Beaver (Castor canadensis)
In the wild
The beaver is a large aquatic rodent, which was once widespread across the whole of northern Europe and North America. The average adult weights from 30 – 50 pounds.
The beaver’s natural habitat is anywhere where inland bodies of water are found, which could be streams, rivers, ponds or lakes: it is not a fan of salt water areas. It will, for which it is famous, seek a quiet place and build large huts in which to live, after constructing a dam across the water. These dams are made by felling trees and vegetation. The can be elaborately constructed and are held in place in weaker spots by soil and sediment carried by the animals in their forelegs.
The familiar tail- wide and flat- is used as a mean of steering in the water (beavers are impressively adapted swimmers). The tail is also utilised as an alarm signal if the animal becomes distressed.
Generally, beavers’ diet consists of bark and vegetation. They will chew the bark off felled trees that are too heavy or awkward to move and have a real liking for small bushes such as a hazel. They especially have an appetite for the inner bark of willow, birch and aspen trees.
The mating season is usually around February to mid-March. The young are born (usually around 3 or 4) in late May. There is one litter annually. Overall, it takes a young beaver around 2 ½ years to fully mature.
Naturally, beavers are predated by (typically) larger animals, such as Lynx, Wolf and Wolverine. However, the beaver’s home is so well designed that – when sheltered- beavers are well protected against predators in their aquatic environment. They can live up to 24 years in the wild.
Some Fascinating Furry Facts:
- They have a third transparent eyelid that helps them see underwater.
- When they fell a tree they waste nothing, systematically eating the bark and buds before cutting up branches and sections of the trunk to carry for use in dams or lodges.
- They can remain underwater without breathing for up to 15 minutes and swim up to 5 mph.
- If a beaver is hissing it’s best to steer clear, it may be frightened.
- Although beavers are social animals, they are lone engineers and work independently with little contact with each other.
- As with all rodents, a beaver’s front teeth never stop growing.
- Dam-building can prevent floods as well as cause them: the wetlands that dams maintain soak up floodwaters, prevent erosion and create an ecosystem that breaks down pesticides.
- Beavers are good housekeepers. Their lodges typically contain two dens, one for drying off after swimming under water, and a second, drier den where the family will live, sleep and socialise.
The beaver and the fur trade
To begin with, the pelt of beavers were used differently to how they have since become used. The fur fibre was combed out to leave only the guard hairs. The combed out fur fibre was used for ‘beaver hats’ and the remained pelts with the guard hairs were used by clergy and royal officials. The style eventually grew in popularity as ‘gentleman’ of the day sought to dress like the royal and religious establishment. The demand became so great that the European Beaver depleted heavily in numbers; the last British beaver vanished in 1526 (that is, until the recent reintroduction schemes). As travellers started to explore America they were induced to seek beaver pelts in the ‘new continent’: not least for financial gain.
Indeed, the early settlers in America handsomely profited from selling beaver pelts. Beaver fur was actually the first article of commerce traded between the colonies and Europe. The unlikely animal arguably became the force that drove cross-Atlantic trade. It saw the rise of famous fur companies such as Hudson Bay (which basically established a monopoly over much of the fur trade) and encompassed the demand from the populations in Europe, the profit seeking American settlers and the practices of the native peoples of North America.
Native Americans had an interesting relationship with the beaver. The beaver had a special place in many tribes’ lives and provided many of their needs. Beaver colonies were commonly found nearby to Indian settlements. Children grew up observing the construction of the dams and lodges and an Indian proverb said: ‘Consider the ways of the beaver and become wise’. The animal features in many tribal legends. They would not disrupt who beaver colonies and hunted the animal only according to their needs.
With the appearance of the European settlers, the Indian behaviour towards the beaver changed. The killing of beaver only as per their need was replaced by greed. Indians were now offered riches greater than they could imagine and- now caught in the toils of the fur trade- set about slaughtering the beaver on a massive scale. Thus the fur industry altered ways of life that were centuries old.
The slaughter of the beaver continued for many years and saw a huge impact on the population levels. As populations became more sparse, the price of beaver fur raised considerably and it seemed that the American beaver would soon go the way of the British beaver and practically disappear completely. In the end, it was the fickleness of fashion which saved the beaver on the brink. It became less fashionable to wear beaver fur and its popularity was replaced by the colourful and cheaper fur of the coypu from South America.
The beaver continues to be killed for its fur today. Beavers are killed by trapping and there is a resurgence of North American amateur trappers seeking to make a seasonal profit. The traps used are brutal. Most commonly, an aquatic version of the leg-hold trap is used- as it is for muskrat and mink. Trappers call their trap devices ‘drown sets’, which are designed to drown and kill beavers. These are set along the water’s edge and obviously cause real suffering to the unfortunate creatures.
Canada stopped producing annual statistics recording how many animals pelts are produced and sold each year in 2012 due to government cut backs. The latest (and last) figures available are for 2009 when 139,220 beavers were recorded as trapped and killed. In the US, the most recent statistics recorded and published are way back in 1998-99 when 333,132 beavers were killed and processed.
Centuries of persecution by the fur trade of this fascinating animal have had a devastating impact on the beaver. Respect for Animals continues to campaign for this persecution to end and looks forward to the day when humans and beavers once more co-exist in balance.