Being More Beaver.
As someone who loves my pets far too much, I understand it’s very easy to be guilty of acting toward an animal as if it is a human. It’s perhaps rarer to find oneself suddenly behaving like another animal. This happened to me recently and it was an interesting experience; I realised at once how good it felt and how little skill I had compared with the creature I was imitating.
I live on a 3 acre plot of land a few hundred feet above sea level in the West Country, surrounded by high-quality arable land that has been farmed for centuries. In the last few decades – and particularly in the last 10 years since ownership changed to an absentee owner who no longer lives alongside his land – farming on the land directly around us has changed. Following the inevitable trajectory of “improvement” encouraged by government policy and chemical companies alike, bigger and bigger tractors have ploughed deeper and deeper into the soil. Their gigantic ploughs slice effortlessly through even waterlogged earth, leaving huge furrows that channel rainwater down any natural slope, taking with it much of the topsoil and its nutrients.
Not so long ago, trees standing in copses, tall hedgerows and the many ponds that were a regular feature of the rural landscape would have absorbed much of the water. Today, the ponds are gone, hedges are cut back to the wood, and many of the hedge trees still standing are damaged by deep ploughing near their roots and the ferociously powerful machinery of the hedgecutters. You have to see and hear the power of these to understand what I mean here – they cut straight through small trees, slashing off whole boughs and straightening the natural curve of nature like a chainsaw.
Facing increasingly common intense rainfall here in the already sodden West Country, thanks to climate change, we have now become used to the road flooding on both sides of our house, often rendering us an island. The coffee coloured torrent that arrives unbidden from the fields to our south and east are funnelled through our land in a drainage ditch and a series of seasonal ponds. It reminds me of aerial shots of where deforestation has left the soil nothing to hold onto and sucked it easily into the Amazon River. The ditch often overflows in stormy weather, running too fast for the drainage pipe. It exits by the fastest route across the garden, out the gate and onto the lane. There, the lack of any road drainage system quickly results in pools too deep for many cars to drive through.
But despair not – the beaver has come mysteriously to the rescue. Not, sadly, by finding its way to my home …yet ….but because its remarkable way of working had already imprinted itself on my brain. After just one visit to the Beaver Trust’s main education site at Woodland Valley Farm in Cornwall, I saw for myself how a beaver-made landscape can slow the flow of water, hold back the silt and prevent flooding downstream. Perhaps we could watch and learn?
The first attempt to build a dam came as a result of having some concrete block rubble left over and wondering if it would make a dam at the point of entry into the first pond. These are actually muddy, boggy areas with flag iris, willow and even some escaped bamboo, acting as mini floodplains for our garden. The beaver would have laughed at us of course; the water poured through all the tiny gaps as if no dam were there. Back to the beaver drawing board, I recalled how they pick up mud and plaster it into the gaps in their own spectacular dams. So, wellies in the water, hands in the mud, we dolloped it on and – sure enough the flow began to slow eventually to a trickle. First round to the beavers.
The next day, water was beginning to pool in a wider area, filling the seasonal ponds more deeply and leaving them in a slightly reduced but still fast stream. Beavers don’t just make one dam; they build a complex web of dams of different sizes and materials, wherever the water needs slowing down or making deeper. So further down the ditch, we decided to make a second dam between the ponds and the pipe under the road. This time we were listening more intently to beaver wisdom and turned to the materials close at hand: fallen timber and twigs mixed with fresher boughs and leaves, topped off with more mud of course.
Heavy rain followed that night and it was with some trepidation thatI visited our rather flimsy dam only to find the water nicely pooled up behind it, water trickling calmly through and – even more astonishingly – clearer water reentering the ditch beyond. The soft, natural, bendy dam was filtering the water already. What’s more, the lane has not flooded again since we put the dams in, making it a nicer place to walk for people in lockdown looking to stretch their legs.
This is not science; perhaps it’s actually closer to art. There was time to stand and stare, and listen to the noise of the water. I forgot to take before and after photos. I didn’t measure anything. But I saw it with my own eyes. Now I am secretly hoping that the water might remain a bit longer on our land to encourage more amphibians, water-loving plants, insects and birds to visit or make their home here. If only the topsoil that is now ending up in our ditch and ponds were not so full of nitrates. Perhaps the dams can also help filter out some of the excess. Meanwhile, like the beaver, every time I hear water running too fast I feel an urgent need to grab some sticks and some mud…
Nicky Saunter Beaver Believer
Nicky is a social entrepreneur and environmental campaigner with a particular interest in business ethics, wildlife and the rural economy. A Director of Beaver Trust, she supported setting up the charity and continues to advise on our strategy, programmes and fundraising.
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© Nicky Saunter 2021.