Devon's starring role in PM Boris' #bringbackbeaver speech

Young Eurasian beaver kit holding and nibbling a willow twig.

Beavers are now a common site along the River Otter in Devon. - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The presence of beavers in the wild in Devon was thrown into the national spotlight when Prime Minister Boris Johnson highlighted them in his Tory Party conference speech. Wildlife expert JAMES CHUBB explains the background to the story.

This month I’m taking us back down to the riverbank on the hunt for beavers! 

And boy are they in focus right now, with the PM taking time in his speech to the Tory Party conference to namecheck the success of the project by stating: “Otters are returning to rivers from which they have been absent for decades, beavers that have not been seen on some rivers since Tudor times are now back. Build back beaver." #buildbackbeaver indeed! 

 This time though, we’re not trudging ardently in the open countryside with fields and hedgerows rolling unstintingly to the water’s edge. No, this time we are in the middle of town. Honiton, to be precise. 

Devon Wildlife Trust has been doing fantastic work, following up from its progressive five-year study period, to keep up to speed with how beavers are getting along in the River Otter, and to work with landowners and farmers to manage any impacts arising from this new species which is present in ever-growing numbers.  

A tree stump gnawed by a beaver in Honiton, Devon.

Evidence of beavers eating trees in an orchard in Honiton. - Credit: Devon Wildlife Trust

And that is why when someone reported on a Facebook community page, that youths had vandalised a young apple tree in Honiton, both Jake from DWT and myself nipped down to take a closer look. 

 The inspection confirmed that far from being vandalism, this was feeding. The adolescent in question was a young beaver and it was merrily munching on an apple tree in the middle of a small community orchard alongside the River Gissage. 

 Beavers are vegetarian, with the vast majority of their diet being accessed directly from the water. In the summer growing months beavers will nibble away happily on grasses, and smaller overhanging branches. However, some of the time, and more often in the winter months, they will trundle out onto the bank and fell medium sized trees to get to the branches and green sapwood.  

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While they are far more talented tree surgeons than me and my Stihl chainsaw, they lack even my basic level of risk assessment, and so big trees within the fall zone of stuff we humans value, is a concern. There are easy fixes however, and simple methods can protect trees which strategically we want to encourage the beavers away from. 

 But they still need to feed, and the reason why I will always avoid the term ‘damage’ when talking about beavers feeding on trees, is that all of our native riverside tree species are not harmed from beaver feeding and will spring back with smaller growth which the beavers can then harvest at more regular intervals. 

 So, in this game of give and take, we must adjust our expectation of what riverside trees look like when beavers inhabit the river. Aside from those key trees we’ve made a conscious decision to protect, the remaining tree stock is going to look more like amazing riparian coppice – and be all the more interesting for wildlife too! 

 There will also be choices to be made about the other contentious bit of beaver behaviour: their damming. In some locations dams will present nothing but positives with flood prevention, water filtration and river diversification occurring as a natural result. But, in the middle of towns and cities, there could well be places where beaver dams are not welcome. Fortunately, there are simple methods developed to influence beaver behaviour and discourage dams with difficult distributions. 

 Finally, with a large mammal living on a river, there will be potential conflict with our pets which we will need to take reasonable action to avoid. The largest beaver so far measured on the Otter was a whopping 30 kilos, equipped with a very large set of orange teeth and not an animal to be treated as a toy!  

On rivers with beavers, especially those with kits, dogs will have to be kept under close control and not allowed into the water to play. That one simple step will not only entirely remove any chance of conflict between dog and beaver. 

 Beavers are legally here to stay and it would be naïve to suggest everyone will be thrilled about this, or that there will be zero change to any aspect of Devon’s rivers. But working with informed experts and seeking guidance from countries such as Germany which have had beavers back on their rivers since the 1960s, we should all be able to rub along together perfectly well.