The European beaver

  Apart from man, no other animal is able to change the landscape as much as the beaver. Working in groups they fell trees, from which they build dams to control the flow of their rivers, and dig canals to carry logs back to their homes. Sometimes their dams can be huge, more than 600 metres wide.
  Beavers usually sleep during the day and come out around sunset. They like to live in wooded places near streams, rivers and lakes.
  Although they look rather clumsy when they are walking on land, they are good swimmers and can stay underwater for fifteen minutes if necessary.
  Beavers live together in family groups. The young stay with their parents until they are two years oíd, then the adult beavers chase them away so that they may start their own colonies.
  The beaver's home is either a burrow in the river bank or a 'lodge' built out of twigs, branches and mud. Both types have underwater entrances. The lodge usually has one circular 'room' which is where the beavers sleep. This is also where the young spend the first few weeks of their lives. In the top part of the lodge the mud and twigs are less densely packed so that some air is allowed through.
  Beavers build dams to control the water level round their homes. The dam is made from felled trees, which the beaver gnaws through with the front teeth which keep growing throughout its life.
  The beaver was once common throughout Europe, parts of Asia and North America. It was of great importance to the early hunting tribes, who ate beaver meat and used the fur to make clothing.
  Different parts of the beaver were made into medicines. Most valuable of all was castoreum, a scented substance the beaver produces from special glands in its body and uses to mark the borders of its territory. This substance was believed to cure almost any kind pf sickness — from headaches to madness. Castoreum is still used in perfumes and cosmetics.
  The fashion for beaverskin hats, a fashion which lasted for several centuries, did not help the beaver. Beaverskin was preferred to any other kind of fur because it was water-repellent and kept the wearer's head dry. After the beaver had become extinct in Britain, around the twelfth century, the fur for the hats was bought from other countries in Europe.
  Place names such as Beverley, in England, probably mean 'stream inhabited by beavers', and are often all that remain to show that beavers once lived there.
  The beaver became extinct in Switzerland during the eighteenth century and was wiped out in Sweden and Finland about a hundred years later. Early this century the beaver was in great danger of becoming extinct throughout Europe.
  In the past thirty years or so people have tried to return beavers to their old homes. This project has been successful, and the beaver has been reintroduced to countries such as Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and the areas of Russia where it had become extinct. Fifty years ago there were only a few hundred beavers left in Europe — now there are several thousand. The beaver is protected where ver it is found.
  Beavers have often been accused of being destructive animals which destroy the landscape and eat the bark of valuable trees. Slowly we are beginning to realize that they can help us. Their dams keep rivers flowing evenly and prevent floods, and most of the trees they feed on — birch, willow and eider — are of little use to man.