European beaver (Castor fiber)

The Eurasian beaver or European beaver (Castor fiber) is a species of beaver, which was once widespread in Eurasia, where it was hunted to near extinction both for fur and for castoreum, a secretion of its scent gland believed to have medicinal properties. Re-introduced through much of its former range, it now occurs from the British Isles to China and Mongolia.

Physical characteristics

The fur colour of Eurasian beavers varies geographically. Light, chestnut-rust is the dominant colour in Belarus. In Russia, the beavers of the Sozh River basin are predominantly blackish brown, while beavers in the Voronezh Reserve are equally distributed between brown and blackish-brown.

Eurasian beavers are one of the largest living species of rodent and are the largest rodent native to Eurasia. They weigh around 11–30 kg (24–66 lb), with an average of 18 kg (40 lb). While the largest specimen confirmed on record weighed 31.7 kg (70 lb), the Smithsonian has reported that this species can exceptionally exceed 40 kg (88 lb). Typically, the head-and-body length is 80–100 cm (31–39 in) and the tail length is 25–50 cm (9.8–20 in).

Reproduction

Eurasian beaver have one litter per year, coming into estrus for only 12 to 24 hours, between late December and May but peaking in January. Unlike most other rodents, beaver pairs are monogamous, staying together for multiple breeding seasons. Gestation averages 107 days and they average three kits per litter with a range of two to six kits. Most beaver do not reproduce until they are three years of age, but about 20% of two year old females reproduce.

In the UK

The beaver became extinct in Great Britain in the sixteenth century: Giraldus Cambrensis reported in 1188  that it was to be found only in the Teifi in Wales and in one river in Scotland, though his observations are clearly second hand. The last reference to beavers in England dates to 1526.] About the same time Hector Boece wrote that they were still common in parts of Scotland, especially around Loch Ness.

In 2001 the Kent Wildlife Trust with the Wildwood Trust and Natural England imported two families of Eurasian beaver from Norway to manage a wetland nature reserve. This project pioneered the use of beaver as a wildlife conservation tool in the UK. The success of this project has provided the inspiration behind other projects in Gloucestershire and Argyll. The Kent beaver colony live in a 130-acre (0.53 km2) fenced enclosure at the wetland of Ham Fen. Subsequently the population of beaver has been supplemented in 2005 and 2008. The beaver continue to help restore the wetland by rehydrating the soils.[ Six Eurasian Beavers were released in 2005 into a fenced lakeside area in Gloucestershire. In 2007 a specially-selected group of four Bavarian beavers were released into a fenced enclosure in the Martin Mere nature reserve in Lancashire. It is hoped that the beavers will form a permanent colony, and the younger pair will be transferred to another location when the adults begin breeding again. The progress of the group will be followed as part of the BBC's Autumn watch television series. A colony of beavers is established in a large enclosure at Bamff, Perthshire. On November 19, 2011, a pair of beaver sisters were released into a 2.5 acre enclosure at Blaeneinion,Furnace, Mid Wales.

The first sustained and significant population of wild-living beavers in the United Kingdom became established on the Tay catchment in Scotland as early as 2001 and has spread widely in the catchment, numbering from 20 to 100 individuals. Because these are likely escapees from any of several nearby sites with captive beavers, or were illegally released, they were targeted for removal by Scottish Natural Heritage in late 2010. Proponents of the beavers argue that they have not been proven to be of "wrong" genetic stock and there is scientific evidence to support that they may represent a rather ideal mix of western European populations, since any single relict population in western Europe is relatively genetically depauperate. The first of the wild Tayside beavers was trapped by Scottish Natural Heritage on the River Ericht in Blairgowrie, Perthshire in early December 2010 and is being held in captivity in the Edinburgh Zoo. A Facebook group, Save the Free Beavers of the Tay, has nicknamed the captured wild beaver "Eric" and opposes the ongoing effort to trap Eric's relations.

In 2005, the Scottish Government turned down a licence application for unfenced reintroduction. However, in late 2007 a further application was made for a release project in Knapdale, Argyll.[35] This application was accepted, and the first beavers were released on the 29th May 2009.This initial release into the wild of 11 animals received a setback during the first year with the disappearance of two animals and the alleged illegal shooting of a third. This allegation was later refuted by Simon Jones of the Scottish Beaver Trial as there was no evidence to support the allegation and all three missing beavers were sighted after they left the release loch. However, the remaining population was increased in 2010 by further releases. In August 2010, at least two kits, estimated to be eight weeks old and belonging to different family groups, were seen in Knapdale Forest in Argyll.

The Scottish charity Trees for Life plans to reintroduce beavers in the Scottish Highlands.

With the exception of the Knapdale and Tayside animals, all the beavers in the United Kingdom today are in semi-enclosed sites and not fully released into the wild. A 2009 report by Natural England, the Government’s conservation body, and the People's Trust for Endangered Species recommended that beaver be reintroduced to the wild in England.

A study has been undertaken on the feasibility and desirability of a reintroduction of beavers to Wales by a partnership including the Wildlife Trusts, Countryside Council for Wales, Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, Environment Agency Wales, Wild Europe, Forestry Commission Wales, with additional funding from Welsh Power Ltd.

Ecology

Beaver are a keystone species helping support the ecosystem of which they are a part. They create wetlands which increase biodiversity and provide habitat for many rare species such as water voles, otters and water shrews. They coppice waterside trees and shrubs so that they re-grow as dense shrubs which provide cover for birds and other animals. Beaver dams trap sediment and improve water quality; recharge groundwater tables and increase cover and forage for trout and salmon. A recent study in Poland, found that beavers increased abundance and diversity of bats apparently because they create gaps in forest cover making it easier for bats to navigate.

Effects on fish

Beaver ponds have been shown to have a beneficial effect on trout and salmon populations, in fact many authors believe that the decline of salmonid fishes is related to the decline in beaver populations. A study of small streams in Sweden that found that brown trout in beaver ponds were larger than those in riffle sections, and that beaver ponds provide habitat for larger trout in small streams during periods of drought. These findings are similar to several studies of beaver effects on fish in North America. Brook trout, coho and sockeye salmon were significantly larger in beaver ponds than those in un-impounded stream sections in Colorado and Alaska. In addition, research in the Stillaguamish River basin in Washington state, found that extensive loss of beaver ponds resulted in an 89% reduction in coho salmon smolt summer production and an almost equally detrimental 86% reduction in critical winter habitat carrying capacity. Migration of adult Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) may be limited by beaver dams during periods of low stream flows, but the presence of juveniles upstream from the dams suggests that the dams are penetrated by parr. Downstream migration of Atlantic salmon smolts was similarly unaffected by beaver dams, even in periods of low flows. Two year old Atlantic salmon parr in beaver ponds in eastern Canada showed faster summer growth in length and mass and were in better condition than parr upstream or downstream from the pond. The importance of winter habitat to salmonids afforded by beaver ponds may be especially important (and underappreciated) in streams without deep pools or where ice cover makes contact with the bottom of shallow streams. A 2003 study showed that Atlantic salmon and Sea trout (S. trutta morpha trutta) spawning in the Numedalslågen River and 51 of its tributaries in south-eastern Norway were unhindered by beaver. In Norway, beaver dams are considered beneficial for Brown and Sea Trout populations (these are potamodromous and anadromous forms of the same species). There, beaver ponds produce increased food for young fish and provide refugia for large adults heading upstream to spawn.

Effect on water quality

The misnomer ‘beaver fever’ was invented by the American press in the 1970s, after an outbreak of Giardia lamblia, which causes Giardiasis, was blamed on beavers. However, the outbreak area was also frequented by humans, who are generally the primary source of contamination of waters. In addition, many animals and birds carry this parasite Giardiasis affects humans in south-eastern Norway, but a recent study found no Giardia in the beavers there. Recent concerns point to domestic animals as a significant vector of Giardia with young calves in dairy herds testing as high as 100% positive for Giardia. New Zealand has Giardia but no beavers. In a 1995 paper recommending re-introduction of beaver to Great Britain, MacDonald stated that the only new diseases that beaver might convey to that country's birds and mammals, are rabies and tularaemia - both diseases that should be preventable by statutory quarantine procedures and prophylactic treatment for tularaemia. In addition, fecal coliform and streptococci bacteria excreted into streams by grazing cattle have been shown to be reduced by beaver ponds, where the bacteria are trapped in bottom sediments.

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