Eager for beavers?


Eurasian beaver Castor fiber – castor d’Europe (fr) – castor (sp, cat) by Andrea Bohl from Pixabay


In Britain, there is a huge surge of interest in beavers. Ecologists like Derek Gow have been promoting their reintroduction through projects in Devon and Tayside.  Gow sees the rodents as a game-changing boost for biodiversity, with their dams remodelling landscapes and helping to reduce flooding.

Beavers have also returned to the Pyrenees, after more than 150 years of absence. But here, conservationists are divided. The Spanish have been trying to exterminate them; the French have been encouraging them.

In France, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were less than a hundred individuals holed up in sleepy eddies of the lower Rhone. Protection started in 1909, with the beaver becoming the first mammal in France to enjoy such a status. By 1960 the hard-working rodents had recolonised upstream as far as Lyons. In 1968 they were granted protection throughout France.

Over the years there have been twenty-six projects to redistribute the population. And the numbers have climbed to over 15,000. A 2017 map shows beavers in half the river basins of France: Rhone, Loire, Rhine, and in Finistère (Brittany). But not in SW France, nor in the Pyrenees.


Distribution of beavers in France 2017

Distribution of beavers in France 2017 [source ONCFS]


Before protection was implemented, beavers were killed for various reasons. They were hunted for their fur and glandular oil (castoreum); blamed (wrongly) for eating fish or preventing them swimming upstream to spawn. And, as if it weren’t enough to be accused of eating fish, beavers could also be considered by Catholics to be fish: they were aquatic, so they could be eaten on Fridays.

None of these arguments for killing beavers holds water anymore. But, as with any species returning to a changed habitat, there are conflicts of interest to be resolved. Given the number of beavers, the number of issues identified in 2017 – seventy – is small. Half of them related to dams. The strategy of the authorities is to encourage cohabitation. They publish maps of areas where beavers are likely to arrive soon and anticipate conflict, encouraging preventive measures such as fencing to protect orchards.

And sometimes conflicts can be turned around. In Meurthe-et-Moselle, farmers complained about beavers’ dams flooding their prairies. Technical solutions were found, and by 2017, one of the farmers was saying that whenever he had business visitors, the first thing he did was to take them to see ‘his’ beavers.

At a different level one of the concerns is that the Canadian beaver (Castor canadensis), which is present in both Germany and Belgium, will sneak across the border and compete with the indigenous population.

The latest news is that a lone adult beaver has been spotted on the French side of the Pyrenees, on the river Nive (Ustaritz, Pyrénées-Atlantiques). The last time they were seen in the area, Louis XV was on the throne.

The first sign of the return was a patch of nibbled tree stumps sticking out of the mud like a half-drowned box of sharpened pencils. A camera trap was set up. The resulting video shows a beaver padding across the marshes at night, dragging its flat, wide tail behind it.



The tail is the beaver’s distinguishing feature. It helps it balance, like the third leg of a tripod, while the business end – those big front teeth – is chomping its way through a trunk. It also serves as a rudder and can be used to make a noise, by slapping on the water’s surface, to warn of danger.

But how did the lone beaver get here? It can’t have come from the known French colonies, unless it was helped… Could it have climbed over the mountains from Spain? What’s the evidence?

Beavers were extirpated from Spain by the mid-19th century at the latest. Then in 2005 a biologist working on the banks of the river Aragón on the southern side of the Pyrenees noticed tree trunks with teeth marks. Apparently, beavers had been smuggled in from central Europe in March 2003 and secretly released. The details are vague, but the authorities suspect the ecologist Olivier Rubbers or someone inspired by his success reintroducing them in Belgium.

“If they had crossed the Pyrenees [from France of their own accord], we wouldn’t have anything to say except to be happy,” said Miguel Urbiola, director of the Natural Environment department of Rioja, reported in El País.  But “We cannot tolerate this precedent. If we don’t eradicate this colony any environmentalist will be able to release any animal they like.”

The local authorities put together a plan to eliminate this illegal immigrant. They argued that beavers might damage the habitats of the otter and the very fragile European mink. Both the Spanish government and the EU authorities agreed, with the latter curiously arguing that the animal was ‘outside its normal distribution’.

Between 2008 and 2013 a hundred beavers were captured in Navarra at a cost of 131,000€. The Rioja region removed ninety-six. But all became too costly. “We don’t have sufficient funds and have other priorities,” said the authorities in nearby Aragón. The result was that by 2014, despite the captures, there were an estimated 450 and 650 still at large in Navarra, and more in the other regions.

So, is the arrival of a beaver on the French side of the Pyrenees another case of ‘Robbin Hood’ – as the Belgians have nicknamed Olivier Rubbers – robbing the beaver rich to give to the beaver poor? No, there would be more of them. Given that an adventurous beaver may explore up to 100km from home, it is more likely that this one was seeking ecological asylum. In France, the beaver is a protected species. In France, it is safe.

Source for Spain: La Ballena Blanca, no 6 April 2016, pp. 68–73.

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