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Beavers are to be given legal protection in England, meaning it will be illegal to kill or harm them as they are formally recognised as native wildlife.

This is a step forward for the charismatic rodents, which were hunted to extinction in the country 400 years ago but have reappeared owing to illegal releases around the country.

The government has also been licensing beaver releases inside enclosures, and some environmentalists hope that later this year in the upcoming beaver strategy there will be permissions for the rodents to be released to roam wild.

It is thought there are hundreds of beavers already living wild along England’s waterways, with some experts believing there could be as many as 800.

New legislation, due to come into force on 1 October, will make it an offence to deliberately capture, kill, disturb, or injure beavers, or damage their breeding sites or resting places – without holding the appropriate licence.

The animals are known as “nature’s engineers” as they create wetlands – an important habitat for many plants and animals – when they build dams. In doing so, they also prevent flooding and drought-related problems such as wildfires by keeping water in the land.

Derek Gow, a farmer turned rewilder who is known as one of the country’s leading beaver experts, said: “The news today that beavers will be afforded legal protection in England is both appropriate and welcome.

“We have been very slow to recognise the critical role that this species delivers in the creation of complex wetland landscapes, which can afford resilience against the twin extremes of flood and drought. All they need from us to guarantee this goal is understanding, tolerance and space.”

There was confusion this week as the plans were due to be announced earlier, but appeared to have been pulled at the last minute.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said at the time: “Clarity around legal protections for beavers are crucial if populations are to recover and thrive long term – it is extremely disappointing that this legislation has been brought to a juddering halt, with no explanation why.

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“We need to see the widespread return of wild beavers to create vital wetland habitats and restore rivers, many of which have been damaged by centuries of dredging and being cut off from floodplains. As England grapples with a nature and climate emergency, we need our beavers back.”

However, sources at Defra blamed the rush to get legislation out before recess for the hold-up, and said they always planned to enshrine these protections in law, as it is a legal requirement under the Berne convention.

Beavers to be given legal protection in England

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