A family of beavers living in the River Otter in Devon may have to be culled because they are believed to be carrying a rare tapeword that can be passed to humnans,

Environmentalist says that Natural England is drawing up plans for a cull even though a programme has begun to reintroduce the animals into the wild in Scotland.

Derek Gow, an ecologist and member of the Beaver Advisory Committee for England, said he feared DEFRA was using the threat of the rare parasite tapeworm (Echinococcus multilocularis) found in the European beaver to remove the three animals in Devon. However, DEFRA denies that any such plans are in the pipeline. The story has made the UK national headlines this week.

The tapeworm can be passed to humans who handle infected animals or eat contaminated food. It is known to cause a headache, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

Although it is not known where the Devon beavers come from, Mr Gow believes that trapping them for testing could be traumatic and risks killing the young.

“Trapping and culling these animals would be an appalling thing to do. The risk of this parasite is very small as it is only found in directly imported adult animals,” Mr Gow told The Independent. “The real reason Defra wants to trap them or kill them has nothing to do with beavers; it’s to do with pressure from a small minority of angling organisations.”

Roisin Campbell-Palmer, who is part of a Royal Zoological Society of Scotland team running a five-year trial to reintroduce beavers to the Scottish Highlands, said the chance of the animals carrying the tapeworm were low.

Villagers in Ottery St Mary, near where the beavers were spotted, said they would not allow Defra to kill the animals.

Claire Wright, a district councillor, said the animals had been “universally welcomed” and that she was “horrified” at the prospect of trapping or a cull.

David Lawrence, whose farm is alongside the animal’s lodge, said he would not allow Defra on to his land to kill the beavers. However, anglers believe that the beavers should be treated as an “invasive species”. The Angling Trust said its members reserved the right to shoot the animals if they saw them in Devon.

Mark Lloyd, the trust’s chief executive, said: “The release of these beavers has not been formally sanctioned and they should be removed.”

A Defra spokesman said: “Beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the last 500 years. Our landscape and habitats have changed since then and we need to assess the impact they could have.

“There are no plans whatsoever to cull beavers. We are currently working out plans for the best way forward and any decision will be made with the welfare of the beavers in mind.”

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