Beavers were living on the Tyne catchment 400 years later than had been previously believed, a new discovery has revealed.
A piece of birch wood which had been gnawed by a beaver was found sticking out of the eroding bankside of the Scaup burn at Kielder Forest in Northumberland.
Now the wood has been radiocarbon dated, showing that it was chewed in the 14th Century.
Experts say this is conclusive evidence of the presence of beavers in the upper Tyne catchment in the 14th Century and is the most recent radiocarbon date for the animals in Britain.
The previous most recent radiocarbon fix for beavers was on bones at Glastonbury, which dated from between 800AD and 1000.
The Kielder find was made during a visit to the area by naturalist Angus Lunn, a trustee of Northumberland Wildlife Trust, ecologist Adrian Manning, originally from Hexham but now a university lecturer in Canberra in Australia, and retired Edinburgh University zoologist Philip Ashmole.
All are involved in what are the early stages of a plan to return a large area of Kielderhead moorland to native woodland – a scarce habitat in the uplands.
The Kielderhead Wildwood scheme involves Northumberland Wildlife Trust and the Forestry Commission, which owns the land.
It was on a scouting trip for the project that the three experts made the find.
“It is very exciting to find evidence of beavers in Northumberland in more recent times,” said Angus, who is the author of the Northumberland volume in the New Naturalist book series.
He believes it adds support to calls for beavers, which create wetland habitats for other wildlife, to be reintroduced in the future.
“They are eco-engineers, who would add interest to our wildlife and could be an economic benefit in terms of tourism,” says Angus.
The results of a beaver reintroduction programme in the Scottish Highlands is currently being evaluated.
There is documentary evidence that some beavers survived in England until the 18th Century.
A 16th Century Act set the bounty payments for killing beavers and otters.
There is also a record of a bounty payment of two pence for the head of beaver on the River Wharfe at Bolton Percy in Yorkshire in 1789.
Prior to the Kielder discovery, there are only three pieces of evidence for beavers on the Tyne catchment which can be securely dated to the last 2,000 years.
One was from bones found at the site of the Roman town of Corstopitum at Corbridge.
The second is an Act passed in the reign of Henry I (1100-1135) which set the tolls levied on exports from Newcastle.
These included a toll of four pence on bales of beaver pelts.
The same toll was on pelts from fox, wild cat and pine marten.
Evidence also came from beaver bones found during excavations by Durham University Professor Rosemary Cramp at the site of Jarrow monastery.
The dig examined what is believed to be kitchen waste from the 12th-14th Centuries.
It is thought that beaver was eaten during Lent, as a fish-equivalent food when fasting rules restricted which meats could be eaten.
The wood found at Kielder is being conserved and has been donated by the Forestry Commission to the Great North Museum in Newcastle.
Northumberland Wildlife Trust conservation officer Kevin O’Hara, who has made a study of beavers, says: “The Kielder find makes you wonder if other beavers had survived in other places where it was thought they had disappeared.”
The later presence of beavers in Northumberland supports the idea of reintroduction, he believes.
“It would benefit the environment and help in issues like flood protection. Beavers are the missing link in river management.
“The Kielder area would be admirably suited to beavers.”
The European beaver was once widespread but was prized for its fur, the castoreum it produces for use in medicines and as a base aroma in perfumes and its meat which could be eaten by Catholics as a fish. Today, through reintroduction schemes and natural range expansion, beavers have returned to 23 of the 29 European states from which they had been lost.
Britain remains among the six nations without beaver.
It has been estimated that a beaver release site could bring over £2 million per year into the local economy.