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Eager beavers could benefit British agriculture

Since they escaped captivity in Devon, a group of eager beavers have “transformed” a valley  with a network of sturdy dams.

The beavers are thought to have been released, either by accident or in an unlicensed release, in 2005 near Percy’s Country Hotel in Devon. The Devon Wildlife Trust applied to turn the accidental escape into a licensed trial reintroduction.

It’s been a reintroduced-to-the-wild success, and researchers are learning valuable lessons about water management from the network of the 100-foot dams the population of beavers have built in the years since.

“Beaver engineering at Combeshead, particularly the building of dams has transformed the environment, increasing water storage and creating diverse wetlands,” Dr. Alan Puttock of the University of Exeter told the Daily Mail. “Our research has shown that beaver activity can slow the flow of water following rain storms potentially providing a valuable component to future flood and land management strategies.”

The study found that the beaver dams prevent nutrients and soil from being carried downstream during by trapping sediment, benefiting soils both upstream and downstream.

A study released in May found that 70 percent of the sediment trapped by the dams had eroded from grassland fields farther upstream.

“We are heartened to discover that beaver dams can go a long way to mitigate this soil loss and also trap pollutants which lead to the degradation of our water bodies,” Dr. Richard Brazier, who led the study, said in a press release.

The Eurasian beaver was native to the British Isles, but was hunted to extinction there – and in many areas of Europe – when beaver fur became a hot commodity. The last recorded beaver seen in the UK was shot in Scotland in 1526.

The Devon study shows that reintroducing eager beavers and their engineering to other parts of the UK could help the islands’ ecology.

“Were beaver dams to be commonplace in the landscape we would no doubt see these effects delivering multiple benefits across whole ecosystems, as they do elsewhere around the world,” Brazier said.

Research funding came from Westland Countryside Stewards and the Natural Environment Research Council.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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