Guest blog – The Bureaucrats and the Beavers by Derek Gow

Derek Gow is a farmer.

A previous guest blog here, about rewilding his farm (and much else besides), Winds of Change 4 February 2019, was one of the most popular posts on this blog in all time. His second guest blog, I must tell you something of the Beaver was about the subject which he picks up again here.

I am trying to finish my book. It comes out in September and is as near accurate an account as can be given of the rocky road travelled to ensure a stumbling start with beavers in Britain. Along its course there have been ups and downs, funny bits and sad, rights and wrongs. It’s been a roller coaster of a journey which for some of us has absorbed more life-time than it should. 

But the point of this essay is not to sell books, it’s to explain that its ending remains mercurial and difficult to predict. In mid-February there was hope that in the wake of the disastrous winter floods of 2020 that the newly appointed Secretary of State for Environment George Eustice in a search for sustainable solutions was thinking ‘outside the box’. When he advocated the much wider restoration of the ‘humble native beaver’ to recreate vast swathes of absorbent wetlands the Telegraph and the Times supported his position. Boris was believed to be benign. 

It’s an entirely sensible stand-point because one day soon the waters will return.    

The social, political and cultural winds of change were starting to blow firmly in favour of the beaver’s return. 

The book could culminate on a high note. 

The end.   

But issues remained. 

Sure, they were still being shot in Scotland at the insistence of politicians paying homage to the high priests of the potato but this was a position of regression. A nervous option as the official yet unpublished kill figures from the Tay show just how much sanctioned death has occurred. Well over 100 are believed to have been shot so far on record and others without doubt will have swollen the ranks of the ‘disappeared’. While this shameful first within European history of moving to the lethal control of beavers within 10 years of their reintroduction is unique to Britain there is now a move afoot in England which will compound with elegance its tragedy. A move so retrograde and unnecessary as to be near unbelievable if it were not true. To snuff out the last tiny light of hope that’s emerged for the darkness of these killing fields. The transport under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage across the border of a few refugee pairs, of families with their babies or other odd juveniles to form breeding colonies in large enclosures in the south. 

To provide the foundation populations that will in time ensure their wider return in England.    

At a point when the  government’s own 25 Year Environment Plan clarifies our desperate need for clean air, water, a thriving ecology, a reduced impact from natural events, to use our resources from nature sustainably and to ensure ‘beauty, heritage and engagement’ are all enhanced within our natural environment a tiny cabal of conspiritants without any discussion beyond their own closed circles in Natural England are attempting to ensure that the beaver colonies that could sustainably assist with the delivery of these aims die before they ever can.  

They are not making this decision for you or me or honestly on behalf of our natural environment. They are making it for no rational reason at all. 

It’s misguided and wrong.  

Before I explain why, I would like to make clear that the coalition which has formed over time to rescue the ragged exodus and promote the beavers’ case is quite remarkable. Over the last decade in accelerating response to rising environmental concern many of the great estates have begun carefully to reprise their role. Within their vast landholdings many have realised that they hold the keys to rapid change. While some of their owners understand that much of their curtilage was never suitable for agriculture in any case and that when the subsidies go this option will be unfeasible financially many others harbour much greater ambition. Some quite clearly care about preparing for a better tomorrow. The wildlife inspiration that is the Knepp Castle in Sussex has enthused others to follow. Beavers will arrive there soon to broaden still further the appeal of this wonderous place for nature. Large conservation NGOs are also beginning to confidently act on the beaver’s behalf. Enlightened farmers are content that as our national system of financial support for them moves towards a more balanced approach which truly takes nature into account and supports them through the new Environmental Land Management system (ELMs) that they will be rewarded for their actions. 

I spoke at a farming southwest conference at the request of the NFU in February. Its thinking was progressive. The leaders of the upland chapter told their hill farming audience that to think you were going to continue operating in the way you were doing and had done for decades was utterly unrealistic. That you must plan to follow the money. That it was not in sheep. I talked about a need to return lost species and the development of a grown-up understanding of the potential of their presence. In the conversations that followed over lunch it was quite obvious that many of those attending knew quite clearly what beavers were and what they did. 

Audience polls were held in the afternoon on all sorts of issues. In response to the one on beavers yes or no?  70% said yes. 

A decade of experience from Scotland, combined with the 5-year project now concluded on the River Otter in Devon verifies that beavers do all it says on their box. They slow flows, retain water during drought, purify it of toxins in their complex wetlands and restore biodiversity in great abundance. The process of restoring them in Britain has taken a very long time – the idea was first floated by Lord Onslow in  the 1930s – and with the exception of an official release permit for a project on the west coast of Scotland in 2009 has been driven almost entirely by escapes from captivity or unofficial release. Despite a commissioned feasibility study by NE’s precursor, English Nature, which was entirely supportive of their restoration – similar independent studies commissioned in Scotland and Wales at around the same time provided the same conclusion – NE has pretty much done nothing with regard to the species until recent times. The only official beaver project in England is on the River Otter in Devon which was licenced retrospectively for a 5-year study period after a vigorous public campaign to retain the beavers finally overwhelmed an initial insistence from the then Secretary of State, Owen Patterson, that they could not stay

The project report for the Otter is now complete and has been issued by the Devon Wildlife Trust. A decision is expected from the Minister for Environment regarding its future in August 2020. It has demonstrated independently and quite unequivocally that beavers are tolerable with some simple management in an English landscape and that their presence brings active environmental benefits.    

NE are indicating that they are prepared to now recommend further releases of beavers into other river systems on a strategic basis starting from the West and moving East.  

So, what is the problem? 

For a start there is an import ban in place for beavers coming from most of Europe. The reason given is that a few beavers have been identified carrying a nasty tapeworm called Echinococcus multilocularis which is believed to be absent from the UK and which can be transmitted sometimes with fatal results to humans. DEFRA’s own internal risk assessments indicate that as a vector of transmission the chances of beavers playing any significant role regarding the establishment of EM in Britain are slim.  

EM is a disease which is transmitted by canids. When a rodent or other host contracts it they do so by inadvertently consuming the wind-blown eggs of the parasite released from the faeces of a dog, wolf, fox or jackal which has consumed another rodent infected with the disease. Rodents can’t infect other rodents directly. Canids can’t infect other canids directly. It has to go canid-rodent-rodent-canid. The World Health Organisation and DEFRA itself are clear that dogs are the most significant infectious vector of this disease and its transmission to people. There are approximately 150,000 dog movements between Britain and Europe where worming is required to eliminate EM before the dogs return to the UK. The checks on these are purely based on documentation thereafter which means that any percentage which fail will then present both an immediate risk to their owners and harbour the potential for the wider dispersal of EM in the countryside. 

This is a much more significant and credible risk.  

In addition, there is a community of individuals who maintain exotic mammals as pets in Britain.  Although now banned you could until recently keep racoon dogs – a promiscuous transferrer of EM – in your backyard. No one knows who had them or indeed still has as there are no records. You could buy them from advertisements in garden centres along with a broad array of exotic foxes which can also presumably carry EM. The latter are still freely available. 

If you so wish you can keep North American beavers, capybaras, porcupines and indeed every other rodent species worldwide including some promiscuous carriers of EM in Europe without a licence. 

No issue. No problem. No records of who has what.      

So why just pick on Eurasian beavers? 

It’s land use. It’s the old politics of who can do what with the countryside around us. 50 million pheasants and red legged partridges? Fine. Whatever multiple of millions of sheep stripping the hillsides bare? They are ok as well. Wildlife change for the purpose of nature recovery and enhancement? That’s difficult from a cultural perspective.  

When escapes of native species occur and boar or beaver populations establish a period of strident whining then follows. When it proves to be the case that the more fantastical objects to their presence are fantasy-based the bitching does not disappear it simply slyly connives. Well-connected individuals who worked perhaps for an MP’s father write ridiculous notes in thunderous capitals insisting that he ACTs! Despite sense or reason some of the supplicants do. 

On the Tay the idea that the beavers there are the ‘alien ones’ because they are successful and therefore wrong in every sense has taken firm root within the farming community. The fact that the Tay beavers are, despite their killers, expanding while the much smaller official population in Kintyre is quite simply not, is no issue for them. They wanted no beavers anywhere in any case.  While their script suits them well it fortunately does not suit others and throughout Britain where free-living beavers exist very many of the landowners on whose properties they reside are entirely content with their presence. Many others now want to have them as well. The human communities who live around them are commonly intrigued and then enchanted by their activity.  When, on occasion, as happened on the River Otter in 2014, the views of these communities are requested, individuals who have had no voice ever with regard to the way we treat our landscape and its wildlife step up to the mark and say that they understand that the  beavers do good and that they must stay. 

There is a faction within NE that is well out of step with this reality.   

That we can’t just talk. That we must now do and that to accomplish this we must hand the ability over to people who can, stand back and quite simply without good reason not get in their way.  

There is no other possible scenario under which wildlife can recover at speed. 

What NE need to do is create the policies to support these conditions and not try to run it the other way round. 

NE contains people quite committed to doing just that. It’s got a good chairman of standing and depth, and some excellent directors. Although I do not know Marian Spain, I am told by those who do that she is very sound as are a broad range of the field personnel with whom I occasionally work. Good people, caring and committed but not I am afraid in control of NE licencing.  As an organisation it’s been bludgeoned since birth by governments and ministers who wished its role to be no more than a supplicant stamper of forms. There to provide false legitimacy for bad things. Within its ranks there are strong seams of listless inertia and a marked hostility to change. You can expect nothing else from a body that’s haemorrhaged talent for years and been so resource stripped that the last time we met at Noble House (the Defra HQ) the reception staff there did not even realise the organisation existed. 

Beavers are just too difficult. They bring change. Inevitable, resolute and sure. The applications coming in for processing don’t easily fit into any computerised system of approval and there is little flexibility in licencing for anything much that requires free thought.   

So, you don’t have time to administer the licencing system you have created. It’s complex. You’re tired. But it’s only complex because you have made it so and it’s only there as a system on dubious legal grounds. A senior species licencing chum in Scotland who works for SNH says that he can’t even see how it is legally valid and that they don’t consider it credible. In England however if you accept NE’s premise that this single species threatens the security of the realm, in a way no other native rodent does then you need a licence for the pen and the project. You need to consult the EA. You need a drainage consent which the people issuing don’t understand. You need a licence to trap them for whatever future purpose. You need a licence to use beaver scent to do so and a licence to possess them – which is nearly identical in all respects to the first licence you applied in any case – if they come from the Tay. You also need to prepare a detailed management plan 

its bonkers for a creature which does good and is indigenous.  

All this with some notable exceptions where grown-ups have become involved more recently has been handled with a stunning degree of ineptitude. One individual who applied for a licence to keep 2 beavers in a pen in Cumbria did so before Christmas 2018. Last week – April 2020 – it finally arrived.

How can something so, so simple be contorted into something so complex?

One can only conclude that it’s a process created to simply make needless difficulties. While its instigators believed it would be uncommonly used as it would be expensive to implement and would thus slow any process of beaver return it has failed in these aims. It has cost those who have undertaken to pursue it a lot of money and despite its crushing imbecility further brave souls are now clenching to absorb its administrative pain. Since the system began in 2017 not a single beaver has been recorded as breaching the bounds of the newly designed fence systems its requirements entailed. 

In that respect at least it has worked.   

But now it’s going to stop.  


Because despite being designed to frustrate and deny it’s bred enthusiasm. This was not envisaged and therefore a new approach must be developed to finally finish the game. One that promises hope but makes it impossible. The development by NE of a national strategy for beaver recovery. 

The plan will be ambitious and daring. They will come up amongst themselves with the best beaver mitigation plan ever devised. Everything will be decided on the basis of hi-tech mapping. It will operate from the West to the East and be implemented in a year or less.   

The problem is it’s simply not credible and it involves everything that’s happening right now stopping to accommodate its perfection.

There is no need for this. It’s just another delay.  

In evidence I would like to state that it will involve computerised mapping. While in the hands of informed grownups this prospect is unthreatening, I believe that it will be handed to teenagers who will be told quite explicitly that the broad theorem of ‘computer says no’ will prevail on every occasion when a shred of doubt exists. Any folk on the ground who know their subject well and say that the computer is wrong will get short shrift. A bureaucratic nightmare will be the end result with illogical decisions being enforced for reasons that are quite silly. I have ground-truthed the system which will be used with its creator and it is quite clear that while it identifies the high-quality habitats well those which beavers can move through and reasonably adapt to suit themselves are much less clearly identified.   

If no more enclosed projects can be developed, then no baby beavers born in these will be ever available to stock this great glowing orbit of future hope in any case. If no import then none from abroad. If the Scots one day as they must decide to listen to a broad range of people rather than just potato farmers then the killing there will switch to translocation from the Tay to other Scottish locations where they will prosper but turning off the tap of supply.  There may quite simply not be enough beavers left in reserve to stock anything much at all and any progress that might be made will be excruciatingly slow with setbacks at every turn. Reintroducing species is best accomplished with large numbers of animals rather than small. Bigger populations provide a broader gene base and a reserve if anything by chance goes wrong. Smaller more hesitant projects suffer when a few individuals die. 

There are as I have seen in the course of my long career other advantages with the big enclosures. They are good for example for understanding. They show people what beavers do and begin a rational rather than hysteric debate. I have stood with sceptical farmers groups on rainy, wet days in the enclosed Devon beaver site. Whilst unwilling to begin with when faced with the muddy dams of reality and not the soaring edifices of their imagination they have quite simply stated that ‘this is nothing to us’. 

This is how confidence and dialogue are bred.   

The wild things which return to cohabit with the beavers in their life-scapes can’t see the fences. Their ability to resurge in great abundance to hunt and nest, to swim and spawn, to flutter and feed, to sing and reclaim their rightful homes will all be denied. Wherever they exist enclosed or free beavers help nature. There are books the size of busses throughout their wide world range that tell us so and which can teach us how to live with them. I helped write one in 2016. There is very little in England we will have to learn anew. We are near the last western European nation to restore them quite fully for their significant environmental and economic worth. 

It’s a shame.

And why just in the West? To do so is to deny nature. So impoverished. So, destroyed. Beavers are a key component of riparian process. They should be everywhere they can be. Although intensive arable landscapes are tricky it’s in these that the very worst of the pollutants and problems exist. A truly adult debate should in time look at taking land in back in these landscapes for beavers to create new ‘Kidney’ wetlands to dialisise the wastes flowing through. That is the future in the now, in the stock-lands where wooded corridors exist, they should be returned at speed. In a way we are not used to in Britain at scale and with vigour.   

The solution is clear. NE should help create the structure of the new nirvana, empower management groups to do it, abandon the licencing of the current system of enclosures but set a standard for their fencing and let those who wish to keep beavers do so. We have set a precedent for such a move since the bronze age with cows and sheep after all. It’s worked for them and would not be hard to do.

Remove a useless burden that’s achieving nothing and move on swiftly as we should have done many years ago to a near-time future when this remarkable creature is returned quite fully to England’s wetlands to repair, heal and restore.


21 Replies to “Guest blog – The Bureaucrats and the Beavers by Derek Gow”

  1. Thanks for the blog. I found the lower jaw of a beaver on the Tay while doing a FWPM survey a couple of years ago. May well have been a natural mortality, but given the opinion of the locals I talked to…….. maybe not. Using beurocracy to stymie things that are contentious (or that influential interests are against) is a well used tactic. A quote I heard (second hand) was, when a well known conservationist was questioned “What is the biggest obstacle to reintroducing lynx to Scotland?” The matter of fact response was “SNH”.

  2. Why is it that the rich and privilege which includes the large landowners have so much control over decision making. This country is supposed to be a democracy? On the surface it looks that way but under the surface the relatively fewer but privileged still hold sway. This is largely due to the fact that they are represented by the Tory Party with all its vested interests and in recent years they have increasingly taken a tighter and tighter grip on statutory organisations like Natural England so that now Natural England now dances completely to their tunes.
    From at least a wildlife point of view this country is certainly not a democracy. The vested interests of the privileged,, rich and many large landowners are driving decisions on our wildlife and environment and in many cases those decisions are directly and indirectly harming it a great deal.

    1. It is worse than you think, our ruling triumvirate is Dominic Cummings, Viscount Rothermere, and Rupert Murdoch. They are the only ones who decide policy and dictate what happens in modern Britain. They rule us to their benefit. Everything, and everyone, else is set dressing.

  3. It is now 20 years since the ForestryCommission and the Environment Agency restored the first rivers back to their natural channels in the New Forest. Wild Ennerdale, which is attributed with a dramatic reduction in flooding is about the same age. Yet even on the face of irrefutable evidence that spending more and more on hard defences simply doesn’t work there is still only the hint of a land based approach, and relatively little comment or understanding of the potential from the conservation establishment. Once one would have talked of glacial progress but mow the glaciers are melting a good deal faster than we seem able to change the way we do things – and as Derek makes so vlear this has nothing to do with practicality – we know more than enough. It is sheere institutional inertia and unwillingness to change even in the face of real and growing threats. Doing nothing is as bad as doing the wrong thing and EA’s failure to move away from concrete pouring is especially culpable.

  4. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust have just raised the price of the fencing for Willington gravel pits.
    Virtually on the outskirts of Derby, this will do much to assist the Beavers cause.
    I think it is time for a properly funded Forest and Wildlife department.

  5. If you wish to travel with a dog between the UK and the rest of Europe you are required to have the dog treated for Echinococcus multilocularis prior to re-entry into the UK (more than 24 hours before travel and less than 5 days before travel). If you do so and have the paperwork to confirm it, the dog is considered safe to enter this country. Why is not possible to treat beavers in the same way to permit livestock to be imported for release projects? This would seem to be a fairly simple way to overcome concerns about beavers acting as a reservoir for this tapeworm (I take the point that these concerns are misplaced in any case but if officialdom insists there is a risk this would seem a simple way to address it).

    It is odd the way the UK seems to consider itself uniquely threatened by the prospect of wild mammals. Our close neighbours in Europe manage to live perfectly safely and healthily with a whole range of species that are missing here including wild boar (which of course does have established populations in the UK in the Forest of Dean and one or two other places), lynx, wolves, bears and beavers. Some of these species occur within countries that are densely populated and heavily farmed so it is not simply that these places have more wilderness. Of course there are sometimes conflicts between wild animals and farmers (or others) but these are managed and life goes on.

    1. Dogs harbour a different stage of the Cestode tapeworm, one which matures and lays eggs within the intestinal lumen. The intermediate stage develops in rodents occurs when when eggs passed out by the dog (or other canid) are ingested by a rodent. These develops as cystic nodes in the lungs, liver and kidneys. The cycle is complete when a dog eats an infected rodent .

      Drugs available for treating Cestode infection like Praziquantel will kill the parasite in the intestine of the dog but are ineffective in the stage that develops in the rodent. This is common to all tapeworm infections.

      1. Thanks for the info Alick. I was aware it was a different stage of the life cycle but not that the rodent stage of the cycle was not treatable.

  6. The beaver should be by now being released into the wild in the rest of the UK, pens should only be temporary aids to soft release. If there are problem families along the Tay, this is surely really problem farmers, but even so if the beavers really cannot be accommodated then surely they should be used to repopulate other parts of the UK. Animals from the continent could surely be wormed in the same way as dogs and also be used to put beavers back where they belong in the wild in the UK. SNH and NE are under funded bureaucratic nightmares with NE happy to licence Buzzard killing and Hen Harrier brood meddling amongst other equally undesirable things yet seem terribly reluctant to help enhance our wild spaces with animals that should be here. Like jonathan I see no reason why we should not have Beaver, Wild Boar, Lynx, even wolf and Brown Bear back in our country. Look at what the wolf has done for Yellowstone and imagine that same effect in parts of the tree denuded Highlands. If we cannot have Aurochs why not Taurus cattle and elk.

    1. For the reason why beavers cannot be treated like dogs to remove EM infection, see my response to Jonathan Wallace above.

    2. The really ludicrous thing about the Tay is that if they were translocated to the headwaters any conflicts, even if they’re real, in the lower river would be avoided and the beaver’s potential to reduce flood damage to homes (Perth is the most flood prone town/city in Scotland) and higher quality farmland would be realised. It’s rather ironic one of the common complaints of beavers on the Tay is that they supposedly damage flood defences!!! There are those currently using the uplands as grouse slaughtering ranches that aren’t going to volunteer the information to the public that some targeted tree planting and beaver translocation there should mean fewer people downstream having to mop out their homes and pile up sodden carpets and furniture for landfill.

  7. Interesting and impassioned polemic, Derek.

    I wonder about how much official caution and risk aversion simply reflects the mild xenophobia we Brits exhibit about wildlife. The minority that have the whip hand perceive most wildlife as either an exploitable resource or a hindrance to their interests. However, the majority of the rest of us have increasingly less and less experience of mammalian wildlife and hence develop either an irrational fear or mawkish ‘Disney’ behaviour to the idea of re-introductions. If officials reflect these societal traits it is hardly surprising that there is paralysis at the centre of NE.

    1. Mild? Britain, particularly England, is so xenophobic right now that even Tokugawa Iemitsu would be telling us to take it down a notch.

    2. I’m sure that’s right Alick. But I’ve spent quite a few years of my life in places where there are beavers, and visited UK beaver sites, but I’ve only seen the animals a few times. Of course if I’d aimed really to see them I would have seen more but for me that’s not a big deal really. I’m almost as happy seeing evidence of them in new places as seeing the animals themselves.
      But then where does the aversion come from? Not from experience of the animals. And Derek makes a fair point that most polls seem to suggest that the public at large favours beavers. So that takes you back to an ‘official’ view that is independent of public sentiment. I suspect that, aside from being over-influenced by narrow interests it also reflects the dreadful history of ‘introductions’ worldwide, whether intended or accidental. But the beaver is not in that box, and NE may need to learn better how to think outside their box.

  8. Best place to reintroduce beaver in Britain, or at least safest for the poor beaver, is not in the wilds of the countryside but in urban rivers. A lot of them have heavily wooded margins, and lack gamekeepers and farmers. You could easily drop a few beaver in the rivers around Kilmarnock, or Hamilton [particularly suitable due to Strathclyde Park and Loch], or even in Glasgow at Kelvinbridge. They’d prosper there, and form a seed population to recolonise the whole of the Clyde catchment area, safe from the hands of the keepers and farmers, much as they’d hate it.

    It is the same with lynx. Release them in the greenbelts around cities, or in the Glasgow Necropolises, where there are deer, rabbit, and grey squirrel aplenty and no farmers or keepers putting down poison or patrolling with shotguns. Then let them safely spread out from those areas on their own. Trying to start them in hostile country, out of the sight of the general public and public surveillance, is a recipe for failure. If we could only convince hen harriers to start nesting on urban and industrial estate green roofs…

    1. There are lots of places near me right in the middle of Scotland’s central belt where beaver would be brilliant additions. There’s Carron Valley SWT reserve (and triple SSSI) where they’ve had to send in volunteers to do a bit of tree lopping to preserve the wetland – they also dumped a load of wood in a former sluice in a move that was reminiscent of a beaver dam because renovating it ‘properly’ would create a target for vandals. Beavers would be great here and a brilliant attraction for locals and thereby dissuade vandals.

      Likewise I have lowland Loch a few miles away to my east and that could definitely hold a few beaver and that would be a treat for visitors too. It could be a good place for osprey too if they put up a nesting platform or two. There, however, is the problem it gets stocked with rainbow trout and there are rumours cormorants are being shot at night so anything that may get in the way of catching disgustingly bloated stocked trout might get a hard time and beaver could well be put in that category by the ignorant. I agree though loads of places for beaver in more urban environments and sadly for a lot of wildlife like pine martens and ravens the central belt could end up being a safer place for them than the countryside.

  9. Excellent article. I have just finished reading “The Eurasian Beaver Handbook” which was informative and enlightening.
    It is a disgrace that the Scottish Government has allowed the culling of “problem” beavers rather than their translocation. It seems the Scottish Goverment has bowed to landowner pressure rather than use common sense. There are large areas of the Scotland suitable for beavers that could be “seeded” with translocated beavers. I’m sure many local communities would welcome them. Great for flood managment and eco-tourism. It is ironic that while the killing continues other more fortunate beavers are “exiled” to captivity in England. I hope one day for a more enlightened approach.
    As far as captive beavers are concerned what will happen when the enclosures in England reach capacity as I understand beavers are agressively territorial? What will happen to the “surplus”? population?

  10. If there’s only one species to reintroduce into the UK, then the beaver should be that animal; unlike humans it is a natural creator of environmental habitat.
    A side effect of Covid-19 for us is the fact we can get a lot of work done by outside contractors, so the riverbanks can now be cleared of alder and birch, partly coppiced by us, allowing light now to shine on the ground, this work would be carried out for free year-in – year-out by the beaver.
    Somehow we don’t realise a gift-horse when we see it!

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