A Very Important Beaver

Written by Holly Morgenroth, Collections Officer / Natural Sciences Curator, RAMM.

A New Acquisition for RAMM

This blog post tells the story of a new and very important acquisition for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter. I grew up in a small Devon village called Otterton and spent many happy hours wandering the banks of the River Otter observing the rich wildlife it had to offer. So when in 2013 news broke that a family of beavers (a species extinct in the wild in Britain for over 400 years) had made the river their home I watched with great interest.

Their arrival divided opinions. The Government planned to remove them from the river. But the beavers captured the hearts of the public and Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) saw a unique opportunity for research. The beavers became part of a five year scientific trial run by DWT to assess their impact on local geography, ecology and people. The results of the trial were overwhelmingly positive.

In January 2020 DEFRA ruled that families of beavers on the River Otter are permitted to remain there. This is a landmark decision and one of the most important moments in England’s conservation history – this is the first ever reintroduction of an extinct native mammal to England. Beavers in England are now a protected species.

The museum’s biology collections document the region’s natural history over a period of 220 years or so. The museum still collects specimens, but birds and mammals are rare acquisitions due to the cost of preserving them. New additions have to be something really special. I contacted DWT and asked whether, if they had any fatalities from the trial, RAMM could have the opportunity of preserving them as a record of this historic moment. On 25 April 2019 the phone call came – a beaver had been found dead and would the museum like it. The answer was, of course, yes please!

My first phone call was to taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long asking for advice on how to store the VIB (Very Important Beaver) until the museum could prepare her for the collection – a conversation which I’m sure left fellow passengers on the bus baffled and bemused.

What followed was an anxious two-year wait to secure funding and find a window in Covid restrictions to drive her to Jazmine, all the while keeping my fingers crossed that the museum’s freezer wouldn’t break down. I didn’t relax until Jazmine assured me that the VIB had arrived safely with her in Hastings and still frozen solid (thanks to ice blocks, foil blankets and bubble wrap).

Project Beaver

I was delighted when NatSCA granted RAMM £2,000 through the Bill Petit Award, a sum matched by the Friends of the Museum. These grants have enabled us to commission not one but two specimens for the permanent collection. Jazmine has prepared the beaver as a taxidermy mount and produced a short film showing the process. If you follow her on Instagram (@jazmine_miles_long) you’ll have seen lots of teasers! Osteological preparator Jon Nott (@jon_nott) has prepared and mounted the beaver’s skeleton in a pose that mirror’s Jazmine’s taxidermy.

Both specimens will soon be on display in RAMM’s Courtyard Wall. We have also commissioned Perspex hoods for both so they can be brought out for activities and events allowing visitors to have a really close look at these marvellous creatures. The day before the first beaver left for Hastings I received another call from DWT. They had a deceased beaver in poor condition and asked if we would like it. Jazmine and Jon rescued the skull, tail and some fur for RAMM’s handling collection.

To find out more about the preparation of the taxidermy mount, go to Jazmine’s blog, also out today.

About RAMM’s Beaver

On the morning of 21 April 2019 a young female beaver (PIT tag number F0840) was trapped in Scotland at a conflict site on the River Tay. She travelled to Devon and was health screened at RSPCA West Hatch en route and shown to be healthy.

Devon Wildlife Trust released the beaver into the River Otter at dusk to increase genetic diversity in the growing population. She entered an unoccupied space between territories with plentiful undisturbed habitats near Dotton Bridge on the river’s lower reaches. Following release she slowly moved downstream.

Beaver just before release – image courtesy of Devon Wildlife Trust.

The body of a dead beaver was recovered near the estuary three days later (24 April) was confirmed to be the released animal. There were no external signs of injury suggesting that her cause of death was not directly due to conflicts with other beavers. Importantly for RAMM, DWT decided they did not need to conduct a post-mortem investigation and so her skin would remain undamaged.

With Thanks

RAMM would like to thank NatSCA and the Friends of the museum for recognising the importance of this specimen and its relevance to the museum’s local community. This specimen represents a very rare opportunity to share the findings of the River Otter Trial with museum audiences. Beaver reintroductions are a national story and RAMM has already had a request to send her on loan to another museum for a temporary exhibition that may even tour. A big ‘thank you’ too to DWT for all their help and support.

One thought on “A Very Important Beaver

  1. Pingback: Creating the River Otter Beaver | NatSCA

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