Ministers are to round up a family of beavers spotted living in the Devon countryside and put them in a zoo.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is trying to find a home in captivity for the rodents that are thought to have made their home on the River Otter in east Devon.
But while Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has decided not to cull the animals, the move has angered environmentalists anxious to return the animal to the wild.
Beavers, once native to the UK, were hunted to extinction here 500 years ago as they were prized for their fur, meat and scent glands.
The Western Morning News revealed in January a beaver had been filmed living wild on the River Otter – and night-vision cameras later revealed a family-of-three cavorting in the stream.
Now Defra wants to “recapture and rehome” the beavers, and officials are desperately trying to find a zoo or animal sanctuary willing to give them a home.
In a parliamentary answer, Environment Minister George Eustice said: “We intend to recapture and re-home the wild beavers in Devon and are currently working out plans for the best way to do so. All decisions will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind. There are no plans to cull beavers.”
Defra, Natural England and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency are now working on exactly how to catch the animals, and where to send them.
But Peter Burgess, conservation manager at the Devon Wildlife Trust, said the charity would like to see the beavers remain on the River Otter.
“The one thing we need to make absolutely clear is we do not want to see reintroduction of species happen in this way but now they are here and on the river, we want them to remain,” he told Mail Online.
“It is only acceptable if it is proven that they are disease-free, the community need to agree if they want to have these animals on their doorstep.
“And there needs to be an organisation or affiliated group which has got the responsibility to look after them and learn as much as possible about them. We have got a huge amount to learn about what these beavers could do for us.”
Devon-based wildlife consultant Derek Gow, who was responsible for three imported beavers destined for an animal sanctuary in Scotland before one escaped six years ago, is a long-standing campaigner for the animals to be returned to the wild.
He said: “At the moment they are ringing all the zoos and asking them if they will take the beavers
“What Defra should do is look at a more informative project where by the beavers are left and studied – it becomes an English beaver trial.”
He blamed angling groups for demanding the beavers be removed. “Why should three beavers be three beavers too many?,” he said.
“This will be the first time in history that we have exterminated a native mammal twice, setting an extraordinary historical precedent.”
A Defra spokesman said: “We intend to recapture, and rehome these beavers and are currently working out plans for the best way to do so. All decisions will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind.
“Depending on the source of the animals, they could be carrying a disease not currently present in the UK. In addition, beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the last 500 years. Our landscape and habitats have changed since then and we need to assess the impact they could have.”