News is all over the internet about the “first wild beaver to be seen in England for 500 years,” which appears to have been first reported in the Western Morning News on 21 January 2014. The original article simply talked about the “mystery” of the beaver being there since it is known to be extinct in Britain and it is unclear where it came from. BBC News Devon made a 18-second video of the “rare animal” available.
As soon as the national papers picked up the story, the beaver became a sensation as The Guardian and The Times claimed this to be the first wild beaver in Britain in 500 years and it was caught on camera!
Ah, what short memories the media industry has. Only 6 months before, in July 2013, an article with the headline “Wild beaver spotted in England for first time in 800 years” ran in The Independent and another ran in The Telegraph with the headline “Wild beaver sighted for first time in 500 years” [You may notice a discrepancy in the number of years here–500 versus 800–but that’s a topic for another post]. A beaver had been spotted in the River Otter in Devon by a woman who was walking her dogs. She even took a series of pictures of the beaver which were published by the Exeter Express & Echo.
When the Huffington Post ran their article about the wild beaver on 22 January, the reporter must have done some searches and found the July 2013 articles because the beaver sighting is said to be “the second time in 500 years” and a link is provided to the Telegraph article. The beaver seen in January 2014 is almost certainly the same one from July 2013 considering that the camera trap was set up specifically in response to those earlier sightings.
Ok, ok, so the beaver reported in January 2014 is the same one that was seen in July 2013, but it still makes it the first beaver in the wild in Britain in 500 years, right? Well, not exactly.
In 2008, three beavers escaped from Derek Gow’s Upcott Grange centre in Lifton, Devon, where he has an enclosure with about 20 beavers surrounded with an electric fence. The two females were quickly recaptured but the male alluded the search parties. He was not recaptured until 2012 — three years later! So, clearly Igor (as he was named by Gow) was living in the wild for 3 years.
The key question is: What does it mean for a beaver to be wild? The only difference between the River Otter beaver and Igor is that we are unsure where the first was released from. There are several beaver enclosures in Devon, including the Devon Wildlife Trust and Escot Park, who are using beavers to restore habitat and educate visitors. Although none of the existing beaver holders have claimed the River Otter beaver as an escapee (after all, why claim responsibility and get your permit revoked?), surely he (or she) most certainly escaped or was released from a human-built enclosure. [An aside: to the squash any rumours that the beaver represents Canadian colonialism of Britain, we should note that only European beavers (Castor fiber) have been permitted in British enclosures as far as I can ascertain.]
Should our knowledge lacuna about its origin mean that the River Otter beaver is more wild than Igor was? Is wildness a physical state of the animal or a human state of mind?