In these increasingly unstable times of climate breakdown and species extinction, soil degradation and cycles of drought and flood, farmers and other landowners are thinking ahead and planning for a challenging and unpredictable future.
Over the centuries, the stewards of our land (our neighbours, family and friends) have had a tricky time trying to feed the nation while making a living. Driven by government policies and enabled by heavy machinery and chemicals, our tendency has been to manage the landscape and exert control. However, the denuding, draining and deep-ploughing of our land has had unintended consequences, removing wildlife habitats and soil fertility as our water rushes to the sea.
These now traditional methods were well-intentioned and done to feed a recovering nation after World War Two. But the game has changed, and with it our tactics must change too.
Agriculture, development and flood management practices that rely on humans cutting, digging and building are proving not to cope with the new pressures of a changing climate, and already cost billions – not only from the initial act but from fixing the damage caused to our farmland, waterways and homes. We need a more regenerative approach to land and water management that will rebuild resilience for our hothouse future. We are learning that we need to let go a little, trust nature to work, and find new allies.
Beavers are natural ecosystem engineers. Once present on every waterway in Britain we ate and wore them to extinction about 400 years ago. Extensive scientific studies in North America, Europe and now Britain have shown the many benefits of beavers and the wetlands they recreate. Their pools, dams and canals slow and channel the flow of water, attenuating floods and increasing aquifers for lean and arid times. The water sediments and ponds provide refugia for invertebrates that attract and feed fish, amphibians and birds, which in turn feed the larger raptors. Biodiversity rockets in beaver wetlands.
The same organic and constantly changing structures clean agricultural nitrates and phosphates from our water and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Imagine the impact on people’s health and well-being from experiencing the return of wetlands in every valley, abundant with habitats bursting with life. Beavers will become a figurehead for reversing extinction and reconnecting and realigning humans with the rest of nature that sustains us.
Beaver Trust helps landowners and communities to understand the benefits of returning beavers to our river catchments, and how to co-exist with them too. Engaging communications, education and local Beaver officers will show how to install a ‘beaver deceiver’ to manage a problem dam that may cause localised flooding in the corner of a field; or how to protect a specimen tree by wrapping its base with fencing wire or covering it with latex paint and sand. And if you are worried about fishing, please don’t: beavers taught salmon to leap. Canadian and Norwegian fisher people seek out beaver dams to cast off, fuelling their après fishing tales – with arms outstretched “it really was this………… BIG”.
Beyond financial concerns, perhaps the main challenge for British landowners is to let go of the need to control and straighten nature. To enjoy the scruff of undergrowth and dense thicket, to witness willows, alder and oak being coppiced and then growing back stronger in all directions, horizontally as well as vertically; and to reaccustom our ears to the buzz of life that has long since been silenced in much of our countryside. All we have to do is give wildlife space along our streams and rivers, and welcome back beavers.
Currently, beavers are recognised as a native resident species and protected in Scotland. Sadly the English and Welsh governments are somewhat behind. A trial in Devon on the River Otter will inform future policy changes in early 2020. We have good reason to hope that the current licensing requirements will be changed or removed, and in time beavers will once again roam free, quietly acting on our problems while we people talk.
In the meantime, Beaver Trust can help with a simple fencing plan to prevent beavers escaping supported by a license application to Natural England and to supply beavers from other parts of Britain or Europe. With the change in Common Agriculture Policy looming and Defra’s current Environmental Land Management trials, landowners may soon be incentivised and rewarded for ‘farming’ wildlife including beavers. Payment systems are changing from public payment for productivity to payment for public goods – natural capital and ecosystem services.
My beaver believing colleagues include Chris Jones, an organic farmer whose Cornwall Beaver Project has seen beavers on his land for just two years and already reaped the benefits, not least the reduced flood risk of the Tresillian River to his local village of Ladock. He spotted a dozen spotted flycatchers the other week, breaking all local records, and his stream flowed steadily when others dried in last year’s drought. Visiting Chris’s organic farm and re-wetted riparian site, hearing first-hand about the benefits and how to overcome any inconveniences is a good starting point if you are considering bringing back beavers to your land, or preparing for their inevitable return.
These are unsettling times for British farmers. Beavers offer hope for improving our children’s inheritance and a financially-viable and low-maintenance solution. And, they tell a much-needed good news story too.
Be a future farmer, be a beaver farmer.
#beavers #beaverbelievers #beavolution
© James Wallace 2019