Meet the lat­est re­cruit to the UK flood de­fence team: the beaver

The Guardian Australia - - Environment / Science - Pa­trick Barkham

Beavers could be put to work build­ing dams to stop a vil­lage from flood­ing in the For­est of Dean, in what would be the first such scheme on gov­ern­ment land.

The Forestry Com­mis­sion has been an en­thu­si­as­tic ad­vo­cate for the re­lease of a fam­ily of beavers into a large fenced area sur­round­ing Greathough brook above the vil­lage of Ly­d­brook, on land owned by the com­mis­sion.

Ex­perts pre­dict that the beavers will rapidly cre­ate dams, canals and ponds, slow­ing the stream’s flow and po­ten­tially hold­ing back 6,000 cu­bic me­tres of water to pre­vent huge floods in­un­dat­ing Ly­d­brook, a vil­lage that suf­fered badly from flood­ing in 2012.

Vil­lagers are mostly sup­port­ive, hop­ing the scheme will not only pro­tect the vil­lage but boost lo­cal wildlife and tourism. “It’s a bril­liant idea,” said Stu­art Aken. “There were about 100 peo­ple in the vil­lage hall when they made the an­nounce­ment and there wasn’t a sin­gle dis­sent­ing voice. Peo­ple are in favour be­cause of the po­ten­tial to help against flood­ing and most are in­ter­ested in the in­crease in wildlife that it will bring to the area.”

One vil­lager spoke of con­cerns that the beavers would es­cape the en­clo­sure and pose sim­i­lar prob­lems to those caused by the bur­geon­ing wild boar pop­u­la­tion. But Sid Phelps, a Green coun­cil­lor who lives close to Ly­d­brook, said beavers would not stray far from the wa­ter­course. They will also be tagged, so if they es­caped they could be re­cap­tured.

“This seems to be an in­no­va­tive idea to deal with both cli­mate change and the risk of in­creased flood­ing,” said Phelps. “There’s a lit­tle ner­vous­ness in the For­est of Dean be­cause of the boar but the Forestry Com­mis­sion did an ex­cel­lent job of as­suag­ing any fears.”

But de­spite the beaver scheme not cost­ing the tax­payer a penny – it would be funded by land­fill taxes – it was abruptly post­poned last month.

A source close to the project said it had been blocked by a min­is­ter in the De­part­ment for En­vi­ron­ment, Food and Ru­ral Af­fairs – and the Forestry Com­mis­sion was “hop­ping mad”.

A spokesper­son for De­fra de­nied that the scheme had been blocked by a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter and said that the Forestry Com­mis­sion would an­nounce the next steps in the com­ing weeks.

Derek Gow, a beaver ex­pert who has worked on rein­tro­duc­tions in Scot­land and Eng­land, said: “This is a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity. The sci­ence sug­gests th­ese an­i­mals will hold back 6,000 cu­bic me­tres of water.

“This has the po­ten­tial to pre­vent a once-in-30-years flood event. Th­ese an­i­mals will also open the for­est canopy to light and cre­ate a bio­di­ver­sity jewel in this for­est.”

Landown­ers, ecol­o­gists – and ac­cord­ing to some in­sid­ers, the en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary, Michael Gove – are in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in the po­ten­tial of us­ing beavers as a cost­ef­fec­tive form of nat­u­ral flood de­fence. The gov­ern­ment is over­see­ing a trial to as­sess whether the beaver, which was driven to ex­tinc­tion more than 400 years ago, should be al­lowed back as a na­tive species into Eng­land. The Scot­tish gov­ern­ment last year recog­nised the beavers on its wa­ter­ways as a na­tive species, giv­ing them le­gal pro­tec­tion. At an ex­per­i­men­tal site run by Devon Wildlife Trust on farm­land, a pair of beavers have been shown to hold back 1,000 cu­bic me­tres of water, with their dams and canals dras­ti­cally slow­ing the flow of flood­wa­ter.

In Corn­wall, a farmer linked up with the Corn­wall Wildlife Trust ear­lier this year to re­lease beavers on to fenced land above the vil­lage of Ladock, which has been hit by se­vere flood­ing in re­cent years.

Within two weeks of two beavers be­ing re­leased there, newly cre­ated wa­ter­ways were hold­ing back 1,000 cu­bic me­tres of water.

Gow said he was hope­ful that Gove would ap­prove the Ly­d­brook scheme. He said: “Many ecol­o­gists were very ap­pre­hen­sive when Michael Gove was ap­pointed [as en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary] but his ap­proach has been over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive and re­ally quite vi­sion­ary.

“He’s ob­vi­ously very knowl­edge­able about and sym­pa­thetic to­wards the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. We’re all wait­ing with bated breath to see what the man is go­ing to do.”

Ly­d­brook would set a prece­dent for dozens of sim­i­lar schemes in west­ern Bri­tish river sys­tems, Gow says, par­tic­u­larly in up­stream ar­eas where beaver dams act as a giant sponge, less­en­ing peak flows of water and slowly re­leas­ing more dur­ing times of drought.

But Gow said that beavers were un­likely to be al­lowed back into Bri­tain’s easterly arable land­scapes, where their ac­tiv­ity can flood valu­able agri­cul­tural land.

HOW BEAVER DAMS PRO­TECT THE LAND

Beavers pre­fer to live in deep water so if they are re­leased into a small up­land stream, they quickly build a se­ries of dams and canals they can use. Th­ese dams store water and the land close to the stream in ef­fect be­comes a giant sponge.

At a 2.8-hectare test site in Devon, two beavers have cre­ated 13 ponds that hold 650 cu­bic me­tres of water. Flood­wa­ter has been dras­ti­cally slowed. The dams also re­move pol­lu­tants and cre­ate a rich habi­tat for rare in­ver­te­brates and plants. If the dams are washed away by floods, th­ese busy en­gi­neers rapidly re­build them. Ecol­o­gists say the trial in Devon can be repli­cated at other sites.

This “nat­u­ral” flood de­fence works only in small streams in up­land ar­eas. In deeper rivers, beavers do not need to rapidly cre­ate dams. In low­land ar­eas, beaver ac­tiv­ity can also cause flood­ing.

But those in favour of their rein­tro­duc­tion to Eng­land and Wales say beavers can be re­turned to west­ern river sys­tems and will not spread to low-ly­ing eastern ar­eas, such as the Fens, where their ac­tiv­ity could cause valu­able agri­cul­tural land to flood.

Vil­lagers in Ly­d­brook hope the rein­tro­duc­tion of beavers will boost lo­cal wildlife. Pho­to­graph: im­agebroker/Rex/Shut­ter­stock

Bri­tish beavers take their first swim video

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