Dr Sam Bridgewater, Nature Conservation Manager for Clinton Devon Estates says that the focus of the debate needs to be 20 to 30 years from now, taking into consideration that the beaver population will expand and move further up the catchment or between catchments. He explained: "We need to look at what's happened on the continent where there were fewer than 2000 beavers at the start of the 20th Century but there are now over 600,000."
Reintroductions of beavers in other countries have repeatedly shown that their presence is, on balance, beneficial to river systems through their ability to engineer and improve the environment for other species. However, their presence has also been the cause of conflict with local communities and authorities through their potential to block ditches and culverts and flood adjacent land and properties.
Dr Bridgewater added: "If their numbers increase, then it is inevitable that they will eventually start to engineer their local environment. This will bring all kinds of benefits such as a potential slowing down of flood waters and an increase in the diversity of wildlife habitats, but will also likely cause some grief. I think a key issue for the authorities to address is that mechanisms are put in place to allow any conflicts to be avoided quickly in the future."
Dr Bridgewater, who is responsible for the management of the River Otter Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, a European Special Protection Area, said: "We have a strong conservation team on the estate and significant experience of managing sites and species of European importance, and are very happy to work with other parties such as Natural England and the Devon Wildlife Trust to ensure this trial is a success.
"As part of the consultation, we highlighted to Natural England that a number of measures must be put in place to ensure the long-term success of the project. These include; a professional organisation being created and up-and-running by the time the five-year trial ends to provide management and support to landowners where conflict arises; a streamlined licensing system which allows issues which require a licence to be addressed promptly within a fixed timescale; and the establishment of a fund to compensate individuals whose livelihoods can be proven to have been damaged by the beavers."
Clinton Devon Estates owns and manages land along the four-and-a-half-mile stretch of the lower River Otter near Budleigh Salterton in East Devon as well as approximately three miles of adjacent land between the villages of Otterton and Newton Poppleford.
Dr Bridgewater said: "Although there are some concerns about the future management of the beavers, there are some exciting opportunities for improving wildlife in the longer term. Once all fears over the presence of disease in the existing populations are allayed, then we very much look forward to taking a lead role in the trial on the land we manage."
The Devon Wildlife Trust was granted a five-year licence from Natural England yesterday (28th January) to monitor the beavers which have set up home on the River Otter. The license is subject to a range of conditions.
The Wildlife Trust's Peter Burgess has said that beavers have not lived in a well-populated, agriculturally productive English landscape for hundreds of years, adding: "We need to ensure that any negative impacts of beavers are avoided. This will mean working alongside the Environment Agency, local authorities and landowners to manage any problems that may arise over the coming years."
Devon Wildlife Trust's licence application has been assessed by Natural England against the internationally recognised guidelines published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The licence is subject to a range of conditions, including confirmation that the beavers are of Eurasian origin and are free of the Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm parasite.
Under the terms of the licence, by September at the latest, Devon Wildlife Trust must develop a management strategy to deal quickly with any undesirable impacts which the beavers may have on the River Otter during the trial period, as well as a monitoring programme to study their impacts.
Andrew Sells, Natural England's Chairman commented: "Reintroduction of a species is a complicated and emotive subject and we have considered this application very carefully. Responses to our written consultation and public meetings have been generally positive and we are now satisfied with Devon Wildlife Trust's plans for managing and monitoring the project, which will allow important evidence to be gathered during the trial on any impacts which the beavers may have.
"Future decisions by Natural England on the release of beavers will in large part be informed by the results of this trial. The unauthorised release of beavers remains illegal and Natural England does not expect to grant any other licences for beaver release during this trial period."
Harry Barton, Chief Executive of Devon Wildlife Trust, said: "This is an historic moment. The beavers of the River Otter are the first breeding population in the English countryside for hundreds of years. We believe they can play a positive role in the landscapes of the 21st century through their ability to restore our rivers to their former glories. We know from our own research and research done in Europe that beavers are excellent aquatic-engineers improving the flood and drought resilience of our countryside and increasing the water quality of our rivers. They are incredibly industrious animals and their hard work has benefits for people and wildlife."
There are two species of beavers in the world. North American beaver and Eurasian beaver. North American beavers have the capacity to engineer larger and more complex dam structures than their European cousins. The beavers on the River Otter are highly likely to be Eurasian beavers, and not North American beavers.
There may be as many as 10 beavers currently living on the river Otter – the source of the beavers is unknown. They are the first confirmed breeding population in England for several hundred years.
A trial involving wild beavers has been undertaken in Argyll, Scotland by the Scottish Wildlife Trust since 2007. Its findings have been submitted to the Scottish Parliament with a decision on the future of wild beavers in Scotland expected in May 2015.
The partner organisations behind the Scottish Beaver Trial, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, published their final report in December on the groundbreaking project that saw the first ever official trial mammal reintroduction into the UK.
Commencing in spring 2009 in the Knapdale Forest, mid-Argyll, the scientific monitoring period of the Trial ended in May 2014. The report documents the entire process of the Scottish Beaver Trial, from the licence application through the release of the beavers and to the end of the monitoring period. It also examines the process objectively and the learning experiences from the reintroduction.
Field Operations Manager for the Scottish Beaver Trial, Roisin Campbell-Palmer, said: "A very special trial, the Scottish Beaver Trial allowed for ground breaking research and thorough monitoring taking place in Knapdale over the five year period. We hope our findings and learnings will form a template for similar future reintroduction projects across the UK and beyond."