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.


Badgers, TB and intensive farming

Last Saturday I wrote a blog about the rise of maize growing in this country including Devon and Dartmoor and the environmental problems associated with it. I also made reference to a Soil Association paper on the subject called  ‘Runaway Maize’ – that document made reference to an anecdotal association between the incidence of TB in cattle and the growing of maize – there was no scientific reference detailing this so I didn’t mention it. However this week the University of Exeter (B Winkler and F Mathews) has published a detailed paper on the topic in a journal of the Royal Society “Environmental risk factors associated with bovine tuberculosis amongst cattle in high risk areas”. You can download the Royal Society paper here and you can read the University’s press office release here.

Highland cattle

The paper details a mathematical model which has been produced based on data from over 1300 farms (some where TB was prevalent and some where it was not). The model predicts and I quote from the paper that “The risk of bTB breakdown increased on farms with greater areas of deciduous wood, maize, marsh and rough pasture, and in herds that were larger, fed silage and were dairy units. The risk decreased on farms that had a greater percentage of hedges in boundaries, that grazed cattle on fields that had been cut for silage or hay and had greater numbers of cattle moving off the holding”.

The discussion section states “Broadly, characteristics of higher intensity production, such as larger herd size, maize production, use of silage and reduced hedgerow abundance were linked with elevated infection risk”.

“The dairy industry is currently undergoing particularly marked alterations owing to market and regulatory changes. Average dairy herd sizes rose by 36% from 1990 to 2003 in England. In the same period, the area planted with maize in South West England increased fourfold. Badgers favour maize as a food source: in the south west of England 72% of land owners report badger damage to cereal crops (oats, maize, barley and wheat). Contamination of maize by badger faeces and urine may therefore present a possible route of infection. Maize may also play a role by altering badger population sizes and their nutritional status”.

This is a very important study produced by a highly reputable research unit and published in a world class journal.  In essence the paper says that the way we manage the countryside directly impacts on the incidence of bTB and therefore by changing some of these practices we should be able to reduce outbreaks of TB in cattle.

For every 10ha of maize that is planted the risk of a TB outbreak increases by 20%. In dairy herd of over 150 animals in size they were 50% more likely to suffer a bovine TB outbreaks than herds with 50 cattle or less. The report suggests that by excluding cattle from marshland (by fencing them out) TB outbreaks would be substantially reduced – for every 10ha of marsh on a farm TB outbreaks increase by 70%. On farms with 50km of field boundaries each extra 1km of hedgerow was linked with a 37% reduction in risk.

There is much in here for us all to mull over but there is also a real message of hope. If we are prepared to heed this advice and take action there is a route forward in the battle against bTB. Many of the actions proposed would also lead to a countryside richer in wildlife. If we choose to ignore the findings or are unable to implement them for economic reasons then the incidence of TB in cattle will continue to rise. This approach offers a science based alternative to the current controversial and unproven policies being trialled to reduce TB in some parts of the south west.



Cedars at the University

In my experience nature conservationists and botanists in the UK are rather dismissive of exotic conifers and tend to ignore them! I have been in this category in the past. However with acquisition of Fingle Woods and the need to manage the conifers there over a long period of time into the future as part of the restoration works I have decided to fill my ID oversights / blindspots. Over the coming weeks I will do a few blogs on conifer ID particularly as it relates to Fingle Woods. In the meantime I popped up to the University of Exeter and had a look around the fabulous Gardens and the Pinetum. I dug out a really old book to help me around.

Exeter Uni bookA book about the fabulous collection of exotic trees and scrubs in the grounds of the University. Conifers can be overwhelming – especially when the collection involved comes from all four corners of the globe (well you know what I mean). So I chose to look at a specific group – the cedars.

Cedar of L2This is a Cedar of Lebanon (native to Lebanon and the Taurus mountains) beside the Hatherley Labs on the Prince of Wales Road (where I did my degree). I have known this tree for 35 years! To me Cedars look a bit like acacias on the African Savannah – tall trees with the branches going out in flat parallel planes.

Cedar of L1A classic  Cedar pine cone

Blue atlas cedar2This is a Blue Atlas Cedar (the Atlas Mountains in North Africa) on Streatham Drive – lovely glaucous blue leaves and a dripping cone

Cedar deodar 1And this is a Deodara Cedar (from the Western Himalayas) – a few hundred metres down the road from the Blue Atlas Cedar – the needles look a bit like a larch but otherwise the trees and their cones are very different.

Also came across a couple of pieces of art which caught my eye.

Exeter Uni art 1Mariners Way II by Edward Crumpton – 1200m of hand-knotted tarred marlin rope

Exeter Uni art 3The Peacock again by Edward Crumpton with the University of Exeter Art Society

The grounds of the University in Exeter are wonderful and are well worth a visit. Car parking is available on Streatham Drive and the Prince of Wales Road – there is a lot to see between the Queen’s Building and Hope Hall.