Wild Life Dam it!

Cornwall Life - - INSIDE - WORDS: Ch­eryl Marriott

The beavers are back

Floods might be fur­thest from your mind fol­low­ing a scorch­ing sum­mer, but while we’ve been sun bathing, th­ese cleaver crea­tures have been busy build­ing na­ture’s best flood de­fences – a dam

Eurasian beavers have bred in Corn­wall for the first time in sev­eral cen­turies. On the one hand this could be viewed as a small thing; two an­i­mals in a fenced en­clo­sure has be­come four. On the other hand, this could be the start of some­thing hugely sig­nif­i­cant; for peo­ple and wildlife. We are just be­gin­ning to un­der­stand what th­ese an­i­mals are ca­pa­ble of if we give them the space to dam, dig and cop­pice; re­turn­ing our streams to a wilder state not seen for gen­er­a­tions.

It’s over a year since a pair of UK cap­tive­bred beavers was re­leased into five-acre en­clo­sure at Wood­land Val­ley Farm near Truro. The site has been trans­formed, there are new beaver-cre­ated pools and cop­piced trees cre­at­ing open, sunny glades per­fect for fly­ing in­sects, bats and birds. Frog numbers are in­creas­ing, grass snakes are breed­ing and wad­ing birds never seen be­fore at the farm are turn­ing up. On one of the weekly pub­lic beaver walks the group was treated to a dis­play from a pole­cat, also never seen at the farm be­fore! It may have turned up any­way of course, but there is no doubt that the lo­cal wildlife is ben­e­fit­ting from the beaver’s pres­ence.

The Corn­wall Beaver Project was

spear­headed by Chris Jones who farms Wood­land Val­ley; he was keen to see if the dam-build­ing ac­tiv­i­ties of beavers could slow the flow of the stream that runs through the farm on its way to Ladock, a flood prone vil­lage. Chris teamed up with Corn­wall Wildlife Trust and to­gether we ran a suc­cess­ful crowd fund­ing cam­paign to get the large en­clo­sure built and the beavers in. The Univer­sity of Ex­eter’s re­search into how wa­ter moves through the site, led by Pro­fes­sor Richard Bra­zier, is a crit­i­cal part of the Corn­wall Beaver Project. Re­sults from a grow­ing num­ber of beaver re-in­tro­duc­tions show that beaver dams slow the flow of streams, re­duc­ing peak-flows which could be sig­nif­i­cant in re­duc­ing flood­ing.

The think­ing be­hind flood pre­ven­tion has shifted in the last 10 years. Now there is an in­creas­ing fo­cus on hold­ing wa­ter in the land­scape for longer, slow­ing the flow rate of streams so that rivers fur­ther down the sys­tem can cope with heavy down­pours. Get­ting soil man­age­ment right through

‘The site has been trans­formed, there are new beaver-cre­ated pools and cop­piced trees cre­at­ing open, sunny glades per­fect for fly­ing in­sects, bats and birds. Frog numbers are in­creas­ing, grass snakes are breed­ing and wad­ing birds never seen be­fore at the farm are turn­ing up.’

sym­pa­thetic farm­ing prac­tices is a top pri­or­ity, but once the wa­ter is in a stream, slow­ing down the speed of the flow can act as the next line of de­fence in com­bat­ing flood­ing. At Wood­land Val­ley farm be­fore the beaver were re-in­tro­duced, wa­ter in the stream used to pass through the en­clo­sure and the sin­gle man­made pond in 15 min­utes. Now there are six sets of beaver dams, with more un­der con­struc­tion. Wa­ter per­co­lates through and around th­ese dams and new stream­lets have ap­peared in ar­eas pre­vi­ously dry. The re­searchers tell us that wa­ter now takes an hour to move through the site; this is four times slower than be­fore the beavers moved in. The ac­tiv­ity of four beavers may not be enough to pre­vent Ladock from flood­ing, but it could be part of the so­lu­tion. Beaver dams can also be use­ful in dry con­di­tions; mak­ing wa­ter avail­able to plants and other wildlife species when other ar­eas have long since dried up. The long dry spell we had in June and July this year re­minds us that even in Corn­wall drought can be an is­sue, and this is likely to hap­pen more reg­u­larly as our cli­mate changes.

So what next for beavers in Corn­wall? The hon­est an­swer is we don’t yet know. The re­search con­tin­ues, in­clud­ing a new study to look at bac­te­ria lev­els in the wa­ter orig­i­nat­ing from live­stock up­stream. Might the ac­tion of ul­tra­vi­o­let light on the shal­low beaver-cre­ated pools have a ster­il­is­ing ef­fect? We aim to find out. If it does, then there may be pos­i­tive im­pli­ca­tions for the qual­ity of bathing wa­ters and shell­fish pro­duc­tion, both very rel­e­vant to Corn­wall. Go­ing for­ward, the English gov­ern­ment might fol­low Scot­land’s lead and recog­nise beavers as a rein­tro­duced na­tive species. We may then start to see more re-in­tro­duc­tions, with or with­out fences. It is be­com­ing clear that we have a lot to gain as a so­ci­ety from hav­ing this key­stone species back, but we would need to be pre­pared to of­fer landown­ers prag­matic ad­vice and help when the ac­tiv­i­ties of beavers are in con­flict with the land use. Twenty-seven coun­tries have gone be­fore us and have learnt to live along­side th­ese im­pres­sive her­bi­vores once again. When we met Ger­hard Sch­wab, a beaver ex­pert from Bavaria, Ger­many he gen­tly poked fun at us for hav­ing beavers in­side a fence: ‘what do you need a fence for, you are an is­land’. We can learn a lot from coun­tries like Ger­many that have al­ready trav­elled the jour­ney we are just be­gin­ning.

Corn­wall beaver dam build­ing

One of Corn­wall’s beavers tucks into bram­bles

Leaky beaver dam at Wood­land Val­ley Farm

Cor­nish Beaver kit

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