Wild Ken Hill: beavers come to Norfolk
I have had the pleasure of establishing and managing Wild Ken Hill in west Norfolk for the last two years. Wild Ken Hill is an exciting land use project that deploys regenerative agriculture, rewilding, and traditional conservation side-by-side across a 4,000 acre holding.
Each of these projects is significant in its own right, but what is most exciting about Wild Ken Hill is its potential scalability across lowland UK, and its ability to balance conservation and farming discourses. Do visit our website and social media channels to learn more.
The aim of the 1000 acre rewilding component of Wild Ken Hill, is to restore a mixture of agricultural (arable) land and woodland toward a mosaic of woodland pasture, heathland, and other habitats. Viewing the rewilding site with the lens of natural processes, it became clear that beavers would be a key part of our vision. In particular, a large piece of mixed woodland in the centre of the site – in old maps, it’s labelled ‘The Fen’ – appeared in need of restoration toward a wetter, wilder set of ecosystems.
So with the expert help of Prof. Richard Brazier, Dr. Alan Puttock, Derek Gow, and Roisin Campbell-Palmer, we made an application to release beavers at Wild Ken Hill in which we were able to demonstrate that the site was perfect habitat for beavers, that their impact would be overwhelmingly positive, and that there was strong support for the reintroduction among local interests.
There are clearly problems with DEFRA’s current stance on beavers in England, but we found the application process relatively plain sailing; three months after submission (December 2019), we had received a license to release up to 15 beavers (3 family units of 5) into a ~55 acre enclosure, which we believe to be the largest in England.
We constructed the enclosure in January 2020 – the law necessitated it to look more at home in Jurassic Park than Wild Ken Hill; it is an eyesore but provides a high level of confidence to all parties that the beavers will remain inside.
In March, on the cusp of lockdown, we released two single females into the enclosure. Both beavers were from wild populations in Tayside. After the shocking revelation that 20% of the wild Scottish population was killed this year, we are particularly happy that we elected to translocate animals from Scotland to Wild Ken Hill rather than follow the captive breeding route – these animals need protection not prosecution and we are glad to provide it.
The progression of Covid-19 meant that we did not have time to source two males as planned, so the females were released as single individuals (which have not bred). This is a slightly unnatural situation, and we wonder whether this has impacted the behaviour of the animals; for example, we haven’t observed any lodge-building behaviour so far. The good news is that two males are due to join our females very shortly (more below).
One exciting aspect of the release was the huge wave of public support that we received upon announcing it was successful. Write-ups in the press, engagement with our social media channels and even long emails of support re-affirmed to us that people absolutely want this animal back in England.
Deploying 10 camera traps in the enclosure since the release has enabled us to get a decent understanding of the animals’ behaviour. One has found a large pond where she seems to be very comfortable feeding on the willow; the other has plugged some old culverts to create a long linear wetland system.
It is much too soon to judge the impact that these animals will have on this landscape, but the early signs are positive. There is more water than historically in parts of the site, and camera trap footage has shown interesting species use of the area: we have seen goshawk bathing in the ponds and an otter spend over a week in the area for the first time in decades.
The addition of two males in August / September will help to accelerate these processes. Like their intended mates, both are due to come from wild populations in Scotland, following the required health screening before safe transportation to Wild Ken Hill. We expect them to pair up with the two females, and hopefully breed in the coming season. With greater numbers of beavers in the enclosure, and with winter to come, we’re expecting there to be plenty more damming and lodge-building activity.
While the beavers go about re-wetting this area of woodland, the broader rewilding project continues to evolve. The post-agricultural fields were a bright mess of plants this year, our initial work in the woodland is kickstarting natural processes, and we have wild cattle and pigs due to be introduced in September – overall, it’s wonderful to see beavers thriving as part of wider landscape-scale restoration.*
(*This blog is written by an independent writer. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)
Dominic Buscall Beaver Believer
Dominic is a former strategy consultant and conservationist. He manages the 4000-acre Wild Ken Hill project in Norfolk, which combines rewilding, regenerative agriculture, and traditional conservation on one site. The site includes a 55-acre beaver enclosure, home to up to 15 beavers.
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© Dominic Buscall 2020.