By James Wallace, Chief Executive, Beaver Trust
The last year has been an extraordinary time for people and wildlife. We are seeing new levels of compassion, community spirit and reproduction, with the latter sustained in post-lockdown beech trees and on beaches.
However, we sow the seeds of discord when fearing a virus within our bodies, water scarcity and excess within our landscapes, failure of our crops, a flailing economy. Climate breakdown looms and extinction threatens the natural world that sustains us. Complex systemic perturbations overwhelm us, and human behaviour is the common cause.
This is good news. We have the power to get a grip, change the rules – policies, regulations, incentives – set our teeth to practical solutions that feed recovery, green or otherwise, and pull through these crises.
Nature can help. Beavers are back, and on a salicylic acid trip, chewing soothing anti-inflammatory willow bark, breathing life into our rivers. Could they be a totem for reconnection and recovery?
Beavers have been on trial for 18 years in England. 12 years ago, Natural England concluded it is feasible for beavers to return to England, many benefits could be seen and issues managed. Scientific evidence from across the Eurasian beaver’s range, most recently the River Otter Beaver Trial, shows consensus that beavers create the opportunity for life, in most places. And in some, beaver management is required, even removal. There are data gaps where problems have not been perceived elsewhere like the knotty issue of migrating fish in our heavily constrained rivers. Scientists strive for objectivity but data can be interpreted in many ways.
The Government policy, funding methods, welfare guidelines, management techniques, translocation best practice, even the best methods to kill beavers have been developed time and again from Scotland to Nova Scotia. Only since 6th August 2020 have the wild beavers on one river catchment in England been allowed to remain by Defra. This is cause for celebration for many and consternation for others. One thing everyone will agree on is a national consultation is a sensible next step, as long as it doesn’t drag on. There is a moratorium on all wild release licenses in the meantime.
Why, we could ask, is it taking so long to come to terms with this waddling rodent? This is where it’s easy to jump into defensive identity mode as ‘angler’, ‘farmer’, ‘conserver’ and take up an immovable position tucked in a corner. You could assume that an Angela Angler or Frank Farmer or Constance Conservationist is a certain sort of person; a hold-all phrase; an archetype. You’d be wrong. You could assume that I’m CEO of Beaver Trust and therefore snog trees and lurk in bogs, a rampant loon blindly drumming out a single, repetitive mammalian mission, a beaver bombardier. You’d be wrong; well partly.
I have a long relationship with beavers and wildlife – you could say over millennia – and the relationship between civilisations and our planet – which we have imperfected many times over. As an archaeologist I discovered (accidentally and nearly missed) a bronze age beaver dam in 1994 at the site of the now Olympic rowing lake at Dorney. Well before their later prehistoric interactions with humans, Eurasian Beavers (Castor fiber) were busily co-evolving with all Britain’s wildlife (and us) including fish, amphibians, mammals, insects, trees, wildflowers, anything living that like getting their roots and boots wet. And let’s not forget all the predators, Darwinian-red in tooth and claw, that no longer walk the earth or keep their numbers in check.
When left to their own devices, beavers build things. When controlled by our devices, beavers build things. They are persistent manipulators of matter and energy, constantly creating opportunity for life and the occasional headache. I often mull on the similarity between their lodges, dams, canals, gardens, coppicing, and ours. More than a coincidence I would wager. Hands + mud + water + sticks = dwelling. Even our neolithic burial mounds and homes bear a striking similarity.
As the grandson of farmers twice over, occasional shotgun wielder, failed courter of horse-riding girls while mucking out stables and avid but incompetent fisher of chalk streams and rocky shores, I am proud to call myself a country lad, a man of rural traditions and I hope one day, the grandfather of more mud-caked sprogs like myself. I understand the ways, or at least some of them, of modernised managed land and riverscapes, and their demands, including those imposed by the system at large. The pressures on families ‘working the land’ must not be underestimated. I understand that from my work over 20 years developing projects from renewable energy to regenerative agriculture as a naturalist-cum-serial (i.e. broke) social-entrepreneur trying to help renew things that are wearing out or fix things that are systemically broken.
I am one of you. All of you. And you are one of me.
Beavers fascinate me. They would make an exemplary analogue for our journey on Earth. They are at once familiar and wild. They seem to exemplify all that is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in humanity. Productive, creative, familial on the one hand and territorial, destructive, verminous even in some people’s parlance on the other.
What if we look at beavers without anthropomorphising for a moment? Which is difficult to do when considering these useful but disruptive ‘little people’ are referred to as ‘ecosystem engineers’ by some or ‘hats’ by others. There is no good or bad in nature. No duality. Just life. And death. And the journey between the two, which can be short or long. A beaver’s behaviour is not good or bad, however she or he does have the propensity for exerting positive and negative impacts on our lives and livelihoods and, in some cases, the lives of other species when confined to our modern waterways and landscapes.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. We all respect transparency. Seeing things for what they really are. When we are honest with ourselves we see beavers through the eyes of our own story and self interest, just as we do with everything in our sphere of existence. And, each of us has more than one me.
To me, the naturalist and conservationist, beavers can provide a balm to our land, rivers and souls. They can provide water in lean times, and slow it down when the heavens open. They purify it too and cleanse us through the experience of immersion in the vibrant, verdant, buzzing wetlands they create. I, Green Man, challenge anyone to sit by a beaver pond, with their beaver glasses on, and not be held in awe of the wildlife that greets them. Beavers create the opportunity for life that co-evolved species came to rely on over the millenia. Without them we and they are bereft, without knowing it.
To me, the grandson of Herefordshire farmers and brown trout fisher, I’d be a fool to think beavers are just like any other species returning to their homeland. They are not. They are decision-makers with large scale landscape-altering potential. Beavers can be troublesome critters. They have a voracious taste for trees, but luckily not for fish. They can block drains, flood roads, and when their dams are in a deeply incised river, they can slow migration. I, Succellus, challenge anyone to feel the loss of a flooded crop or a struggling migrating salmonid and not think beavers can be a complete pain in the arse.
Like Janus, my one face sees nothing but natural healing wetlands and lifts my soul and the other face sees threats to my income / catch and unwelcome visitors. This duality and demonisation is familiar territory – if it weren’t for the bad rep of wolves, magpies, rats and so on, I’d have nothing to read my kids about at bedtime.
But perhaps in this strange time of polarised views and worrying horizons – where we can’t be certain of our future or our grandchildren’s – we need to use new eyes for seeing, to listen with newly attuned ears and to smile our response back at the world and each other. To see not good or bad, but life. To share our concerns, to participate, willingly, to move beyond I to we and explore reciprocity. This is the dance of human life over the ages.
All of the concerns that we have about beavers can be handled. Like them, we too are ingenious and masterful problem-solvers. At the merest hint of blockage or flood, we can whip out the spade, the pipe, the cheque-book, the gun if necessary.
Perhaps we could ask ourselves not if they should be reintroduced (that is an antiquated question) but how we can co-exist and live alongside them? How can we farmers, fishers and foresters reap, catch and harvest the benefits of these animals and manage, translocate or even lethally control them when all else fails? Rather than lock horns like rutting stags about legal degrees of protection and where a wild animal should or shouldn’t be, we could sit down together and come up with a cunning plan that makes Baldrick proud.
When considering the story of beavers so far – the time, effort, risks and challenges encountered – it is no wonder that we find ourselves now in the midst of a period of blended troubling uncertainty and bubbling excitement, depending which me I am and which you, you are. If you look at the ‘stats’ you’ll see that most people support the return of beavers. However, that does not tell the full story and would be disrespectful of those that have very good reason to have concerns. In many areas, our rivers have been straightened and dredged right up to the cultivated fringe of our productive farmland. To release a (leaky, organic) dam-making creature on rivers where (concrete, hard) dams are being removed may seem anathema.
Over the past two years of learning and trying to serve this situation, I have asked myself where the pressure points are and what is missing to unlock the beaver conundrum. Every time the same answers return like a tail-slap in the face: collaboration, space and incentive. I’m sure you could coin other terms.
It seems so simple a thing. Can we put our differences aside and find common ground? We all care about our families, our livelihoods, our human and wild neighbours, our local landscape and cultural traditions. We all feel the same joy when a red grouse or hen harrier is born, and the same pain when that animal dies at the fault of the other. We all feel the same bone-deep chill of uncertainty when looking at the flood waters around our feet and the thermometer hitting 37.8oC as it did last August, again. Another record broken. Another broken record, not spinning but spiralling.
I wonder if we were just to spend a bit more time listening to each other and trying to find common ground then many of the habitual tensions and postures would become redundant. Our feathers smoothed, not ruffled. If we set ourselves the challenge of cooperation not competition, with a clock ticking (which conveniently the extreme weather forecasts do almost daily) and alarm ready to clang, could we divergent stakeholders converge on a compromise and find a consensus? If so, then what would that look like for beavers and humanity? For me it would be a sensible, phased and well-resourced strategy for restoring our rivers with beavers integrated within existing catchment spatial plans. It would scale our ability to meet targets in the Environment Bill, Water Framework Directive and COP 26. It would respect and mitigate risks and be founded on practical and efficient management with locally-led support. It would be based on consultation and engagement, careful assessment, monitoring and best practice, and further research as we learn how this ancient traveller settles back into their primordial home.
I wonder if just giving some space to our rivers (providing buffer zones, as we do with our hedgerows and woods) would allow them to restore naturally and allow them to breathe across the floodplain as the rains come and go, forming braided channels with myriad pools, riffles and fish passes, running fast and slow; food-rich sanctuary and oxygen-rich spawning. And with cultivation and chemicals set further away to allow those valuable ecosystem services to regenerate and be measured, most of the risk of conflicted interests will subside.
I wonder if incentives can be offered to inspire proactive and willing adaptation in our practices, harnessing the mechanisms and payments that reward land managers to give the aforementioned space back to natural processes. I wonder how we could deploy funding from public and private sources, making the most of new schemes like Environmental Land Management, the England Tree Strategy and Nature for Climate Fund, leveraged through innovative biodiversity offsetting and harnessing institutional finance from flood insurance.
And perhaps most importantly, I wonder how hard it would be to make sure that if something buck-toothed and furry comes along and spoils my or your crop or might hinder the leap of a salmon then help is at hand, preferably well before the act of innocent treachery.
I wonder if – as we in Beaver Trust are demonstrating with 40 other organisations from the NFU, CLA and Wild Trout Trust to Thames Water, RSPB and National Trust co-creating Proposals for an English Beaver Strategy – beavers can bring us together to face our challenges and find common and fertile ground, and give space to nature.
The trick, I’ve observed, with beavers and people, is to welcome all comers, to promote humility and mutual respect, to be prepared for change, to share the learning and make it worth everyone’s while.
Come and dip your toes in the calm waters of the beaver discussion and help each other make our rivers fit for beavers and other wildlife. You might be pleasantly surprised to meet more than one me and you.*
James is an archaeologist, naturalist and environmental entrepreneur who helps organisations and communities work together to fix systemic problems. He has spent 20 years setting-up and running enterprises and charities that pioneer ways to realign people with the natural world that sustains us. The latest iteration is Beaver Trust which he co-founded in 2019 to help unlock the horns of apparently conflicting interests and work together to restore Britain’s rivers and wildlife. James is convener of the English Beaver Strategy Working Group.
*This is a personal article and does not necessarily represent the opinion of any organisations mentioned.
#beavers #beaverbelievers #beavolution
© James Wallace 2021.