A Tale of Two Beavers: at Knepp Estate
In mid-November on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, a pair of beavers were released as a licensed new addition to the rewilding project. Infamous for their investigative nature, both beavers made quite the exploration of their new home – soon breaking free and exploring the nearby River Adur. Beavers hadn’t been recorded on this river for over 400 years. In a very special blog for Beaver Trust, Graeme Cornell, Penny Green and Billie (!) recount the story of Billie and Bramber, the beavers at Knepp.
Graeme Cornell is Chairman of a Worthing Fishing Club that owns lakes about 4km south of Knepp Castle in West Sussex. The club had the pleasure of ‘hosting’ an escaped beaver from the Knepp Castle Rewilding Project and worked in close collaboration with Charlie Burrell, Penny Green and the rewilding team in late November 2020 .
The experience of hosting the beaver over a period of time and working with Knepp was one that the club will not forget. It was a time of many positive experiences, memories and a wonderful learning curve for the club’s anglers. It was a privilege for us to see the beaver now cherish the experience. The club tried to fully support Knepp in retrieving Billie and are grateful to have had the opportunity of being a small part of a wonderful project.
We purchased the lakes 23 years ago and had gradually developed them into a first class fishery. We worked hard at trying to ensure a natural balance in the fishery and it had become a haven for many species of birds and animals.
The arrival on the lakes of a beaver, ecologists and rewilding experts had been both exciting and inspirational. The appreciation of exactly what is on site had been heightened through the knowledge gained by me and my committee members and from Sir Charlie Burrell of Knepp Estate, Penny and Dave Green. The effect that will have long term on the fishery and the club will be huge; even better are the friendships made during that time. A time to treasure.
Penny Green is the Knepp Estate resident ecologist, managing the Knepp Safaris team, volunteers and research students, and co-ordinating the biological monitoring of the rewilding project. She studied countryside management at Brinsbury College and went on to work with the National Trust, the Sussex Wildlife Trust and then the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre. She sits on various committees including the Sussex Mammal Group, the Sussex Dragonfly Group, the Sussex Moth Group and the Sussex Committee for Biological Recording.
The early escapes of both Bramber and the female – named ‘Billie’ by members of the local angling club on whose pond she was safely recaptured – show that Knepp’s £45,000-worth of reinforced fencing and barriers across ditches, culverts and streams leading out of the project were, unfortunately, not enough to deter them from exploring.
A few days later, after the icy weather had subsided, I set a big Bavarian beaver trap with apples and carrots (beavers’ favourite treats); and Bramber couldn’t resist. He was transported back to Knepp but seemed a little subdued and lethargic on arrival, reluctant to leave the carrying crate. He was eventually moved into the stable – his temporary home – stocked with straw, food, willow branches and water trough but, to my great sadness and the Knepp team, he died in the night.
Billie the female beaver remains in captivity at Knepp pending relocation to a licensed beaver enclosure. Meanwhile, having studied the movements of the beavers over hours of trail cameras, we’re planning the appropriate adjustments to the fencing – work that will be carried out in the spring when the ground dries out – with the aim of releasing another two beavers, this time hopefully a bonded pair, later in 2021.
Billie (written by Graeme Cornell)
I never really appreciated what an arranged marriage was…until they suddenly decided to send me from Scotland (yes Scotland !) down to a big castle in West Sussex. Why would anyone do that, Scotland was OK, I’d learned the dialect, I loved Tayside Catchment and what would I know in Sussex…I’d never spoken Sussex.
Well, I was dispatched in a crate (with another beaver in the adjacent crate) for the 500 mile journey. On the way we had a few nights in a zoo near Edinburgh to be health checked (I don’t recommend it) and then onwards south. We arrived exhausted and a bit dry…..but still noticed being chauffeured through the very impressive entrance to Knepp Castle. Jeepers, this looks an important place I thought. There soon seemed to be lots of excited faces staring at us (presumably because we were the new beavers on the block) … I wasn’t sure what to do under the circumstances, but played it casually with just a small eye flutter.
I soon found that out because freedom time was nigh. Off we went across this vast new wilderness and I saw Sussex water for the first time. You certainly wouldn’t make whiskey out of it…and I seriously doubted that I’d be able to make friends with any salmon again. Still….I could go looking.
Then, wasting no time we were carried off to our new top notch accommodation. ‘We’ll release them here’, said the most important looking man in the group (Charlie I think). They kept saying to each other that we were very fortunate having 250 acres to play in…but me, I was just doing the maths of how many willows that meant.
“Off you go” chorused the boss man and a very nice lady, as if launching boats. I obliged with a splatter of my paddle into this new found wonderland. What I hadn’t realised (and no one had told me) was that I was expected to share this with that lad! Yes…off you go little beaver and share your new life with a bloke. …not even of my choosing. Huh…no chance. I needed to learn how to say that in Sussex lingo, so the boy beaver would be under no illusions.
It was novel, finding new things to do. The boss man had obviously spent loads of time and money on trying to keep me (and the new lad) on his land and in his water. Wherever I (and sometimes we) turned, I’d find a new fence or a new barrier or submerged grill. Brilliant, I love all of that. The difference between me and them though…is that I know how to build barriers and things properly. I could help them to learn if I stay around. The folks who come and peep at me keep saying they could learn a lot from me…….you bet!
I didn’t see many people other than those who’d thought up the idea of bringing me here. ..and I heard it was because people were losing their freedom and not allowed out. Well, tell me about it, hundreds of miles, bumpy roads, locked in a crate…hardly first class freedom…and all to be part of a rewilding project.
I could however now spy lots of new creatures; cows with massive horns, deer with trees on their heads (I wondered if I could nibble them) and massive birds in the trees. I thought they were pterodactyls but I couldn’t be sure. I found a wonderful friendly fox, Frank I called him…and we dined together in the moonlight.
I soon needed more excitement (and not from the boy beaver). I yearned to go South. Beaver heaven must have heard me because after a hot summer my new abode was deluged with rain, rain and more rain. I had more to swim in, dive in, play in and plot in.
I needed to break out, I couldn’t be contained any more. Yep…I was going. It was easy really, dive under water where the trail cameras can’t see me, go over or under the new beaver proof fencing (huh) and keep paddling. Wow…I’m making history. I’m the first beaver in 400 years to roam free in Sussex. I soon covered a few kilometres, down streams, brooks and flooded fields; eventually arriving at a murky looking lake…where I needed a rest. It was very quiet, except a huge brickworks that was doing something very noisy.
After resting I explored the new pond, a splash here, a splosh there. Nobody to stare at me,talk about me ,or film me….or so I thought.
On the very next lake a man (in green camouflage!) was fishing, no chance of salmon here I chuckled. Tayside is 500 miles away. So I did an extra big paddle wallop. That startled him. He looked over the fence, right at me…so I dived under, came up, dived under, came up….doing my best Loch Ness impersonation. He had no clue what I was. All he knew was that I wasn’t an otter, or a mink, a water rat or vole…or a duck billed platypus going backwards.
That night, after he had gone home (catching very little), I crept up to his lake. Wow… that was impressive. Deep, clear, quiet…. and had (had) willow trees.
I’d made it. This was Chez Moi (French beaver talk). I saw lots of new people (all camouflaged so I couldn’t see them !! Be like me putting on a fur coat to pretend I’m not a beaver). They all smiled at me…and left me to it. …or so I thought.
Unbeknown to me, one of them had grassed on me to his boss. He then contacted Knepp to enquire about any lost beavers…and they didn’t even know they’d lost me. My plan was foolproof…go under the cameras and no one knows you’re gone. You couldn’t make it up !
My tummy was my downfall though. Photos of the delicious new trees I’d chewed had been sent to Knepp.
The hunt was on. Soon enough I spotted their lovely ecologist (Penny Green…I just love that name for an ecologist !) and her team talking with the fisherboss. They told him I was a girl…which was amusing because he’d called me Billy. He soon changed that to Billie!
I could hear them say they’d need to recover me and they then put some trail cameras in the trees. It was in my favourite place to eat. Swim 10 they called it.
The first night I was left apples and carrots and parsnips…all top notch from M&S. Loved it. I ate them all….plus a few more trees…and teasingly posed for their trail cameras.
Not many anglers caught anything that night….albeit I had spotted some lovely carp, bream and tench; the difference was that I knew where the fish were… they didn’t !
The next day more folks arrived and they had a huge metal container delivered. They put it in my favourite swim under the cameras and filled it with the best veggie menu I’d ever seen. …even sweet potatoes. They all watched from different vantage points hoping I’d be daft enough to go in…no ! that wouldn’t happen.
They watched till dusk when I tantalisingly paddled back and forth to Swim 10. I teased with a wiggle near the bank….but that big silver thing was a worry. I’d never had dinner in a tin box…and didn’t want to try it.
They all went home as darkness fell, but I lingered around the box. The smell, oh the smell; parsnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, apples. I never got these in the wild….escaping clearly has benefits!! You don’t find parsnip fields where I came from!
It’s no good I thought, I can’t waste good food…I’ll be ok…yep ..ok ! Bang went the door. Jeepers, I’d been trapped! I blamed the caterers.
The rest is history. Those Knepp folks arrived swiftly and I was carried, head height across my beautiful new fishery, my ready made beaver heaven. They reckoned I was heavier because I’d eaten everything.
As I was unceremoniously put in the back of a van….I murmured (in my new Sussex dialect…) I’ll be back.
And so it was…. for whatever precautions they taken…I returned some days later !! More free food, more love and companionship from those wonderful anglers. They were all enthralled with me. They weren’t threatened by me (unlike those mink and otters that had dubious reputations). They were happy to watch me and share their lakes with me.
I know how sad they were when in a very short time I fell for the same routine from Knepp’s folks. My tummy again ruled my brain and my breakout holidays were over. Still, I’d nice castle grounds to return to (even though I knew I’d be in solitary)…but whatever happened I wasn’t going to be manoeuvred into an arranged marriage.
I’m proud that I was the first beaver genuinely in the wild in Sussex in 400 years and that I had helped to prove the point that us beavers can co-exist in the wild. If I can do it on a cracking angling club’s water and not cause them any problems and they want me back…then any of us can do it. Go beavers go!
One huge lesson that came from this is that there is immense support from the public, farmers and anglers locally for the return of the beaver – I met many wonderful people on the way! Graeme was our first public encounter on the escaped beaver trail; we hit gold. Graeme and his angling club couldn’t have been any more welcoming and supportive.
Knepp Estate and the Sussex Wildlife Trust would like to extend a huge thanks to everyone who sent in reports of sightings and who shared their excitement at seeing beavers in the Sussex landscape again. Posts of Bramber on Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Facebook page were the most shared/liked posts of the year, with 70% of respondents hugely supportive of the beaver reintroduction project.*
(*This blog has been written by independent writers outside of our organisation. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)
© Graeme Cornell & Penny Green 2021.