BEAVERS BITE THEIR WAY BACK
One of the largest rodents in the world is big news in British conservation. Gillian Burke has been inspired by the latest beaver reintroduction project in Cornwall
Keeping up with farmer Chris Jones proves to be trickier than I thought it would be when we set out. He’s still in shorts despite the late autumn chill, and thanks to his trusty walking stick one of his friends suggests that he bears more than a passing resemblance to Christopher Robin from Winnie-the-Pooh.
A charming thought, but this Christopher has a surprising turn of speed that forces me to shape up, as we pick and squelch our way through ankle-deep mud.
Autumn is well underway and in the crisp mid-morning light I’m not expecting to see the animals I’ve come here to learn about – they’re nocturnal after all – but there are plenty of signs of them everywhere. Chris delights in pointing out the gnawed branches, felled trees and saplings and, of course, the dams and ponds for which these creatures are so well known. It’s clear that this is his passion project as he declares: “I can’t get enough of this. It’s like a drug!”
Then Chris lowers his voice and explains that, despite all of the beavers’ busyness, he has still seen no sign of their hideaway, or lodge. “It’s a mystery!” he whispers, while carefully scanning the scene. I get the sense that he’s not going to rest until he has found it.
Last summer this small farm, tucked away in a quiet corner of mid-Cornwall, became the unlikely focus of a frenzy of media attention. Local and national press gathered to capture the moment when a single pair of Eurasian beavers was released into a five-acre enclosure. A small step for these two mammals, but a giant one for the Cornwall Beaver Project.
CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE
The beaver release programme at Woodland Valley
Farm is the latest in a handful of schemes across the country, but this Cornish project has one very important difference. Incredibly, for the first time ever, anywhere, scientists will be able to gather crucial ‘before-andafter’ data to produce the most detailed picture yet of how these ecosystem-engineers influence and shape their environment.
There is a growing body of evidence that beavers could be powerful natural allies as we try to turn the tide on a whole smorgasbord of man-made problems. Among the many environmental ills they may help cure are flooding,
soil erosion, habitat and species loss, agricultural run-off entering waterways and freshwater pollution more generally. Not bad for a bunch of rodents.
Beavers are semi-aquatic mammals that need deep, still water to feel safe from predators and raise their young. If there is no suitable habitat in the area, they simply engineer it themselves. Thousands of years of evolution have seen to it that beavers will compulsively dam up fast flowing streams if no agreeably deep water is available.
Armed with powerful jaws and impressive, chisel-like incisors, they do this by felling trees whose trunks are driven vertically to create the initial framework of the dam. The beavers work quickly and methodically to reinforce the structure with small branches, twigs, rocks and even mud that they knead into the smallest gaps. The slightest sound of trickling water sends them into a flurry of activity as they locate and plug up any leaks.
The result is a quiet, still beaver pond in which they can build their lodge. At first glance, it looks like a chaotic tangle of branches and twigs, but there is method in the ‘madness’. The structure is like a thatched mesh, laced with a muddy paste to strengthen it. An underwater entrance, which can be accessed only by the beavers, is the final line of defence from predators and the elements. Once they’re safely inside, the snug lodge provides shelter through the winter and a place to have kits.
At one time the Eurasian beaver, along with its
North American counterpart Castor canadensis, was widespread across much of the Northern Hemisphere. Numbering in the millions, beavers had a huge impact, buffering the flow of water and nutrients through the landscape and keeping aquatic systems stable and healthy. But the animals were valued instead for their fur and castoreum, an anal secretion that you might be surprised to learn was – and still is – used as a vanilla flavour enhancer. Demand fuelled a lively trapping industry that caused populations of both species to crash. In the British Isles, beavers were driven to extinction by the 1500s.
Today the hope is that the Cornish Beaver Project will mark another successful step towards a future where these industrious mammals are once more an intrinsic part of our landscape. The project is a partnership between Chris Jones, the Cornwall
Wildlife Trust and a team of scientists led by hydrologist Prof Richard Brazier from the University of Exeter. But calling it a partnership doesn’t quite do it justice. The collaboration has developed into friendship; trust and good communication are the hallmarks of an ambitious scheme that has taken hard graft to get off the ground.
The Trust had wanted to organise a beaver project for some time, but had been drawing blanks when it came to finding a suitable release site. At the same time, the small village of Ladock, just 1.5km downstream from Woodland Valley Farm, had been hit hard by repeated flooding after a barrage of winter storms. Chris saw a potential solution, approached the Trust, and the rest is history. One balmy evening last June, after an absence of over 400 years, beavers were finally back in Cornwall.
It is hard to overstate the significance of this conservation milestone. Together with the trials on Devon’s River Otter, at Knapdale in Scotland and (soon) in the Forest of Dean, this project will produce data that could inform policy-making in Westminster and Holyrood. But, for now, I’m keen to see how the Cornish pair are settling into their new digs.
This is my second visit to Chris’s farm and I am stunned by how quickly the beavers have set about making alterations to their enclosure. In the six weeks between my visits, the beaver pond has doubled in size and more than doubled in depth. In a year or two, we will almost certainly need waders.
Beavers offer an attractively natural, low-cost solution to many landscape and water-management problems but it is important to note that they aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Much of the south-west, particularly Cornwall, is ideal beaver territory since there is little by way of low-lying farmland or forestry. The same cannot be said of many other lowland areas in England, including much of Somerset or Norfolk.
“THIS BEAVER PROJECT WILL PRODUCE DATA THAT COULD INFORM POLICY-MAKING IN WESTMINSTER AND HOLYROOD.”
Speaking to Cheryl Marriott, head of nature conservation at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, it is clear that amid all the excitement around the beaver release there is a need to tread carefully at this early, fact-finding stage of the project. The Trust recently sent some of the key players to south-east Germany, where beavers were introduced in Bavaria in 1966. By looking at longer-running projects like the one in Bavaria, the Trust can spot potential problems before they arise.
Cheryl emphasises that the Trust has yet to decide its formal position on further beaver reintroductions until it has evaluated the Woodland Valley trial, and its wider impact. “It would be remiss of us to ignore the possible negative impact on some individuals or communities,” she says.
In Bavaria, as in this country, it is farmers who have most concerns about beaver reintroductions. Crucially, Chris joined the team on the Bavaria trip so that he could talk farmer-to-farmer about the reality of living alongside high densities of beavers. Many of the Bavarian sceptics have slowly been won over. In fact, farmers in low-lying areas around the River Danube have found that during droughts their cereal crops have fared better in areas where there are beaver dams.
For me, an even more encouraging story is that of the golden-ringed dragonfly. This stunning insect was thought to need fast-flowing water to breed, so the assumption in Bavaria was that it would vanish as damming activity increased. Researchers were startled to find that, far from disappearing, the dragonfly started to breed in the dams themselves, where the species made use of the microhabitats of fast-flowing water.
There are other positives to be taken from the experience in Bavaria. As mature beaver habitats have begun to silt up, vegetation communities that haven’t been seen in living memory have started to appear. It is rewilding in action.
Closer to home, the Devon project has seen a mind-blowing increase in the local common frog population. Researchers counted 10 clumps of frogspawn when the site was first surveyed in 2011. Just five years later, that total had risen to 580. At the Cornish release site, ponds have expanded more than two-fold since June 2017. “The frogs returning this spring to spawn are in for quite a surprise,” Cheryl reckons.
Cornwall’s pair of beavers have already exceeded all expectations. They were released on a Friday evening, Chris tells me. “They had the weekend off. Started to dam-build on the Monday, and haven’t had a day off since.” Within a fortnight of their release, the beavers’ handiwork was holding back 1,000 cubic metres of water.
Chris’s family has farmed here for three generations. Together with his father and brothers, he personally planted up the mixed woodland that now forms the beaver enclosure. The land, he explains, was a wet and waterlogged pasture that was never really any good for grazing. So they planted the wood for timber, firewood and to create a habitat for wildlife. It strikes me that you might expect Chris to be really sentimental about his woodland, yet he is not at all bothered about it being redesigned by the newcomers.
The beavers only fell a few of the larger trees, Chris points out. And, even then, they don’t actually kill the trees. They are effectively coppiced, which, in turn, creates fresh microhabitats for birds, invertebrates and other species. “In a hundred years’ time,” he tells me, “these ponds will silt up and this will all be deep, fertile soil.” I’m bowled over by Chris’s long-term thinking. That he is willing to manage his land for wildlife in this way, knowing he won’t see the full returns in his lifetime, is truly admirable.
As I ponder this thought, Chris notices something different on the little island in the middle of the pond. Not quite believing his eyes at first, he realises that he has finally caught sight of the beaver lodge. Overcome with emotion, he immediately reaches for his phone to share the news with Cheryl and his partners at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. He has his proof that the beavers have made themselves right at home. And now there’s the promise of the pitter-patter of tiny feet come spring.
“WITHIN A FORTNIGHT OF THEIR RELEASE THE BEAVERS’ HANDIWORK WAS HOLDING BACK 1,000 CUBIC METRES OF WATER.”
Gillian Burke explores a reintroduction site with farmer and beaver champion, Chris Jones.
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ABOVE: Beavers are well adapted to a semi-aquatic life, perfectly at home in a variety of of freshwater habitats. They employ their broad tail as a rudder while swimming
“BEAVERS COULDBE NATURAL ALLIESAS WE TRY TO TURN THE TIDE ON MAN-MADE PROBLEMS.” ABOVE: Beavers are nocturnal and favour the bark of aspen, hazel, birch, alder and willow
BELOW: The beaver’s broad torso and stubby legs are ideal for building dams and lodges
ABOVE: Beaver tug of war. Kits may stay with their parents for up to two yearsRIGHT: The moment Chris and Gillian discovered the beaver lodge