Visiting East Devon
PUBLISHED: 10:01 06 March 2017 | UPDATED: 10:01 06 March 2017
Chrissy Harris discovers that it's not just humans that love making a home in the beautiful East Devon countryside
They sure like their native species here in East Devon. The region has become something of a haven for British breeds not seen in this country for hundreds of years. Around 20 beavers are thought to be living on the River Otter (there are some of those as well) after a high-profile campaign to boost numbers of the animals that were hunted to extinction. Just a few miles away at the Wildwood Trust at Escot, near Ottery St Mary, staff are looking after breeds such as wildcats and lynx as part of a ‘rewilding’ programme.
Local experts say such groundbreaking conservation projects like these are proving hugely popular with visitors – and helping to get East Devon noticed.
“People really seem to like the fact we’ve got beavers living here,” says Stephen Hussey from the Devon Wildlife Trust. “They are a real draw and I’ve met people from all over the country who’ve come to catch a glimpse of them.
“The River Otter is perfectly suited to these animals and we are incredibly fortunate to have them here. Beavers have been extinct for 400 years and – what do you know – they turn up on our doorstep. When I started out in this job, I never thought that would happen.”
It’s not known how the first group of beavers arrived in East Devon but the first confirmation of a breeding population was announced in 2013.
When video evidence emerged proving that the beavers had given birth to kits (the name given their young), the Government initially planned to have them removed from the river.
Devon Wildlife Trust opposed the move and after consulting with the local community, landowners and public bodies, presented an alternative plan: to launch a five-year trial to monitor the beavers’ effects on the landscape.
The proposal was approved by Natural England in January 2015 and five months later, two new beavers were introduced into the River Otter.
Today, there are around 20 animals living in the area, much to the delight of wildlife watchers who come on guided tours or just to catch a glimpse on their river walk.
“It’s bringing tourism into the area and people are spending money when they’re here,” says Stephen, adding that beavers can actually help the landscape in other ways, even preventing flooding because their homes store then slowly release water. They build dams only if there is no water.
“They are part of a natural engineering solution,” says Stephen. “It’s not just about having these nice animals here on our doorstep.”
Peter Smith, chief executive of the Wildwood Trust at Escot agrees that wildlife can enhance our landscape.
He is leading a project to help champion Devon’s native species and show how they can help the countryside flourish.
“It’s about looking at how we can use land more efficiently,” says Peter, who believes the local area has been hugely affected by a century of overgrazing.
The team at the Wildwood Trust has created a natural woodland enclosure for their wildcats, which will help show people how these animals once prowled the Devon countryside. Apparently, the last recorded sighting of one of these creatures was on the Blackdown Hills in the 1880s.
There are also plans to introduce pine martens to the visitor attraction in a similar natural enclosure.
“We’ve got a huge rewilding project happening here,” says Peter.
“We need to push the amazing things East Devon has to offer.
“It has a really unique character. Having conservation schemes like this will help to make it even more appealing and hopefully trap more of these people travelling down the A30 on their way to South Devon or Cornwall.
“It’s a beautiful area that deserves to be promoted.”
The River Otter Beaver Trial - which does not receive any government funding - has been backed by TV wildlife expert Chris Packham. To find out how you can help, see devonwildlifetrust.org
To find out more about the animals at the Wildwood Trust, Escot, see wildwoodescot.org
Five things you should know about East Devon:
1 The coastline of East Devon has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of its wealth of prehistoric remains. The Jurassic Coast is considered to be the only place in the world displaying unbroken evidence of 185 million years of evolution.
Find out more at Seaton Jurassic, a top visitor attraction, which opened last year. Seatonjurassic.org
2 The area is home to the beautiful Seaton Wetlands, which includes nearly 4km of level trails and boardwalk through marshland and reed beds alongside the river Axe. See eastdevon.gov.uk
3 The name of the ancient fishing village of Beer is not derived from the drink (although there is a plentiful supply) but comes from the old Anglo Saxon word meaning ‘bureau’ meaning grove, which referred to the forest that surrounded the settlement.
4 Exmouth is the oldest resort town in Devon and boasts two miles of sandy beach.
5 With its glorious church and cluster of picturesque buildings, Ottery St. Mary has given literary inspiration to writers Coleridge, Thackeray and JK Rowling.