Four hundred years after the beaver was hunted to extinction in the UK, two of the mammals have been reintroduced on government land in an English forest as part of a scheme to assess whether they could be a solution to flooding.
Two Eurasian beavers were released on Tuesday into their new lodge within a large penned-off section of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. The hope is that the animals will build dams and create ponds on Greathough Brook, which feeds into the River Wye, and slow the flow of water through the steep-sided, wooded valley at times of torrential rainfall.
In 2012 the villages of Lydbrook and Upper Lydbrook were badly flooded. Hundreds of thousands of pounds has been spent on conventional schemes such as replacing drains to try to keep the communities dry and safe.
The government hopes that introducing the beavers into a 6.5-hectare (16-acre) enclosure on Forestry Commission land will help hold back the waters in a more natural way and improve biodiversity.
Should the three-year scheme prove successful, beavers could be introduced in other areas susceptible to flooding.
Rebecca Wilson, the head of planning and environment for the Forestry Commission in west England, said: “Beavers are natural habitat engineers, restoring complex wetland habitats and providing habitat for declining species whilst slowing the flow of water downstream.”
Experts from Exeter University have been studying the brook for more than a year. Prof Richard Brazier, a hydrologist from the university, said: “We have shown quite clearly that the brook contributes to the flooding problems experienced in the village of Lydbrook. We now have a unique opportunity to study the impacts of beaver dams on the flood flows from this flood-prone landscape.”
Dignitaries met at the Speech House in the Forest of Dean – built as a hunting lodge for Charles II – and were bussed to the site.
Details of the release and Gove’s visit were not widely publicised, partly because of fears that a big crowd might disturb the beavers but also because the policy of culling both the wild boar that have made a comeback here and badgers is not universally popular.
There is concern that some animal rights campaigners will not be satisfied with the degree of freedom the beavers will have and may try to release them, which is believed to have been what sparked the revival of the wild boar in the forest.
As well as having the potential to ease flooding, the beavers may also improve the habitat for other flora and fauna. Greathough Brook was once home to thriving populations of water vole, glow-worms and wood white and pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies, but they have vanished as the trees have blocked out much of the light. The beavers are expected to harvest some of the timber, which could improve the habitat for other species.
Sid Phelps, a local Green councillor whose 2017 election campaign included a vow to try to get beavers introduced, was among those on board the beaver bus.
“It’s been a long time coming but it’s a very exciting day,” Phelps said, adding that most local people were behind the project. “The advantage of this sort of scheme is that it’s self-maintaining. You don’t have to pay beavers very much.”
He said some people had expressed concern that the beavers might escape and – like the boar – make a comeback. “Some say ‘oh my God, not more animals.’ But most are supportive.”
Officials emphasised that the beavers had been tested for disease and a management plan was in place to make sure the enclosure remains secure. They also stressed that the beavers do not eat fish and would not stray more than 30 metres (100ft) from freshwater.