The Wild Beavers of Otterton

After a warm Friday in the Chilterns making coracles, last weekend I headed off to the west country to visit my friend Tom, who writes good books about cats and people and landscape. I’d read his piece in the Wildlife Trusts’ magazine about the wild beavers in the River Otter, and he offered to introduce me to them.

After a long walk and a pint of dry cider we headed to the Otter at dusk. Beavers are crepuscular, emerging at dawn and dusk to fulfil their beaverly chores before returning to the lodge to sleep away the daylight. These beavers have a lovely air of mischief about them; they were released anonymously by someone who, like most decent people, longed to see beavers return to our landscape after they were hunted to extinction 400 years ago. DEFRA and a few fishermen made a fuss, but after a little campaigning and scientific argument that they would actually have a positive effect on the environment, they’ve been allowed to stay (for now).

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We waited for the sun to dip away, and a woodpecker on the far bank entertained us with rhythmic taps. Everything was golden in the dying light. As darkness fell, we wandered over to the lodge built into the bank, a chaotic pile of sticks much like an aquatic version of a pigeon’s nest. We waited, examining the paw prints and gnawed logs nearby. Quiet. A little longer…

And suddenly, when the world had grown quite dark – PLUNK. Two beavers emerged from their lodge and slipped into the water. If I hadn’t known their species I’d have sworn they were otters, oily coats gliding through the river like mottled boats. The female swam to the bank to fetch Himalayan balsam, which she crunched off and carried back with her to the lodge for dinner. She then slipped off to an overhanging tree, crawled out of the river and sat roundly on her haunches, grasping leaves from the low branches and gathering them up.

The male disappeared along the river, so we crept along the bank in search of him. I lost sight fairly quickly but, stepping down closer to the water, soon heard a soft growling sound that forced me to look down. There he was! An angry beaver sat 3ft from my boot, blatantly irritated that I had disturbed his evening routine. After a quick photo, during which my camera refused to focus on anything but the long grass, we left him alone and headed home entirely satisfied.

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The rest of the weekend was a cocktail of bees, butterflies, coastal walks and Devon air, with lots of people to meet and pizza to eat. I’ll never forget my evening rendezvous with the beavers, but the highlight was always going to be spending time with Tom’s magical cats, Roscoe and Ralph. To support the Wildlife Trusts and their amazing work protecting all our wildlife, visit their website here. You can also buy Tom’s next book 21st Century Yokel here, which is out in October.

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