beavers reintroduced to Cornwall

Chris Jones of Woodland Valley Farm in Cornwall, in a partnership with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the University of Exeter, has reintroduced beavers into Cornwall four hundred years after they were last seen there. Two adult beavers, one male, one female, were released into a pond within a fenced enclosure in June 2017 and have been left to re-engineer the area through dam and canal building. Having heard his talk at ORFC18 we asked him to tell us more. 

The European beaver (Castor fiber) is a large semi-aquatic rodent, once widespread and abundant throughout Eurasia. It was present in Britain, probably in very great numbers, in pre-history, but in more recent times populations were dramatically reduced by predation by humans. The last records of its presence date back four to five hundred years in the UK.

In Cornwall, a peninsula, with its oppressed and compressed Celtic population, it may well have been hunted to extinction well over a thousand years ago. It was hunted for its fur, its meat, and castoreum, a glandular secretion used in herbal medicine, and, err, vanilla essence.

In recent years several populations of beavers have been established in the UK, mostly confined in large fenced enclosures, but significantly a free population was established in Scotland and a larger population has also been established from illegal and / or accidental releases on the River Tay. Closer to home, in 2011, Devon Wildlife Trust established an enclosed beaver study for habitat management purposes, and a wild population resulting from escapees has now been licensed on the River Otter.

In the winter of 2012-13 Ladock flooded twice. It is a mile downstream of our farm. Although flooding twice in a season was unusual, Ladock has tended to flood every ten years or so. The flooding has never been life threatening but always causes significant nuisance and property damage to the same seventeen households. The following winter season Ladock came very close to flooding again but this time the village was saved when a large tree fell in the river a few hundred metres upstream. This was enough to divert water out into the fields on either side.

Given predictions of higher rainfall as part of climate change I began to think of what we could do on our farm to hold more water on the property. A member of our parish council had mused that flooding issues were that farmers were not keeping ditches clear, which seemed to me a highly unlikely caused of floods in the village. I began to read around the subject a little.

Very quickly it became clear that in countries where beavers were extant they had a very marked effect on headwaters drainage, and especially on attenuating high flows. I met an Environment Agency (EA) geomorphologist at the farm and we walked the length of the stream, identifying opportunities and methods to hold more water on the farm. We agreed that the land and cattle management we were applying was essentially making the soils capable of holding lots of water, with plant species that rooted deeply and let water infiltrate. What there was a question about was how to get the work needed done to hold surface water back. We were looking at building numbers of woody dams and diverting high flows out of the stream and into shallow catch ponds. This work would need manpower and machinery to achieve, as well as future manpower and machinery to maintain in effective condition. I asked the question: did the EA money to pay us to carry out the works – no was the reply. Did the EA have money to maintain the works if we could find a way to carry them out? Again the answer was a definite no. Well, in that case, could we get beavers to come here so that they could do the work for us? Well, as a government employee he shouldn’t really say, but yes, that should work.

Over the following few months I met more people, especially from Cornwall Wildlife Trust (CWT). I discovered that they had been interested in bringing beavers back to Cornwall, but the landowners they had been in discussions with over several years had backed down just at the point of getting to serious feasibility study. So, CWT was very keen to be involved.

After several months of intense discussions with interested parties we were beginning to see a way forward and by the end of 2014 the partnership was really beginning to take shape – Woodland Valley Farm, providing the site and taking the risk, CWT providing support and facilitation, Exeter University providing the academic research on hydrology, which very quickly expanded to ecology, and Manda Brookman of the COAST project for moral support. Frequent email contact was maintained as the project acquired momentum and two meetings were organised to pass on info and try and entice more support for making the project a practical proposition. We were busy trying to involve the Local Nature Partnership (a sort of arm of local government) Cornwall Council, the Environment Agency (lead agency in flooding matters) and anyone else we felt should be interested and supportive.

By the end of June 2015, in the total absence of any serious funding offers from any local or national government or quasi government agency we in the core group were feeling that we might have to re-think the way were going forward and what we could realistically achieve by ourselves. A few of us were quite keen to get some baseline data acquired, something that is very hard to come by in the world of beaver reintroductions (I believe that this is the first case in the world) and Richard Brazier of Exeter University announced that he would get some equipment in the river to start. At that point I knew we had a project, and although we had no money to build a fence or to acquire beavers, the pressure was off.

With huge enthusiasm from all parties and with the very great help of CWT with crowdfunding that exceeded our target by a third, the final release date was fixed; influenced by several factors – including the availability of the beavers  – 16th June 2017 was decided on, which gave us a target time for completion of the fence.

So, the day dawned; the beavers arrived in travelling cages at about 1pm. It was a very warm day and to avoid overheating the beavers the truck was taken down into the enclosure and parked in the shade of the trees. At 3.30 the beavers were carried in their cages down to the north side of the pond, and then the cages were opened by Janet and I. Both beavers emerged, and the male made straight for the water, in a slow deliberate kind of waddle.

The female exited her cage, made towards the water, and then headed back towards the cage – a very gentle nudge with a boot and the female turned back, went down the bank and entered the water. The crowd which had gathered at the water’s edge was then treated to a wonderful period where the two beavers swam up down and around their pond, diving, coming out to sniff at boots and camera tripods, look at plants. Eventually the beavers, who had not met before the release, bumped into each other face to face, which was followed by a hand to hand tussle, and then some synchronized swimming and tail slapping – was this territorial behaviour or love at first sight?

Writing now, thirty-two weeks after the release I can report that where there was one pond there are now three, and where there was one stream channel there are now two. Four dams have been built, and remain under constant modification and maintenance. A lodge has also been constructed, with some evidence of a second one under way. Several tracks can be seen leading from the pond to grazing areas. About thirty small trees have been felled, mostly willow and ash, but including one birch and six oaks. Only the willow seems to be exploited for food, the others having been felled for building material or to improve grazing areas.

Our hopes going forward are that the beavers breed, that they give us good data on hydrology and a range of ecological indicators, and that they return our stream to ecological health. A personal assertion of mine is that no stream in Europe or temperate Asia can be considered to be in good ecological condition without the presence of this extraordinary species.

photo 1: www.cornwallwildlife.org.uk/beaverproject
photo 2: © Jack Hicks

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