Beavers return to East Anglia after more than 400 years

The semi-aquatic rodent has been reintroduced as part of a pioneering rewilding and flood management project.

There has been no shortage of high-profile arrivals to Finchingfield in recent months.

In January, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver bought Spains Hall – a Tudor mansion on the outskirts of the north Essex village – while earlier this week a pair of Eurasian beavers made their much-anticipated appearance at the neighbouring Spains Hall Estate.

The reason so many people have been looking forward to the rodents’ moving in is because they are at the centre of an innovative rewilding scheme to reduce flooding in Finchingfield, which is located at the meeting point of three tributaries that in times of heavy rainfall send water gushing into its picturesque centre.

Two of these waterways run through the Spains Hall Estate, an historic family business managed by Archie Ruggles-Brise, who is trialling a different type of natural flood management on each one.

On one stream a compound has been built around a wooded area where it is hoped the beavers will settle in, start building dams and hold up the water. On the second tributary, known locally as Finchingfield Brook, a man-made ‘leaky dam’ consisting of logs positioned across the water has been constructed for the same purpose. High-tech monitoring devices have been placed around each project to record and compare what impact they have.

Archie Ruggles-Brise Photo: Ross Bentley


This exciting scheme has been supported by the Environment Agency, Essex Wildlife Trust and Essex and Suffolk Rivers Trust and local councillors, and was enabled thanks to funding from the Anglian Eastern Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC).

On Friday, representatives of these organisations, together with local people who have backed the project and members of the media, congregated to celebrate the beavers’ arrival and (hopefully) catch a glimpse of these fascinating rodents who were once native to Britain before being hunted to extinction on these shores more than 400 years ago.

Archie said: “We are delighted to welcome beavers back to the estate, and to East Anglia, for the first time in almost half a millennium. It’s especially exciting to be able to utilise their unique skills to deliver flood risk reduction and biodiversity benefits locally.

“It will be fascinating to see how the beavers perform alongside the man-made natural flood management dams.”

The beavers had been released two days earlier to enable them to acclimatise in peace and a temporary lodge made from straw bales had been erected to provide shelter while the pair got round to building their own. Archie said when the beavers, which have been raised in captivity in Devon, were released, the female came straight out and was soon in the water. The male was far more sluggish and at one point went back into the crate they had travelled in.

The beavers are expected to transform their landscape Photo: Russell Savoury


For the guests, the beavers were reassuringly unpredictable and failed to show themselves, preferring the comfort of their straw bale abode, away from prying eyes. But the event was fascinating nonetheless with the assorted experts giving insights into their habits.

On hand was TV ecologist and BBC The One Show wildlife reporter, Mike Dilger. “There’s a lot of doom and gloom about nature conservation in Britain at the moment,” he said.

“With all the declines in wildlife, it can get a bit bleak but I’m a glass half-full person. This is about more than releasing an animal and saying ‘how lovely’ – there’s an EU Directive that says we have an obligation to re-introduce species we have lost.”

“Beavers are a keystone species and as they get to work they will remove trees and hold-up water creating ponds and a mosaic of habitats. Light will be let in and we shall start seeing dragonflies and other different insects and birds move in.”

Mr Dilger said beavers like to create dams so they have deep water where they can store food, pushing branches into the bed of the ponds and diving down and stripping the bark to nourish them during the winter months.

Archie at the beaver open day


Darren Tansley, from Essex Wildlife Trust, has studied the effect beavers in Devon have had on the landscape and spoke about the beaver’s industrious nature. He said their teeth are stronger on the front than behind, and so naturally form a chiselled edge as they gnaw through trunks. As they establish themselves, beavers build a canal system on their patch that allows them to save energy and move trunks around by floating them on a network of waterways rather than dragging them across the ground.

“After seven or eight years, they completely change the landscape – it’s like someone has gone in there with a JCB,” he added.

So nature’s engineers have arrived – back where they belong. In north Essex’ highly-managed agricultural landscape, it will be fascinating to see how the beavers go about making the place their own.

This article first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times in March 2019.

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