England’s first wild breeding population of beavers for 400 years have been given the permanent right to stay in their Devon river home.
Conservationists have welcomed the “groundbreaking decision” by the Government to allow the beavers, who now number up to 15 family groups, to remain on the River Otter where they have been living wild for some years.
It means the future is secure for the first ever reintroduction of an extinct native mammal to England, Devon Wildlife Trust said.
But the wildlife experts urged the Government to make decisions on the wider future of beavers in England that will enable them to return to other rivers to create wetlands, boost wildlife, reduce flooding and improve water quality.
And they want to see funding to support land managers to make space for the animals, who engineer their landscape through building dams and can cause damage to trees and flood parts of fields.
The Government said the beavers on the River Otter would be allowed to remain permanently and continue to expand their range naturally.
The Environment Department will consult later this year on the management of beavers in the wild and a national approach for any further releases.
The move comes after the first official Red List of British Mammals listed beavers as an endangered native species.
Beavers were hunted to extinction four centuries ago in Britain for their meat, fur and gland secretions used for medicine and perfume, but a family of beavers were found to be living on the River Otter in Devon in 2013.
After the animals were threatened with removal by officials, Devon Wildlife Trust stepped in to lead a five-year trial to examine the impacts of wild beavers on the river, landscape and community.
A report on the trial earlier this year found their dam-building helped reduce flooding for some at-risk homes, created wetlands which supported fish, insects, birds and endangered water voles, and improved water quality.
There were localised problems for some landowners, but they were successfully managed with support and intervention from the trust, the conservationists said.
Their presence on the river catchment, which runs from the Blackdown Hills down to the south coast at Budleigh Salterton, has even boosted local tourism, the trial found.
Peter Burgess, director of conservation at Devon Wildlife Trust, said of the move to let them stay: “This is the most groundbreaking government decision for England’s wildlife for a generation.
“Beavers are nature’s engineers and have the unrivalled ability to breathe new life into our rivers and wetlands. Their benefits will be felt throughout our countryside, by wildlife and people.”
Devon Wildlife Trust’s Mark Elliott said it was “brilliant news”, but added: “It’s now vital that decisions are made on the national status of beavers that allows them to be reintroduced into other river systems in England.
“There also needs to be funding to support landowners who wish to allow beavers to restore wetlands on their land, and to assist landowners who do not wish beavers to affect their farming practices.
“This is vital if we are to see beavers welcomed back into the English landscape after such a long absence.”
There are thought to be other beavers living wild on English rivers, having escaped or been released without licence, and a number of pairs are in enclosures to help manage flooding or create wetlands in nature reserves.
The species has been given protected status in Scotland, where it returned through an official trial and illegal releases or escapes.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said the reintroduction trial in Devon had been highly successful.
“We are firmly committed to providing opportunities to reintroduce formerly native species, such as beavers, where the benefits for the environment, people and the economy are clear.
“But we also understand that there are implications for landowners, and take care to ensure that all potential impacts are carefully considered, and today we can confirm a new Government consultation on our national approach and management will open later this year,” she said.
Natural England chairman Tony Juniper said: “Reintroductions of iconic species like the beaver will be an important part of the nature recovery network.
“We now look forward to working towards the next stages of management of beaver more widely across England.”