Tragic end in search for beaver who escaped into River Adur from Sussex wildlife enclosure

A search for a beaver who captured the hearts of many in Sussex when he escaped into the River Adur from a wildlife enclosure has ended in tragedy.

Thursday, 21st January 2021, 10:21 am

The beaver - nicknamed Bramber - went missing from a rewilding project at the Knepp Estate in West Grinstead in December.

And he gathered a public following after he was spotted many times swimming in the river - 400 years after beaver were last seen in Sussex.

But the Knepp estate has now announced ‘with great sadness and disappointment’ that Bramber died on January 13 shortly after being recaptured.

Bramber eating an apple.Photo: Penny Green

An autopsy report revealed he died of septicaemia probably caused by a bacterial infection contracted through ingesting contaminated food or vegetation in the days or weeks before his recapture.

A Knepp spokesman said: “Although this is a natural cause of death for many wild mammals, this is an unhappy end to Bramber’s great adventure.

“The hope is, however, that his legacy will live on having provided so many people who sighted him over the last few weeks with great joy, and a glimpse of a charismatic animal that has been missing from the Sussex countryside for over 400 years.”

Bramber – so-called after his first post-escape sighting near the village of Bramber on the River Adur – was one of two beavers from Scotland introduced into the Knepp rewilding project last November in partnership with the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

Bramber swimming in the RiverAdur. Photo: Dave Green

But Knepp says that Bramber’s escape and that of a female beaver – named ‘Billie’ – showed that Knepp’s £45,000-worth of reinforced fencing and barriers across ditches, culverts and streams leading out of the project were unfortunately not enough to deter them from exploring.

Sightings of Bramber on the River Adur, 12 miles and 20 weirs away from Knepp, began in the last weeks of December from areas around Henfield, Twineham, Steyning and the Shoreham Cement Works, often miles apart on the same day.

Walkers and anglers spotted him swimming but also grazing on the riverbanks. Photos and videos, with excited commentaries, started to roll in, but with Bramber covering so much ground it was impossible to attempt to catch him.

Eventually he settled in one spot on an organic farm on the upper reaches of the Adur at Wineham where Penny Green, Knepp’s ecologist, spent several days quietly observing him to learn his habits and work out where best to set a trap for his recapture.

A few days later, Penny set a big Bavarian beaver trap with apples and carrots - beavers’ favourite treats - and Bramber couldn’t resist.

He was transported back to Knepp but was said to be subdued and lethargic on arrival, reluctant to leave the carrying crate.

He was eventually moved into a temporary stable home stocked with straw, food, willow branches and water trough, but, to the great sadness of Penny and the Knepp team, he died in the night.

Billie, the female beaver, remains in captivity at Knepp pending relocation to a licensed beaver enclosure.

Meanwhile, the team at Knepp are planning adjustments to fencing with the aim of releasing another two beavers later this year.

In a statement they said: “Knepp Estate and the Sussex Wildlife Trust would like to extend a huge thanks to everyone who sent in reports of sightings and who shared their excitement at seeing beavers in the Sussex landscape again.

“Posts of Bramber on Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Facebook page were the most shared/liked posts of the year, with 70 per cent of respondents hugely supportive of the beaver reintroduction project.”

Knepp owner Charlie Burrell said: “This has been a challenging month for the Knepp rewilding team but it has also been hugely instructive. We’re learning all the time about how we can manage and live alongside beavers again.

“It’s a set-back but we hope we’re now wiser and more prepared and can welcome another pair of beavers to Knepp later this year. It’ll be amazing to see how they’ll transform our wetlands, improve biodiversity and protect property, farmland and building developments downstream from us from flooding.”

Knepp co-owner Isabella Tree added:”We’ve been so encouraged by the public response to the beavers; so many people, including members of angling clubs, who were sad to see them have to be caught up again.

“Hopefully the day is not far off when we don’t have to do this, and beavers will be an accepted and welcome part of the natural world once again.”

Sussex Wildlife Trust conservation director Henri Brocklebank said:”We were really sad to hear of the death of Bramber after his recent recapture.

“Reintroductions can be incredibly complex and despite the best intentions it has been an unfortunate setback for this innovative licenced trial.

“There has been an overwhelmingly positive public response to the presence of a free-living beaver in a Sussex waterway and this signifies the importance of nature recovery during these challenging times.

“Much is known about the huge contribution beavers can make to restoring biodiversity and river health and we look forward to continue working with the Knepp team to ensure that Bramber’s legacy, combined with lessons learnt from this trial will be instrumental in guiding future releases of beavers both in Sussex and across the country.”