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Campaigners hail beavers reprieve

Beavers will be allowed to continue living wild on a river in Devon after government agency Natural England gave the green light to a five year trial.

A licence will be issued to Devon Wildlife Trust to monitor and manage the impact of the beavers on the River Otter.

The trial is subject to confirmation the aquatic mammals are free of a parasite, and are Eurasian beavers - the same species that was once widespread in the UK but hunted to extinction several hundred years ago.

The beavers have been in the river for at least three years, though there are suggestions they may have been there for up to a decade. Evidence first emerged this year that they had produced young, known as kits.

Ministers had said they intended to capture, test for disease and re-home in captivity the beavers, b ut the move was opposed by wildlife experts who put forward plans for a five year trial scheme for the beavers, with the support of local people.

Andrew Sells, Natural England chairman, said: "Reintroduction of a species is a complicated and emotive subject and we have considered this application very carefully.

"Responses to our written consultation and public meetings have been generally positive and we are now satisfied with Devon Wildlife Trust's plans for managing and monitoring the project, which will allow important evidence to be gathered during the trial on any impacts which the beavers may have."

Harry Barton, chief executive of Devon Wildlife Trust, said: " We are delighted by Natural England's decision to grant us a licence to give these beavers a long term future on the River Otter.

"This is an historic moment. The beavers of the River Otter are the first breeding population in the English countryside for hundreds of years.

"We believe they can play a positive role in the landscapes of the 21st century through their ability to restore our rivers to their former glories.

"We know from our own research and research done in Europe that beavers are excellent aquatic-engineers improving the flood and drought resilience of our countryside and increasing the water quality of our rivers."

Wildlife groups back the return of the aquatic mammals, which manage the landscape by cutting down trees and damming rivers, for the benefit they can provide in preventing flooding, maintaining water quality and boosting other wildlife.

But farmers and anglers have raised concerns that they can damage the landscape and fish migration routes, and conservation efforts should be focused on the UK's existing wildlife.

A five-year trial releasing beavers into the wild has been run in west Scotland, while a wild population established in Tayside, East Scotland, as a result of escaped or illegally-released animals could now total as many as 250 animals.

The Welsh Government's conservation agency Natural Resources Wales is working with Wildlife Trusts Wales on the possibility of introducing beavers to Wales, with potential releases in 2015 or 2016.

Natural England said the trial in Devon, which could include introducing other breeding pairs of beavers if they are needed to ensure the genetic diversity of the population, would inform future decisions on releasing beavers in England.

The conservation organisation said the unauthorised release of beavers remains illegal and it does not expect to grant any other licences for releases during the five years of the trial.

Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said: " It is wonderful to hear that the first breeding population of beavers in England for hundreds of years is going to be allowed to remain in the wild.

"We know that we can't bring back all the great animals that the country's lost - at least not everywhere - but where it is feasible, we owe it to future generations to do so."

Friends of the Earth campaigner Alasdair Cameron said: " Beavers add to Britain's rich natural heritage and can bring huge benefits to the local environment, such as boosting wildlife and reducing flooding risks.

"Thanks to the hard work of thousands of individuals and organisations, our number of native species just increased by one. The next stage is to get the beavers tested and then returned to the River Otter where they can now swim in peace."

Clinton Devon Estates, on whose land the beavers can be found, also welcomed the decision but warned of the need to manage problems the animals cause to landowners and a fund to compensate people whose livelihoods are damaged by their activities.

Sam Bridgewater, nature conservation manager for Clinton Devon Estates, said: "If their numbers increase, then it is inevitable that they will eventually start to engineer their local environment.

"This will bring all kinds of benefits such as a potential slowing down of flood waters and an increase in the diversity of wildlife habitats, but will also likely cause some grief.

"I think a key issue for the authorities to address is that mechanisms are put in place to allow any conflicts to be avoided quickly in the future."

He added: "We have a strong conservation team on the estate and significant experience of managing sites and species of European importance, and are very happy to work with other parties such as Natural England and the Devon Wildlife Trust to ensure this trial is a success."

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