England’s first wild beavers for four centuries have been given the permanent “right to remain” in their Devon river home.
Up to 15 beaver families are estimated to live on the River Otter, where they have been living wild for some years.
Conservationists hailed the “groundbreaking decision” by the government to allow “nature’s engineers” to “breathe new life into our rivers and wetlands”.
The news marks the first ever reintroduction of an extinct native mammal to England, Devon Wildlife Trust said.
Beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain four centuries ago for their meat, fur and gland secretions used for perfume and medicine.
In 2013, a family of beavers were discovered to be living on the River Otter in East Devon – England’s first wild breeding population of beavers for 400 years.
The animals were initially threatened with removal by officials, until Devon Wildlife Trust stepped in to lead a study to examine the impacts of wild beavers on the river, landscape and community.
The five-year trial found their dam-building helped reduce flooding for at-risk homes, improved water quality, and created wetlands that supported fish, insects, birds and endangered water voles. Their presence has even boosted local tourism.
The results showed how rapidly beavers can bring a “wealth of benefits” to the areas they inhabit, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.
Two family groups of beavers were first identified and have since bred and dispersed through the river system, building 28 dams.
They will now be allowed to remain in the river permanently, and are expected to continue to naturally expand into new areas.
Mark Elliot, beaver project lead at Devon Wildlife Trust, said the government’s decision 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.”
Peter Burgess, director of conservation at Devon Wildlife Trust, said: “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.”
It is thought there are other beavers living on English rivers and there have been calls to help these populations.
The government has said it will consult later this year on a national approach for any further releases of beavers in the wild.