The first confirmed sighting of wild beavers in England in hundreds of years delighted environmentalists.
But now the future of the family of beavers caught on film in the River Otter in Devon in February looks perilous, as campaigners fear the Government is drawing up plans to trap and cull them.
There have been huge successes reintroducing the dam-building mammals in Scotland in recent years, but campaigners say the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is in danger of sending the animal “back to the stone age” with its approach in England.
The Independent understands the warning from campaigners came after Defra contacted quango Natural England to investigate the beaver population at the Devon site and contacted experts to discuss “health screening work”, with one option on the table being a trap and cull policy.
Derek Gow, an independent ecologist who studies beavers, said he feared Defra was using the threat of a rare parasite tapeworm found in the European beaver, called Echinococcus Multilocularis (EM), as a “smokescreen” to remove the three animals found in Devon.
Beavers can host the destructive parasite, which is common in central Europe, but the origin of the beavers on the River Otter isn’t known and trapping and testing may be difficult, traumatic, and kill any young, says Gow.
A spokesperson for the animal charity PETA said: “The mere suggestion that we should kill beavers in one part of the country while reintroducing them in another is absurd. We’ve already seen with the badger slaughter how the Government’s kneejerk and trigger-happy responses to wildlife issues work out.”.
Roison Campbell-Palmer, who is part of a Royal Zoological Society of Scotland team running a five-year long trial to reintroduce beavers to the Scottish Highlands, added that there was only “a very small chance” that the animals Devon had been imported from high-risk EM areas, while other environmentalists point to a 2012 Defra report which found the risk of transmission of the parasite to UK wildlife was “very low”.
“Trapping and culling these animals would be an appalling thing to do. The risk of this parasite is very small as it is only found in directly imported adult animals,” said Mr Gow, who is a committee member of the Beaver Advisory Committee for England. “The real reason Defra wants to trap them or kill them has nothing to do with beavers… it’s to do with pressure from a small minority of angling organisations. “
The Angling Trust says its members need more beavers “like we need a hole in the head” and maintains that its members have the “right” to shoot them as an invasive species. Mark Lloyd, the body’s chief executive, said: “The release of these beavers has not been formally sanctioned and they should be removed.”
In the village of Ottery St Mary, on the River Otter, locals are appalled at the rumoured Defra plans. District councillor Clair Wright said the animals had been “universally welcomed” and that she was “horrified” as the prospect of trapping or a cull. David Lawrence, whose farms sits alongside the animal’s lodge, told The Independent that he “would not allow Defra to destroy the animals”.
A Defra spokesperson, said: “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.
“We are currently working out plans for the best way forward and any decision will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind.”