The environmental charity Friends of the Earth has launched legal action to try to stop the government from ordering the capture of a family of beavers living in the wild in Devon.
FoE lawyers have submitted legal papers seeking to challenge licences that allow the capture the animals, believed to be the first beavers to live in the wild in England for centuries.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) plans to trap the colony and transfer the creatures to a zoo or wildlife park. It argues they are a non-native, invasive species and could carry a disease.
Most local people who share the banks of the River Otter with the beavers appear to want them to be left alone.
FoE argues that because Britain was part of the beavers’ natural range before they were hunted to extinction, they are protected under European law.
Alasdair Cameron, an FoE campaigner, said: “At a time when our wildlife is facing an unprecedented crisis, the government should be taking steps to protect and expand the range of key native species like the beaver – not removing them from our rivers.
“We know that beavers can bring many benefits, such as boosting fish stocks, improving biodiversity and helping to prevent flooding – as well as injecting a little more joy into our landscape.
“Ministers should work with the local community to find a sensible solution that allows them to remain in the wild.
“This is an opportunity to create a richer, better environment for ourselves and our children, where we can experience the beauty of animals that are an important part of our ecosystems.”
FoE has sent a pre-action protocol letter to Natural England, which has issued the licence allowing the beavers to be captured.
It says this will force Natural England to release more details about the licence – and is the first step in a judicial review.
A Defra spokesman said: “The beavers on the River Otter may carry a disease which could pose a risk to human health. That is why it’s our responsibility to take precautionary action and test them. All decisions will be taken with paramount consideration for the beavers’ welfare.”
Photograph: Being interviewed by Westcountry ITV, about the Friends of the Earth legal challenge and local people’s reactions to the beavers living on the river.