's when the Scottish government launched a trial to monitor the effects of the animal on its ecosystem and released 15 beavers into the west coast of Scotland.

The long absence of nature's engineers has been felt across Britain.

"Nature in this country is pretty depleted and really needs help to recover," said Richard Brazier, a University of Exeter professor and director of a research centre that focuses on environmental resilience — which often includes research he calls "beaverology."

The U.K. continues to be plagued with record-breaking hot and dry summers. Drone photography of the Clinton Devon Estate in southwest England has shown how the presence of beavers on the land has helped to preserve the land in times of drought.

"When the beavers are living in a landscape, they support the structure of that ecosystem," said Brazier.

Brazier describes the world's second-largest rodent as a "keystone species."

When they are introduced to "intensively farmed and drained landscapes," they can facilitate an increase in water levels, which in turn fosters life of a multitude of different species, he said.

The benefits these ecological foot soldiers afford does not stop at biodiversity. A 2021 study of the western United States showed beaver dams can also improve the fire resistance of a landscape and offer sanctuary for species like fish, amphibians or birds that cannot physically escape during a wildfire.

Despite this evidence, not everyone in Britain is on board with beaver reintroduction.

'95% good, 5% bad'

It is illegal to release beavers into the wild in England and a special licence is required to keep them in enclosures.

One of the groups most invested in this legislation is farmers.

Richard Bramley, who chairs the environment forum of the National Farmers' Union, said in an email to CBC that many farmers are concerned about the negative impacts — from flooding to felling trees to eating crops — that beavers could have on their land.

But there are ways to help mitigate those concerns, said Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, a charity committed to increasing biodiversity across England, Scotland and Wales.

"Beavers are 95 per cent good and five per cent bad when it comes to a human perspective," said Driver.

"There are things they do that we might not like," he said. "But we know how to deal with that."

Driver said there are physical solutions, like the installation of "beaver deceiver" pipes that allow water to drain through a dam and prevent flooding.

He also said there are subsidies for farmers whose crops have been eaten so they don't bear the financial burden of accepting beavers on their land.

Smiling man standing in a field with a T-shirt that states Born to Rewild

Driver said the true financial burden has been borne by the government after decades of not employing these natural irrigation experts.

"Over my career, I spent millions of pounds restoring rivers. Beavers do it for free," he said.

The U.K. government is planning to spend £5.2 billion (about $8.7 billion Cdn) over the next six years on flood and coastal erosion risk management.

Driver said the reintroduction of beavers is a "no-brainer" that will benefit society as a whole.

But it is being held up at the highest level.

'Not a priority'

A major requirement in allowing beavers to be reintroduced into the English wilderness is sign-off from Thérèse Coffey, the U.K.'s secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs.

Recently, the minister told a committee of MPs that "species reintroduction is simply not a priority for this administration."

Many of the ecologists and campaigners — who have been busy as the animals they're trying to reintroduce — vehemently disagree.

"It is a priority," Driver said, referring to the 30 by 30 initiative that the U.K. government signed, along with numerous countries around the world including Canada.

The initiative has a goal to protect and restore 30 per cent of its land by 2030.

"It won't do that in the river and the wetland world without beavers back in the landscape," said Driver.

London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, participated in the release a family of beavers into a wetland area in west London in early October. It is one of approximately 27 beaver enclosures of its kind around the country.

Living better with nature

There is still hope for these wetland warriors who live in 27 enclosures across England, each of which, according to Driver, is a step in the right direction.

"There isn't a single beaver enclosure in the country that hasn't won over more people because they see what the beavers can do in that location."

This is true for local amateur wildlife photographer Colin Pressland, who was one of the first to capture Enfield's baby beaver with his camera.

North London local Colin Pressland was walking with his wife this past summer when they came across the Enfield beavers.

"It is exciting, and certainly never a species I would have imagined being in North London," he said.

Baby Bevan, as Wilson and her staff have affectionately taken to calling the beaver kit, is a regular fixture on the video captured by the camera trap.

"Pretty much every day we see Baby," said Wilson.

WATCH | Lending a hand in lodge-building:

Busy Baby Bevan, London’s first baby beaver in centuries

1 day ago

Duration 0:21

Featured VideoThe kit, dubbed Baby Bevan, helps build the dam inside the beaver enclosure at Enfield’s Forty Hall Estate. The video, provided by Enfield Council and Capel Manor College, was taken in September 2023.

The somewhat clumsy critter has been helping its parents build a large lodge, said Wilson. Once Baby Bevan is older, the kit will be examined by a veterinarian to determine its sex and assess its overall health.

Wilson said their job is to monitor and learn but not interfere, allowing the beavers to do what they do best and shape a better landscape for everyone.

"We need to live together with nature better."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lauren Sproule

Associate Producer

Lauren is an associate producer based in the CBC News London bureau.

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