IT is 55 years since Longleat became world famous as the first drive through safari park outside Africa. This year the Wiltshire wildlife park has created an even more unusual record as being the first place in the UK where hippopotamus and beavers are sharing the same habitat in more than 100,000 years.
It is believed that the last time hippos and beavers were found together in the UK was during the Eemian period which also saw elephants and monkeys roam the country.
Mark Tye, Longleat team manager for lakes and birds says: “I was driving home through the estate back in October last year when I spotted something in the car headlights and I did a bit of a double take. At first I couldn’t quite work out what I was looking at, but it soon became very clear when I saw the huge paddle-like tail – there was a beaver crossing the road in front of me!”
Beavers are large, semiaquatic rodents native to the northern hemisphere. They once thrived here but were heavily hunted for their fur, scent sacs and meat with the last animal thought to have been killed sometime in the middle of the 16th century.
In recent years, groups of animals have been released at sites across the country and their numbers are steadily increasing, with many settled on Devon rivers. The news of their arrival at Longleat was welcomed by Eva Bishop, the Beaver Trust communications director: “We were delighted to hear of the arrival of beavers in the woods around Longleat. Beavers are a gift in these changeable times, for their potential water and wildlife benefits, so to follow them establishing within the Longleat surroundings will be fascinating.
“It is also exciting for the many visitors to Longleat who may be seeing beaver evidence for the first time; the gnawed willow branches or classic beaver-gnawed tree stumps. Beavers are one of the large herbivores that have been missing from our landscape for 400 years so we want to share this excitement with everyone.”
The beavers are among a string of native wildlife returning to Longleat in recent years, including otters, red kites, owls, kingfishers and several species of deer. Two giant white tailed eagles have also started visiting the estate, part of a reintroduction programme for the species based on the Isle of Wight.
“They were here, they should be here and, if we can get the habitat right, why shouldn’t they be here again?” said Longleat’s head of animal operations Darren Beasley. “For decades we’ve been renowned for our exotic wildlife, but for me the return of these amazing native species is just as exciting.”
Longleat’s half-mile lake is an artificial water feature, which was dug by hand in the 18th century. It was designed by Capability Brown, England’s greatest landscape gardener. In 1804 it was further modified by garden designer Humphrey Repton, who also created the artificial island at the centre of the lake.
Pictured: Hippos at Longleat, a tree showing clear signs of beaver activity and a beaver caught on camera working at night.