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

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Front Page - Gil­lian Burke is a bi­ol­o­gist and wildlife TV pre­sen­ter

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.”

FIRST STEPS

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.

KEYSTONE SPECIES

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

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