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Beavers were once part of the British landscape. Place names echo their presence – from Beverley in Yorkshire to Beverston in Gloustershire and Beverley Brook running through Richmond Park down to the Thames.

They were hunted to the verge of extinction during the reign of King Henry VIII, prized for their silky fur and castoreum – the secretion from the scent sacs close to the tail, used for making perfume and medicines. The last known British beaver was killed in 1789 in Bolton Percy, Yorkshire.  

Living without them for so long, ecologists argue, we’ve lost sight of how important they are to our ecosystem. Research in America, Canada and Europe has identified beavers as a ‘keystone species’ whose activities result in an exponential rise in biodiversity. Their coppicing of trees along the riverbanks – for food and to build dams and lodges – lets in sunlight which encourages green oxygen-producing aquatic plants. Woody debris dragged into the water by the beaver provides a jungle of substrate for micro-organisms to grow on – fuel for populations of invertebrates which, in turn, provide food for fish and aquatic birds.  

As hydrological engineers, beavers are also hugely effective at creating water-systems that purify water, store it, and protect against devastating floods.    

Much of the work we’ve done at Knepp to restore watercourses, including returning our stretch of the River Adur to its floodplain, could have been done more efficiently and at no expense, by a family of beavers.  

We’ve been campaigning for greater appreciation of this keystone species for many years and hope it won’t be long before we see free-living beavers throughout the UK, with a reliable management plan to support their return and to swiftly address any problems they may cause farmers and land managers. For the moment, beavers have been allowed to re-establish themselves (from both illegal and licensed releases) in Scotland, where they are now protected by law. In England, which has been much more cautious, a free-living population of beavers has been granted permission to remain on the River Otter in Devon, and over a dozen licenses have been granted by DEFRA to establish beavers within enclosures at trial sites. Knepp is one of these. 

In November 2020 we released a male and female beaver that had been caught on the River Tay in Scotland (where many farmers object to their presence) into the Southern Block. Our particular license was for a ‘semi-enclosure’ – the hope being that, if we fortified the deer fences and beaver-proofed the culverts and ditches leading downstream, the beavers would swiftly settle into the rewilding project and, with plenty of wetland and sallow to keep them busy, stay on site for many years.  

Unfortunately, within weeks, both had escaped in different directions. The male, Bramber, crossed twenty weirs heading down the Adur towards Shoreham, eventually being captured on an organic farm. The female, Billie, escaped to an angling pond a mile away where she, too, was caught up. Sadly, Bramber died on the night of his capture. Pathology revealed he had succumbed to a virus – quite common in wild mammals – that had probably afflicted him for several weeks. Billie is now with a mate in an enclosure on National Trust land.  

The positives from this rather disappointing failed first attempt at Knepp were the public response – overwhelmingly enthusiastic at seeing beavers once again in the wider landscape – and the ease with which Penny Green, our ecologist, was able to catch them up again.  

Our next reintroduction attempt at Knepp (in 2022) will be into a temporary enclosure where we hope the beavers will invest in the creation of a lodge, dams and other infrastructure – an effort that will, effectively, ‘heft’ them to the site.  

We look forward to seeing how this extraordinary ecosystem engineer makes its mark on our landscape with, we hope, a significant effect on biodiversity and water management 

Further Information

The Beaver Trust 

Barkham, P. ‘Dam fine: estate owners across UK queue up to reintroduce beavers.’ The Guardian. (1 Feb 2020).  

Brazier, R.E., Puttock, A. et al. 2021. ‘Beaver: Nature’s ecosystem engineers.’ Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, 8(1), e1494. (2021)  

Brazier, R.E., Elliot, M., et al. 2020. River Otter Beaver Trial: Science and Evidence Report. (2020)  

Campbell-Palmer, Róisin, et al. The Eurasian Beaver Handbook. Pelagic Publishing (2016) 

Coghlan, Andy. ‘Should the UK bring back beavers to help manage floods?’ New Scientist. (13 November 2015)  
Collen, P., & Gibson, R. ‘The general ecology of beavers as related to their influence on stream ecosystems and riparian habitats, and the subsequent effects on fish – a review’. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, vol 10, pp.439-461 (2001) 

Collier, Eric. Three Against the Wilderness. (Touch Wood Editions, 2007, first published 1959)  
Crumley, Jim. Nature’s Architect – the beaver’s return to our wild landscapes. Saraband. (2015) 
Elliott, M., Blythe, C., et al. ‘Beavers – Nature’s Water Engineers. A summary of initial findings from the Devon Beaver Projects’. Devon Wildlife Trust. (2017)  

Gow, Derek. Bringing Back the Beaver. Chelsea Green Publishing. (2022) 

Gurnell, J., Gurnell, A.M., Demeritt, D., et al. ‘The feasibility and acceptability of reintroducing the European beaver to England’. Natural England commissioned report NECR002. (2009) 

Halley, D.J., & Roseel, F. ‘The beaver’s re-conquest of Eurasia: status, population development and management of a conservation success’. Mammal Review, vol 3, pp. 153-178. (2002) 
Hood, G. A. & Bayley, S. ‘Beaver (Castor Canadensis) mitigate the effects of climate on the area of open water in boreal wetlands in western Canada.’ Biological Conservation, vol 141, pp. 556-567. (2008)  

Hood, G.A. ‘Biodiversity and ecosystem restoration: beavers bring back balance to an unsteady world.’ Plenary, 6th International Beaver Symposium, Ivanić Grad, Croatia. (September 2012)  

Jones, S., Gow, D., Lloyd Jones, A., & Campbell-Palmer, R. ‘The battle for British beavers’. British Wildlife, vol 24, no.6, pp. 381-392. (August 2013)  

Law, A., Gaywood, Martin J., Jones, Kevin C., Ramsay, P., Willby, Nigel, J. ‘Using ecosystem engineers as tools in habitat restoration and rewilding: beaver and wetlands’. Science of the Total Environment, pp 1021–1030. (2017) 

Manning, A.D., Coles, B.J., et al. ‘New evidence of late survival of beaver in Britain’. The Holocene vol. 24, issue 12, pp.1849-1855. (2014) 

McLeish, Todd. ‘Knocking down nitrogen’. Northern Woodlands. (Spring 2016)  

Nyssen, J., et al. ‘Effect of beaver dams on the hydrology of small mountain streams – example from the Chevral in the Ourthe Orientale basin, Ardennes, Belgium’. Journal of Hydrology, vol.402, issues 1–2, pp. 92–102 (13 May 2011)

Our 12+ Policy

Knepp Wildland Safaris and campsite are all about the quiet and patient observation of nature.

Some of the species we are likely to encounter are shy or can be frightened by loud noises or sudden movements. Our campsite with open-air fire-pits, wood-burning stoves and an on-site pond is unsuitable for small children.

For this reason, our safaris, holiday cottages and campsite are suitable only for children of 12 and over.

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