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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Dam Bavaria ... Beavers in action

Updated: May 31, 2023

Beavers can create amazing habitats that allow biodiversity to explode ... they are known as a key stone species as their impact goes so far beyond themselves

This post is more about the possible future of Cefn Garthenor rather than the here and now. So, bear with me!

Beavers have been creeping into both our waterways and mainstream news in the UK over the last few years after an effective absence of over 400 years. They were around in large numbers until we hunted them to pretty much complete extinction in the 16th century. They were hunted for fur, meat and castoreum (a secretion used in medicine and perfume). The last recorded death seems to have been in 1789 in Bolton Percy, Yorkshire. The picture across Europe was not so different, with just an estimated 1000 or so left on the continent by 1900.

In 2008, presumably after an escape or unauthorised release, beavers were spotted in the River Otter in Devon. They were not greeted with universal glee. We had no problem wiping them out but allowing them back is an issue. The concerns are around their dam building (potential for local flooding), their tree chewing and the possibility that they might carry disease or eat crops. Interestingly these were not concerns that led us to hunt them to extinction, but of course our countryside has changed during their absence.

The authorities (Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and NatureScot) have to some extent been playing catchup with events on the ground, or more literally in the water. Since the 2008 “discovery”, various trial releases have been undertaken and licences issued for releases into enclosures (fenced in areas covering say between 5 and 30 acres, or 2 and 12 hectares, where any issues are contained on the land of the licensee) and the wild. The result is wild living beavers in parts of Scotland (most based around the Forth and the Tay) with much smaller numbers elsewhere in the UK, with the only “officially” wild ones on the River Otter. In January 2023, NatureScot estimated that there were between 602 and 1381 (median 954) living in 254 territories in Scotland. Most in England and Wales live in enclosures, for example at Cors Dyfi, Wild Ken Hill, Coombeshead and Knepp. See the Beaver Trust website for more information. A few others crop up, living as outlaws and appearing in the Daily Mail from time to time.

Left: beavers coppice trees, creating a wildlife rich environment as they get on with damming work Centre: they will eat the bark from significantly bigger trees, creating standing deadwood which is often positive but can be mitigated for significant specimens Right: the dams they create filter and slow the water flow, keeping water back during periods of heavy rainfall, but potentially creating localised flooding .

Clearly, we are adopting a pretty cautious approach in the UK. But why do some (including me, of course) want them back given the concerns around flooding, tree felling, possible disease spreading and crop depletion?

Well, the evidence suggests that overall beavers, as well as being a boon for biodiversity and the natural environment, would actually massively improve our ability to manage water and actually reduce the risk of flooding. Over the last few centuries, at an ever-increasing rate, we have done everything possible to get water off the land as fast as possible. At Cefn Garthenor, marshy land has been made a bit more farmable thanks to a fairly incredible drainage system. Clay pipes in the ground and ditches around many fields carry the water away, draining the land. Elsewhere, meandering rivers and streams have been straightened or canalised to supposedly improve the land. Faster flowing rivers certainly speed the removal of water. But they also change much more. Habitats change, wetlands disappear and riverbanks become steeper with faster flowing water. Nature suffers.

And now we suffer too, as increasingly heavy rain speeds off the land into areas where we live, with the resultant flooding causing significant damage and suffering. Then, when it is hot and drought looms, the water has long since left the land leaving it barren. You see this on the news every year. So, now we are now looking at ways to slow this all down, keep water on the land for longer. Engineered solutions are expensive, but actually a beaver does this for free. By building dams they slow the water, giving us less risk of flooding downstream and providing more water when the heavens fail to open. So, with beavers only operating within 5 to 20m of a waterway, there may be some limited local flooding of farmland, but sacrificing that land costs nothing compared to the savings made downstream. And given the issues with agricultural pollution in our waterways, a buffer around our water courses makes good sense.

From my perspective there is also the impact of all of this on nature. Beavers, through their damming and chomping, create an incredible habitat for a host of other things. A complex, ever-changing environment which is great for pretty much everything from birds to insects, small mammals to fish (don’t worry, beavers are veggie). Their dams also filter the water and prevent sediment from heading downstream. Don’t I care about trees? Well, yes, but beavers create opportunity for new growth and their coppicing behaviour provides a type of tree that otherwise would not exist yet is very much part of what should be in our landscape.

Disease and crop predation? Like any mammal, beavers can carry disease. However, there is no evidence that they carry anything nasty. And crop eating, again nothing major. But how can I be so sure?

This is where Bavaria comes in. Bavaria has seen a massive resurgence in beaver numbers, starting in the mid 1960’s and picking up pace in the 1980’s. It now has around 25,000 and has likely exported a similar number as the beavers have spread beyond the borders. So, it’s not just cars that Bavaria ships overseas. I was lucky enough to spend a week there in a trip organised by Derek Gow, one of the UK’s leading experts in beaver conservation, and led by Gerhard Schwab, Southern Bavaria’s Beaver Manager. Among the group, I was the odd one out, a novice with 20 ecologists from a range of backgrounds and organisations (from Wildlife Trusts and conservation charities to Network Rail and local government). We saw around 15 beaver habitats and met with a farmers’ representative (the head of the local equivalent of the NFU), a politician, someone from the local water utility and conservationists.

Left: dam in agricultural drainage ditch, centre top: beaver lodge, right and bottom centre: beaver impact on narrow streams

What did we learn? Well, beavers have not destroyed life as we know it in Bavaria. Some mitigation and management has been required and some compensation has been paid. The most important part has been an education piece. When those impacted understand the behaviour of the beaver it is much easier to deal with. And that there have been real benefits. In one excellent example, local mayor Jurgen Roith, explained how the beaver dams above a village had put an end to persistent flooding until a year ago, when “an idiot” decided to break those dams as he was concerned beavers might burrow into the bund holding back the water in his fishing pool. Soon after the inevitable happened when, after heavy rain, water was no longer slowed by the beaver dams, causing huge flood damage in the village as a result. But in most cases farmers are happy with the idea they cannot farm within 5m of the waterways provided it is reflected in the subsidies. This would be easy to incorporate into the new regimes planned for farmers in the UK as we move to payment for “environmental good” as opposed to for the amount of land held.

The water management engineers (we met Dionys Schiebel) did need to watch out for beaver burrows causing collapse, especially in the flood embankments in the Danube area, and investment was required. But, quid pro quo, investment was saved in other areas. The conservation experts loved the impact on biodiversity brought about by the complexity that the beavers introduced. Uli Meßlinger, a biologist with over 20 years’ experience, showed us how a small stream running through a field could become an incredible wetland habitat, an ever changing, dynamic environment full of wildlife ... he had surveyed over many years and documented increasing numbers of various bird species and insects. The nearby village had “sacrificed” the field in return for permission to build some commercial units to boost employment. Compromise is possible and can result in a win-win.

"Don't be afraid of beavers" Thomas Obster (left), head of the local farmers association, told us. Gerhard Schwab (right) translates as we stand in a field of very valuable hops (it is Bavaria!) alongside a beaver occupied drainage ditch

But the last word must go to Thomas Obster, the head of the local farmers’ association. He told us “don’t be afraid of the beavers”. He needs to address the NFU here. As ever, we are scared of the unknown but so often compound the fear by shutting our eyes and ears to the evidence. Working with nature usually makes much more sense than fighting it … it has evolved to look after itself and given we are part of it we should learn.

Eagle eyed of you will notice no cute beaver photos. Well, I didn't actually see one. 20,000 or more in Bavaria and I failed to get eyes on one in a week. But it makes the point, it's not about the animal itself but what it does.

So, would I like beavers at Cefn Garthenor? Dam(n) right! The process of getting them is a whole other story though …

A big thanks to Derek Gow, Gerhard Schwab and my fellow (and way more knowledgeable) participants on the trip ...

Left: Gerhard and Derek, Right: the full group plus Uli Meßlinger, sensibly prepared with umbrella

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