Beavers – the Roadford project- fabulous

Just had one of those brilliant evenings that you don’t forget – been to the Enclosed Beaver Project north of Roadford Reservoir. As an ecologist and conservationist I was blown away – I had heard and read what beavers do to the landscape and indeed I have seen it with my own eyes in Latvia but now I have seen it in Devon! Not only did we see the work of the beavers, their impact and their benefits we actually saw a beaver too! My first in the UK.  A big thanks to John Morgan, the site owner and Peter Burgess, Director of Development, Policy and Research at the Devon Wildlife Trust for showing us around – feel privileged – this project will prove ground breaking.

At the top of the 3ha site – ie where the water comes in – apparently before the project this was an even aged block of tall willow woodland – it isn’t now!

This may look like a man-made culvert – it isn’t – this is a channel created by beavers as they drag vegetation around the site to make their dams and lodges – wow wow wow. Due to the recent dry weather the site is very dry – this channel will be full of water again when the rains come again.

The front paw print of a beaver.

A wetland pool created by the beavers – this wasn’t here before they arrived – it is very dry at the moment due to the drought but you can see how rich this is for wetland wildlife compared to an even aged dense willow copse.

The Lodge i.e. the beavers’ home – they live in tunnels and under trees where the marsh thistle is growing. You can see even in this photo their footprint are everywhere in the mud.

Then there is the research …. courtesy of Prof Richard Brazier at Exeter University. This is the clincher – this is why we need beavers back in the countryside – they will make a real difference to us and our lives. This picture and graph shows how beaver can reduce downstream flooding. The blue line on the graph i.e. the spike (above beaver) shows an enormous rise in water levels following a rain episode – the red line (below beaver) shows what has happened to that spike once the rain has flowed through the area managed by the beavers – they have removed the spike and massively reduced the chance of a flash flood downstream.

And here are the benefits beavers generate regarding water quality: a reduction of sediment in the river (and eventually in Roadford Reservoir) and a reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus (i.e. fertilisers we dont want in our drinking water). Dissolved organic carbon does increase but this shows that although more carbon is released than from farmland (which is depleted of carbon in the soil = bad), wetland are very carbon rich (= good) and therefore release some to the water. Carbon rich soils help us fight climate change but do lead to browner water which then has to be treated. Overall though the beavers have done us a massive favour here regarding water quality.

Tremendous Devon Wildlife Trust summary report download here.

In my view this project and the research associated with it will see the beaver back in the English countryside as a free living animal within 10 years – it is long overdue, they will save us as a society a fortune in ‘hard’ flood defence works and they will give us huge pleasure when we see them for ourselves doing  their thing.

I really hope I am right – if you agree with me join the Devon Wildlife Trust – they have got us to this point and they want to take it forwards. They are also leading on the River Otter beaver project see here.

Beavers – a book and a survey

I’ve been reading a great little book about the return of the beaver to Scotland written by wildlife writer Jim Crumley. I can really recommend it if you are interested in this amazing animal and the role it can play in shaping and creating wetlands whilst also ‘slowing the flow’.


You might also be interested in participating in a survey being carried out by a researcher, Roger Auster, at the University of Exeter ‘Attitudes Towards Beaver Reintroduction in Great Britain: An Evaluation’

If you want to help with this research press here – it will take you about 10 minutes and you might even win an iPad Mini!


A ‘ghost in the landscape’ legally returns to Scotland

I must say I was pleasantly surprised yesterday when I read that the re-introduced European beaver population was to be added to the list of protected species in Scotland

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-22-18-00David Miller is the Special Advisor to the Scottish Government on the Environment so I guess it must be true!

beaver_pho34Photo courtesy of Per Harald Olsen via Wikimedia Commons

As a result of persecution, the European beaver went extinct in Britain around 300 years ago. As a result of their persecution and extinction I call such species ‘ghosts in the landscape‘. In 2009 a small trial re-introduction programme was undertaken in Argyll. The population has expanded from the original 3 family groups. There have been calls from some landowners to eradicate the beavers as there were concerns of the damage they might cause. Today however the Scottish Government has announced that the European Beaver will become a protected species and therefore will be allowed to spread and will not be eradicated. The full story can be read here.

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-22-12-28The John Muir Trust were obviously delighted with the news.

European beavers are often described as a ‘keystone’ species i.e. one that manipulates the habitat it lives in and as a result creates new and varied habitats for other species as well as providing important ‘ecosystem services’ for people as a by product.


This is an area where European beavers have been active in Latvia in Eastern Europe (I took this photo in the early 2000s when I visited the area) – it is clear that lots of interesting wetland habitats have been created and that the area also acts a flood storage reservoir in times of high water levels.

European beavers have also been re-introduced in Devon in a fenced enclosure, and this population has been the subject of considerable conservation work by the Devon Wildlife Trust and has been intensively studied by a team of scientists from Exeter University.

That research team led by Professor Richard Brazier has just published a paper entitled ‘Eurasian beaver activity increases water storage, attenuates flow and mitigates diffuse pollution from intensively-managed grasslands‘ You can download and read the full paper here.

The paper’s summary states

  • Beaver activity has resulted in major changes to ecosystem structure at the site.
  • Beaver activity increased water storage within site and attenuated flow.
  • Reduced sediment, Nitrogen and Phosphate
  • Dissolved organic carbon levels rose (but it is not known if this is problematic as flow rates are significantly lower – my italics).
  • Important implications for nature based solutions to catchment management issues.

 In light of all the current discussions around ‘natural flood management’ solutions (such as those at Holnicote – see here) it is thought that beavers in certain locations may play a useful role in reducing flooding by ‘slowing the flow’.

In addition there is another  unofficially re-introduced population of European beaver in Devon on the River Otter which the Government has allowed to stay for the next 5 years to determine their impact on the environment and local people. The Devon Wildlife Trust are campaigning to keep this population, so that this ‘ghost in the landscape’ can remain and flourish and also play an important part in reducing flood risk on adjacent land and villages.

You can watch this DWT video with Chris Packham which tells you more about their work and the campaign

The question, of course is what will happen now in England? My own view is that I believe that European beavers should be allowed to recolonise England and in so doing will play a useful role in providing new  habitats for wildlife whilst also playing a vital role in reducing flood risk. I very much doubt they will cause landowners and farmers any problems.


In search of the beavers on the Otter

In case you have missed the story – there are beavers in the wild  in Devon again! It is quite a long and complicated story but you can see a full account so far here. As a result we went for a short walk (and a cup of tea) from Budleigh Salterton to Otterton Mill on the River Otter to see if we could see any signs of the beavers.

Otter3This is a close as we got! (and there’s always one with the ‘witty’ wildlife sightings comment)

I suspect that the stretch from the sea to Otterton Mill is just too busy for the beavers except in the depth of the night – there really were a lot of people out yesterday on that walk and quite right too – it was a lovely day.

Otter2Alder ‘cones’

Otter1Willow flowers

Otter4And a couple of lovely swans

Well lets hope that the beavers flourish and are not persecuted  – its good to see an extinct species return – lets hope its the first of many…..

And well done Devon Wildlife Trust for making it happen