Sophie's Devon coastline pic

No Need To See To Believe

‘But I don’t understand why you haven’t seen them though?’, I’m often asked (and often ask myself), as though seeing a beaver were some godly skill that you gain by default following a zoology degree. As if graduation day was also a blessing from Mother Nature herself, granting us permission to play privy to her secrets. Ah…if only.

I’m very lucky to live in beautiful Devon, still stomping around the countryside and coastline where I grew up. I cannot be stopped. The (now famous) River Otter is just a two-mile bike ride away across the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, where, after a 400-year absence, the first truly wild population of beavers have returned…at least for now. From riparian ‘nobodies’ to media magnets, the beavers here have been the subjects of Devon Wildlife Trust’s landmark trial: to observe their reintroduction into a world that has rapidly progressed without them.

But – I’ve still never seen them. Oozing all the enthusiasm of a newbie zoologist, I’ve learnt the hard way that loving nature doesn’t necessarily grant you unforgettable one-on-one experiences with an animal. Despite my best efforts to ‘be more beaver’: sitting for hours on balmy July evenings, understanding their habits, hotspots and feeding grounds, tagging along with Devon Wildlife Trust surveys – they’ve just not quite made up their mind about me, preferring to remain incognito (they are very good at this).

At first, I took offence. My tender ego, bruised. Flummoxed that nonchalant dog walkers and tourists were rewarded with sightings, their triumphant exclaims of “did you see the baby beavers that were here last night?!” greeting me as I emerge from the riverbank grumpy and dusty from a long day of nothing. But – I’ve got over it (just).

Indulging myself in feeling like a failed ‘nature lover’, tempted me to neglect the raw joy of the moment. I envied those who saw beavers. I wanted that to be me. I wanted to boast about it on social media and receive praise that I managed to see a rare, native mammal right on my doorstep. Go me…

It was a paradox that masked all the clues the beavers quietly left behind, to remind me that they were there – and thriving. The kind of clues that spark hide and seek in an impossibly beautiful place, where I move from ‘intruder’ to ‘investigator’. Telltale grooves on a stump of willow, footprints in the sandy bank, new shoots punching through freshly coppiced aspen. Kingfishers, herons, brown trout, otter spraint, hedgerows alive with pollinators. It’s all there – an intoxicating web of life intricately enhanced and complimented by the beavers, as evolution intended. Enormously satisfying. Seeing their handiwork like this is an open invitation from Mother Nature herself, calling for us to be seduced.

I’ve since learned my lesson, even more so as we approach week six of national lockdown. We don’t have to ‘see’ nature in order to appreciate it. We shouldn’t feel pressured to have unforgettable encounters, it’s not realistic. Often, it’s the little things that resonate most. The things we cannot predict. The return of the regular robin to your windowsill. The trail of ants around the flowerbed. The cry of the arrived swallow. The buzzard wheeling so freely above as you wait in the queue. (Maybe we should RSVP to that invitation, after all).

Sophie PavelleSophie Pavelle

Twitter: @SPavelle

An adventurous zoologist and talented science communicator, Sophie uses enthusiasm and humour to bring natural history to new audiences. With a first-class degree in Zoology and a Masters in Science Communication, she shares quirky stories about doorstep British wildlife and conservation; putting a fresh twist on contemporary natural history content.

© Sophie Pavelle 2020