• Health watchdog contradicts claims Ottery beavers pose human health risk

    9th October 2014 | News | Claire
  • Emails show Public Health England does not believe beavers on river Otter would increase risk to human health from disease

    The UK’s health watchdog appears to have privately contradicted claims by the environment department that a family of escaped beavers in Devon pose a risk to human health.

    Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have repeatedly said that the beavers, thought to be the first in the wild in England for centuries, could threaten human health because they may be carrying a disease that the UK is currently free of.

    But Defra documents and emails, released under Freedom of Information rules, reveal that while Public Health England (PHE) is concerned about the disease, it does not believe the beavers would increase the risk to human health from the tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularis (EM).

    “PHE accept that the main risk of an incursion is likely to be through international movements of pets, both legal and illegal… Therefore they are not convinced that the three Devon beavers necessarily represent a significant increase in overall risk,” a Defra official emailed colleagues after meeting with Public Health England.

    The health watchdog’s view that the beavers on the river Otter would not significantly increase risk was also based on the fact there is a group of around 100 “free-living” beavers in Scotland already, on the river Tay, which Scottish authorities had planned to trap but later decided to leave alone, the email shows.

    The documents show that trapping the Devon beavers, most likely in cages that have already been procured, and putting them in captivity, will cost the government nearly £50,000.

    Briefing notes also make it clear the three kits (beaver young) that the family produced this summer will be captured too, even though those born in the wild could not be carrying the disease. “We intend to capture all the beavers, including any known to be bred this year (which therefore could not be infected with EM),” officials write.

    Alasdair Cameron, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, which claims that trapping the beavers would be unlawful under European legislation, said that trapping the wild-born beavers was disproportionate.

    “EM from beavers is not the main risk for EM in the UK. There’s a huge trade in smuggled pets, smuggled puppies, that’s a much bigger risk. This [risk of EM] also doesn’t apply to any beavers born in the wild, so trapping the kits would be completely disproportionate.

    “At a time when biodiversity is in freefall, we should be looking to protect these species, not trap them.”

    The documents show that doing nothing about the beavers, as many local people including the landowner where they are living appear to want, is not an option Defra is keen on, because it fears that could encourage further illegal releases into the wild.

    “Not a preferred option when there is an uncertainty around disease risk. It also sends an unwelcome message that government will take no action where illegal releases occur, potentially encouraging further illegal releases,” says one briefing note.

    The material also show that Defra is no wiser than locals and conservationists as to the source of the beavers, despite conducting its own investigations and interviews.

    A Defra spokeswoman said: “The beavers may carry a disease which could pose a risk to human health – although this risk is low, we cannot ignore it. That is why we are taking precautionary action to test the beavers. Their presence could also have a negative impact on the surrounding environment and wildlife.

    “Once captured and tested, we intend to rehome them in a suitable location, and all decisions will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind.”

    Photograph: Next to the River Otter at Tipton St John, giving an interview to ITV a few weeks ago about the beavers.