When author Ben Goldfarb was here, I mentioned how whistful I’d be when the UK finally accepted the inevitable decision to live with beavers. He wondered why, and I explained that needing to extoll their benefits over and over to convince their countrymen was hugely valuable to all of us – and an international reminder of the good that beavers do EVERYWHERE. Take this newest article in the Guardian for example.
The return of beavers to Britain half a millennium after we hunted them to extinction is both thrilling and controversial. The Eurasian beaver has been reintroduced into virtually every European country in recent
decades, including densely populated nations such as the Netherlands, where conservationists laugh at Britain’s agonies over the animal. While Britain remains a member of the EU, it is obliged to reintroduce extinct species “where feasible”. In Scotland, the government last year declared the animal a native, protected species after an official trial and unofficial releases – the first ever formal reintroduction of a once-native British mammal. In England, several Bavarian beavers unofficially let loose on to the river Otter in east Devon are now part of an official trial licensed by Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog. In 2020, the government will decide whether to allow them back for good.
In Europe, beavers have stimulated ecotourism, but they may also benefit human communities in other ways. Scientific studies show that their dams remove pollutants from water – they are particularly effective at filtering out harmful phosphates – and reduce floodwater peaks. Enthusiasts proclaim these large herbivores could become 21st-century water engineers, protecting towns from flooding. But some farmers hate beavers because their dams can also flood productive land. In one Scottish valley, where beaver numbers are estimated to have risen to several hundred, beavers have been shot before the formal legal protection is in place. Beavers can live in Britain but can the British live with beavers?
The experimental site in Devon is vivid proof of how beavers create a wildlife paradise, re-engineering small valleys with amphibian- and insect-friendly ponds. Exeter University scientists counted 10 clumps of frogspawn here in 2011; this year there are 681. There were eight species of water beetle in 2011; 26 in 2015. Herons, grass snakes, kingfishers, willow tits, rare barbastelle bats have all returned. In Scotland, ecologists recently found that beavers increased the number of plant species by nearly 50% because they create such a rich variety of habitats, from saturated meadows to sunny glades where moisture- and light-loving plants prosper.
But it’s the beavers’ water works that have really struck those studying the site in west Devon. Its small beaver ponds and soil saturated by damming hold nearly 1m litres of water. Scientific instruments measure water flows and quality above and below the site. The beaver dams improve water quality. (Phosphates and excessive fertilisers washed into waterways can create toxic algal blooms, which can be fatal for anything from fish to swimming dogs.) Exeter University researchers have collated data in a remarkable graph showing flood events. During heavy rain, the volume of water flow increases rapidly above the site, creating a dramatic spike in the graph. But when the floodwater is measured again below the site, there is a gentle curve. In other words, the beavers dramatically reduce the peak flow of floodwater on this stream.
With articles like this in huge papers like the guardian, I can’t imagine the decision is very far off. But I honestly wish it were. I wish it would take them centuries of public debate and mountains of scientific study just so that we could see articles like this over and over again in the paper. I’m the first to admit my motives are entirely selfish. There is enormous value in highlighting for the public and the farmers alike how radically important beaver are to the landscape.
Don’t rush into anything, Britain. Talk about it some more.
Elliott says that, in Devon, “the farmers say to us: ‘We don’t mind the beaver, but if they return we need to be able to deal with problems quickly.’” This doesn’t necessarily mean killing them. In two instances so far on the Otter, dams have flooded small areas of grazing pasture. Under the trial’s terms, Devon Wildlife Trust pays to solve the problem at no expense to the farmer. In one case, it installed a “beaver deceiver”. This pipe goes through the dam, lowering the water level and stopping flooding. The pipe is concealed and covered with mesh, so busy beavers can’t block it. Important trees are protected with a sandy-textured anti-beaver paint – the animals hate chewing it. The trust hopes that such technologies will allow beavers back into human-dominated countryside, but also knows that farmers’ acceptance may depend upon government payments to reward them if agricultural land is given over to beaver-created flood defence.
On the banks of the Otter there are more storylines than a soap opera. A nosy dog recently got a nip from a beaver for straying too close to its lodge. The other night, a badger slipped from the riverbank into the water and was hustled out by a beaver. Locals named one adult Bob, but were surprised when it returned with a pink eartag. So it’s now Mrs Bob, its mate Mr Bob; their kits Miss Bob, Master Bob, Bobby Junior and Roberta.
“It’s the little ones that have really enthralled me,” says local Gaynor Cooper, who comes out most nights. “They are tranquil and seem very gentle.” These slow-moving herbivores don’t eat fish and are much more easily spotted than otters. Five minutes after the first picnic blanket is laid down, there’s a plop of flat tail against water and Mrs Bob glides upstream, with a cute black button nose and brown fur matching the muddy bank.
Ah, yes, I remember. Those golden hours spent watching and waiting at the dam. The surprise at finding how unhuman and unquarrelsome beavers are with each other. I’m happy to know the origin of Mrs. Bob. I had heard of her generous and exhibitionist ways but didn’t know how she got the name. Reporter Patrick Barkham does a great job talking to the right people and learning about beavers, but apparently everyone who works for the paper didn’t do their homework. The current copy of the article has that adorably fuzzy baby beaver photo at the start. But a woman from the UK posted their version yesterday on the Save the beavers of England FB page and it had a photo of a groundhog.
Obviously learning about all beavers is still a work in progress.