The Government is being urged to speed up moves to restore beavers to the countryside to boost wildlife, tackle flooding and protect the environment.
More than 60 leading conservation organisations, country estates, experts and campaigners have called for an ambitious strategy to bring back beavers amid concerns over delays to decisions on the mammal’s future.
Beavers were once native to Britain but were hunted to extinction around 400 years ago.
They are beginning to return, with licensed wild populations in Scotland and Devon, as well as unlicensed wild beavers in various parts of the UK and a number of projects to release them into fenced areas of the countryside.
A five-year project by Devon Wildlife Trust to study the role of the wild beavers on the River Otter in the county concluded earlier this year that they can live alongside people and deliver benefits for nature and communities.
The beavers build dams and make ponds that help reduce flooding, improve water quality, create habitat for other wildlife, and boost the local economy through eco-tourism, the study found.
Now conservationists want to see the Environment Department (Defra) commit to a “pragmatic and ambitious” strategy by the end of 2020 for restoring beavers in England to deliver benefits to landscapes and people.
In a letter led by the Beaver Trust, conservationists also called on ministers to ensure there is no moratorium on the “current, effective” system of licensing beaver release projects and to speed up “reasonable” applications.
Conservationists expected a beaver strategy for England to be published in April, but it has not been released.
And a decision on the future of the River Otter beavers – which will affect other schemes – has been pushed back until August.
Wildlife experts are concerned over the delays to the strategy and the decision on the River Otter beavers, and also potential delays to licences for new projects.
Owners of major country estates and conservation groups have applied for licences to keep beavers in large, securely-fenced but natural areas, while community groups including local government are also planning wild releases.
The groups warn moves to stop issuing new licences would prevent beavers being taken from intensively farmed landscapes in Scotland, where they come into conflict with farmers, for English projects and they could be shot.
The letter is signed by groups including the National Trust, RSPB, Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the Nature Friendly Farming Network, estate owners including the Duchess of Rutland, of Belvoir Castle, and others including TV presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and entrepreneur Deborah Meadon.
The Wildlife Trusts has also written separately to the Government, urging it to produce a strategy that will set out the legal basis for beavers in England and regimes for managing the wild animals and their impacts.
The trusts, who have been at the forefront of moves to reintroduce beavers, also want financial support for farmers and landowners to make space for water and beavers on their land.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Beavers are proving just what a valuable force they can be in helping solve the nature and climate crises.
“Their extraordinary ability to naturalise landscapes, improving them for other wildlife, enhancing water quality and controlling water flow makes them a vital component of a modern approach to land management.
“People love beavers and their presence has really boosted tourism in the places where they’ve been reintroduced.”
He said it was time to set out an “ambitious vision” for the return of beavers but it must be done properly, with the right support systems in place, and urged the Government to publish its strategy soon.
A Defra spokesman said: “We are committed to reintroducing formerly native species, such as beavers, where there are clear environmental benefits.
“Beavers have a special place in English heritage and can play a role in creating new havens for wildlife as well as boosting our natural biodiversity.
“We welcome applications for trial reintroductions of beavers where these benefits are clear.”