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.

What will happen to farming in Devon post Brexit?

Yesterday I attended the Devon Local Nature Partnership conference ‘New Horizons for Devon’s Natural Capital’. Great speakers, well attended and well organised. Whilst there are many exciting initiatives happening right now in Devon and the ‘Green Brexit’ mission of Michael Gove gives environmentalists much to be optimistic about with the mantra of ‘public money for pubic goods’, I nevertheless left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach. What does the future hold for Devon’s multitude of small family farms?

Most of my friends are not rural policy wonks and therefore they are unaware of the situation that farming in Devon (and elsewhere) finds itself. Read on.

Here is Professor Matt Lobley from the Centre for Rural Policy Research (where I work) at the University of Exeter talking about  Farm Business Income. Matt told the audience that the bottom 42% of small farms in England contribute just 2% of agricultural output…. There will be those who say these farmers are inefficient and a widespread re-structuring of the industry is required, I say be careful what you wish for. The consequences for the natural character, landscapes, biodiversity and social fabric of counties like Devon in losing 42% of its small family farms would be immense and would led to outcomes which would fly in the face of the Green Brexit objectives.

The rest of this blog attempts to explain the predicament that farmers in Devon now find themselves and gives a small insight into what has to be done over the coming 5 years. The following data comes from various Defra Farm Income reports.

This graph shows the average Farm Business income in England for the various different types of farming. It shows that across England cereals, grazing livestock (lowlands), grazing livestock LFA (Less Favoured Areas) and  mixed farming all lose money on the agricultural side of their businesses.

This table gives the actual figures included in the above graph. So if we look at Grazing Livestock (lowland) i.e. much of Devon that isn’t on Dartmoor or Exmoor, the figures show that the agricultural business lost £8,700 but agri-environment payments (money for looking after wildlife) generated £3000, diversified income (e.g. running a B & B on the farm) produced £6500, the Basic Payment Scheme (subsidy for owning land) provided £15,300 giving an overall Farm Business Income of £16,100. So £24,800 comes from grants, diversified non agricultural businesses and the Basic Payment Scheme to offset the £8700 agricultural loss giving the family farm an income of £16,100. That is not a living wage, i.e. the income provided is unable to pay the farmer, spouse and other working family members a rate of pay equal to the minimum agricultural wage.

The above figures are the 2016/17 figures for England but if you look at the regional numbers other trends emerge.

These are the 2015/16 figures: the average England FBI figure for grazing livestock is £14,400 but in the south west this drops to £10,300. The dairy sector on the other hand is stronger in the south west.

Here are the summary forecasts for 2017/18.

And here are the detailed forecast figures for 2017/18 along with the trends since 2012/13, an 8% decline for upland hill-farmers (LFA) and a standstill position for lowland grazing livestock. A major increase for dairy and a substantial one for cereals. A volatile market but a very precarious one for livestock farmers.

There are some pretty stark numbers in these datasets. Many farms, particularly small farms make small margins and many others are very reliant on agri-environment grants and the Basic Payment Scheme. After we leave the EU the Basic Payment Scheme will be phased out and public money for farmers will be provided in return for the provision of public goods (e.g. wildlife, access, looking after the historic environment, carbon storage, flood prevention, provision of drinking water etc). The following table shows the scale of the shift in policy and the implications of what might happen if it can’t be achieved.

The column titled CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) Subsidy is the sum of the agri-environment grants and the BPS subsidy. This is the amount of money therefore that farmers will have to earn via the provision of pubic goods if they are to maintain their current income levels. The final column shows what the impact would be on their Farm Business Income if they are unable to do this.

And here’s the rub – some farms on account of their location are much better placed than others to provide a suite of public goods and therefore receive public money. So for example hill-farmers in National Parks have made a very strong case that they can provide these public goods as these areas are rich in natural capital and this has been acknowledged by Government. On the other hand lowland graziers perhaps will find it much more difficult to provide public goods as they are not situated in National Parks with Bronze Age landscapes and Special Areas of Conservation where millions of people go for access and recreation.

The stated aim of these changes is to leave the environment in a better condition than it is in now, this means changes to the way things are done. Judging by the conversations that I’ve heard hill-farmers might be able to provide £22,800 worth of public goods to make up for the loss of their Basic Payment Scheme subsidy, the question is whether for example lowland graziers can provide £15,300 and dairy farmers £25,300 worth of public goods in return for the money.

I had a conversation with Robin Milton, Chair of Exmoor National Park, hill-farmer and NFU Uplands chair about this very topic yesterday and that was why I left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach.

Giant Horsefly in Exeter

Last night I found a Dark Giant Horsefly (Tabanus sudeticus) on the wall of the Devon and Exeter Squash Club. This is the largest horsefly in Britain and they don’t get any bigger anywhere else in the world including the tropics.

The body is 24mm long – the orange base to the antennae and dark markings on the abdomen are diagnostic. This is a female – they have gaps between their eyes. In the males their eyes touch.

I’m not sure what it was doing at the Squash Club, I’ve normally seen this species in wild remote places like the Highlands, the Lake District and Dartmoor. I wonder whether it had been affected by yesterday’s heavy rain and took shelter before setting off again in search of cattle and horses.

Here is a photograph of the same species – one I took on Dartmoor a few years ago with a pound coin for scale

This is the same individual showing its mouthparts – it is only the females that bite – little reassurance though as this is a female!

This is the national distribution of the Dark Giant Horsefly – not very common

The Riverford Field Kitchen

I was treated to lunch yesterday at the Riverford Field Kitchen at Buckfastleigh.

The restaurant is set in the middle of the organic farm

A great 3 course lunch in a very atmospheric space

Lovely herb garden and bee paradise

One of the poly tunnels

Lettuces …..

Sunflower and fly

Attracting the pollinators in the poly tunnel

Can really recommend the Riverford Field Kitchen – see here for details

I get most of my food from Riverford too – one of my favourite businesses

The new Devon Flora

On Wednesday evening I attended the launch of A New Flora for Devon. This new 842 page book is the culmination of 12 years work and contains over 1 million records.

The lead author Roger Smith at the launch with the Leader of Devon County Council and the President of the Devonshire Association (who published the book).

The cover

A sample page – showing the Warren Crocus entry on the right.

This new Flora sets a new standard for county plant books – it is amazing, highly detailed and will be an essential reference for years to come.

It can now reside on my bookshelf next two earlier works on the county’s plants – Keeble Martin’s Flora of Devon and Ivimey-Cook’s Atlas of the Devon Flora – both also supported by the Devonshire Association.

Huge congratulations to all involved.


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.


A Desert Wheatear on Leasfoot Beach

I had heard (via Birdguides) that there was a Desert Wheatear on Leasfoot Beach which adjacent to Thurlestone Golf Course close to the Club House. So I popped down at lunch time yesterday to see it.

It is a very rare vagrant in Britain – the species normally breeds in the dry steppes and semi-deserts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The recent strong easterly winds must have blown it off course and somehow it ended up in Devon. Here are a few photos of the bird – it is a 1st winter male.





Kurt Jackson – revisiting Turner at the RAMM

Kurt Jackson is a contemporary British artist who lives on Cornwall. He has visited 12 locations in Devon and Cornwall where JMW Turner worked in the 19th century. He has then painted his depictions of the places where Turner went in an attempt to explore the changes and bring in an ‘environmental slant’.

His paintings along with the Turner works are currently part of an exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter.

Some more background detail

Jackson’s depiction of the source of the Tamar and the Torridge
‘fog, rain and bog’

Through the trees to Okehampton Castle behind

Exeter Quay

I really enjoyed the exhibition and will be going back again – it runs at the RAMM until the 4th December – entry is free