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Beavers to be legally protected from harm in England from October

Beavers will be given legal protection from deliberate harm in England from October, under legislation being put forward tomorrow.

Hunted to extinction in the wild across the UK 400 years ago, this “keystone species” was first released in Scotland in 2009 and later spotted in England in 2014 following an unauthorised release near the river Otter in Devon. Populations have now been established at several sites, including 20 enclosures across England and Wales. Beaver kits were born this month at projects in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Dorset, Essex and Powys.

Under legislation being advanced on 19 July, beavers will be listed under schedule 2 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, making it an offence to intentionally capture, kill, disturb or injure them, or damage where they breed and rest. The law change will also see the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) treated as a “native animal” rather than “animals no longer normally present”. A licence will still be required to release them into the wild.

“We welcome this milestone to afford beavers legal protections and remind government that a licensing regime should be sensible and pragmatic. Landowners must be supported with the much-needed return of beavers to our landscapes,” says Ali Morse at The Wildlife Trusts, a non-profit organisation.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will wait until autumn to outline how it will allow for the legal release of more beavers into the wild, a step proposed during a consultation in August 2021. The plan led UK prime minister Boris Johnson to joke that the country would “build back beaver”.

Beavers have been called keystone species and “ecosystem engineers” because they create habitat used by other species, including amphibians and invertebrates. They have also been shown to improve water quality through their landscape changes and are seen as a way of reducing flood risk, since they slow river flows by putting trees in the water. A five-year government trial on the river Otter in south-west England concluded that beavers had brought “a wealth of benefits to the local area and ecology”.

A Defra spokesperson says: “We are bringing forward legislation to give beavers legal protection in England to support their recovery. We are considering the responses to our consultation on a national approach to the reintroduction of beavers, and will publish the government’s response in due course.”

Update (22 July): The legislation was laid before parliament on 21 July, not 19 July as planned due to a lack of parliamentary time.

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