‘You can’t control what beavers do or how they do it!’ Could rewilding help England fight droughts?

‘You can’t control what beavers do or how they do it!’ Could rewilding help England fight droughts?

In the midst of the UK’s worst drought in living memory, a host of unfamiliar experiences assault our senses in a Devon valley. Before us is a field of lush green grass. To one side is a bush of blackberries swollen huge by perfect growing conditions. Squelch, squelch go our feet through the grass. There’s sticky black mud! Hang on, I’ve got wet feet.

Despite a few drops of rain earlier in the week, the rolling hills of the West Country are parched yellow. And yet this small valley, where a tributary leads to the River Otter, is deep green.

“This is super-wet and lush because water is coming out of the drainage ditch, and the reason water is coming out of the drainage ditch is because of the beavers,” says Richard Brazier, a professor of Earth surface processes at the University of Exeter and my guide through this drought-defying corner of east Devon. “The flood plain is wetter because of the beaver activity.”

Of the beaver’s many superpowers, flood-fighting is the one that has led to it being brought back to large fenced enclosures by dozens of landowners across England. By building dams across streams, and creating dozens of new ponds and channels across a valley bottom, the beaver holds back huge volumes of water, slowing the flow in times of heavy rain. Now, in a drought, comes a new benefit: the same slowing effect keeps rivers and their aquatic plants and animals alive.

Beaver supporters argue that this can benefit agriculture, too. But many farmers are still sceptical. The National Farmers’ Union strongly criticised the announcement earlier this summer that beavers will be protected. Are beavers really the salve for a drought-stricken landscape?

In this corner of Devon, the beavers have been busy since they mysteriously reappeared on the River Otter in 2008. When they first returned after being hunted to extinction in Britain 400 years ago, the government initially planned to remove them. Devon Wildlife Trust and other local people campaigned to allow them to stay – as they were in Scotland – and a five-year scientific trial began. Brazier and his team studied their impact and found that beavers brought measurable benefits to people and wildlife, alleviating flooding, reducing pollution and boosting populations of fish, amphibians and other wildlife. Two years ago, the government announced that beavers could stay. From 1 October, the animal will finally be recognised as a native species again with legal protection – paving the way for many more releases into the wild.

Brazier, who is as busy as a proverbial beaver studying these animals, takes me deeper into beaver country to see how they are reshaping our drought-hit countryside.

We think of the flat green bottoms of river valleys as natural but Brazier explains that this one, like so many in southern England, has been reshaped by people: we’ve straightened the stream and moved it to the edge of the flood plain so we can farm the rich soils of the valley bottom. “This is so typical of so many of our small rivers. We moved the water off the flood plain for our convenience but we disconnected that river from the flood plain and interrupted the efficiency of the hydrological cycle. Whenever it rained heavily, the water flashed through. When you get the dry times, the water is already out at sea. The beavers have immediately set about changing that.”

There are obvious benefits for wildlife. Birds flock in, and we see swallows dipping to feed above the beaver pond

When the beavers arrived at this valley bottom five years ago, they built a 2-metre-wide dam across the stream, pushing the water on to the former flood plain. A little water leaks through the bottom of the dam and into the old channel. We walk along the top of the dam, a solid mix of branches and mud. “The dam is gently porous. It’s never going to totally stop the flow but it will release water incredibly slowly,” says Brazier. “Being beavers, they didn’t just stop there. They’ve carried on building.”

The dam is now 80 metres wide. Behind it is a vast pond, 60cm-80cm deep – the beavers’ preferred depth – storing a million litres of water. Upstream are another 15 smaller beaver ponds, linked by channels dug by the animals, which feel more secure when they can swim underwater rather than walk between feeding spots.

This new wetland has been created on a disused poplar plantation. There were 30 or 40 old poplars when the beavers arrived, so they got to work. We push through the thick undergrowth – Himalayan balsam is thriving in the beavers’ wake – and find piles of woodchips – chipped by the beavers – and felled trees. The trees are larders for the vegetarian beavers: the felled trees shoot up again, providing a supply of fresh green shoots. Important large trees have been protected from the beaver-fellers here: an oak has wire netting around its trunk.

What happens immediately downstream of all this activity is dramatic, and challenges our idea of what a river is, says Brazier. The water slowly leaks from the bottom of the dam in different places, and seeks a way around the side, and a single-channel stream is converted into a braided river of up to 15 little channels wiggling across the valley bottom. Brazier delves into one small channel and pulls out water-rounded stones, worn by water in ancient history. “It tells us the stream was here in the past. The beaver damming just exposes that. People point to the old channel and say: ‘That’s where the stream should be.’ But if you allow it, it will be in all sorts of places. That’s inconvenient if you want to farm across the flood plain, but it shows you what a flood plain is.”

There are obvious benefits for wildlife and natural ecosystems from what Brazier rather delightedly calls this “chaos”. Felled trees attract myriad beetles and other invertebrates. Ponds produce an explosion in amphibian life as well as dragonflies and other aquatic creatures. Fish find their way into new ponds, sometimes via eggs stuck to the feet of wading birds. Birds flock in, and we see swallows dipping to feed above the beaver pond. Locals have noticed an explosion in vanishing wetland-loving bird species including woodcock and snipe. It’s a vast carbon store, too. “Like any wetland, if you get it functioning properly it’s going to store way more carbon than if you drained it. We’re nearly shoulder-high in carbon, and that’s got to be good.”

England’s chalk streams are particularly precious – 85% of the world’s known chalk streams are found here – and dry up in drought, but beavers in fenced enclosures in the headwaters of the River Glaven in Norfolk and a chalk stream in Dorset are helping sustain the flow and keep the river alive in drought. “Where the beaver dams are holding back water they are storing it on land and it’s coming through the system nicely, rather than running off down to the sea quickly,” says Steve Oliver, the rivers conservation officer of Dorset Wildlife Trust.

In Devon, the beaver activity is also providing a clear benefit for the village less than a mile downstream in wetter times, holding back flood water where about 40 houses are at risk of inundation. But could beavers benefit farmers? Brazier points out the benefits and costs. Here, the farmer has lost one acre of productive farmland and had the hassle of relocating a field gateway because the beavers flooded the old one. The beavers are snaffling a bit of his maize. But downstream of the dam, a swath of pasture – grazed by young cows – has long green grass in this driest of summers. And the new beaver ponds could be used to provide drinking water for livestock or irrigation for crops, or both.

“If you look downstream, it’s productive farming. If you look up, it’s wild and messy biodiversity. In this case, I think everyone’s happy,” says Brazier. The key, he argues, is to make sure it is planned. If beavers suddenly arrive and flood a potato field – as happened in Scotland – a farmer loses a lot of money. But if a farmer plans to relinquish the wet corners of their fields to beaver ponds, widening the strip of unfarmed land beside a river, and if there is support for the farmer to do this, then Brazier argues it is a win-win. “If it’s all planned and thought through, it’s not going to hit your bottom line at all,” he says.

Farmers are more fearful. Richard Bramley, an arable farmer who is chair of the NFU’s environmental forum, says most of the arguments for beavers are about improving biodiversity – not making farmland more drought-resilient. Bramley would rather manage water in times of flood and drought in a more controlled way. “I’ve always taken the view that if you want to ‘rewet’ an upland area to benefit wildlife or reduce flood-risk downstream, you can do it without beavers – you can put in a leaky dam or a more solid structure without the variable that is the beaver. You can’t control what it does or how it does it.”

Beavers may slow the flow of water downstream when they build dams higher up river valleys but if they get to work in larger, flat valley bottoms, their dams could flood large expanses of productive farmland. Bramley farms on the flood-prone lowlands close to York. While beavers in the hills might help slow the flow in times of flood, “I can think of an area near me where a beaver could set itself and cause issues for thousands of acres of quality arable land that’s producing high-value crops.”

What the current drought illustrates, argues Bramley, is Britain’s urgent need to address the question of better water management in extremes of flood and drought. “The beaver is not going to provide the answer,” he says. “Anybody who thinks beavers are going to solve our water-management strategy in the UK is down a bit of a blind alley. There will be areas where they will work but the caveat is when they start to be successful and breed and move out of those areas we’ve got to have an ability to deal with the negative side of them, as they found to their cost in Scotland.”

The problem now, he says, is that the government has announced beavers will be protected without yet providing details of how landowners will be allowed to manage them and move them out of areas where they cause problems. “We need to have some very clear management rules around how and who manages beavers and where the money is going to come from when it comes to dealing with these creatures. The management plan has got to have enough flexibility in it – anything from relocation to adjusting how a dam is performing to euthanasia.”

“Farmers are sceptical and the debate is polarised – it’s farming or conservation. I don’t think it’s ever as simple as that,” says Ben Eardley, a project manager at the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate in Somerset, where beavers were reintroduced into two three-hectare fenced enclosures in 2020. Here, wetland habitats are thriving despite low river levels. “The beaver enclosures are both full of water and the surrounding landscape is parched,” says Eardley. For the National Trust, the beavers are a key part of restoring upland river systems in this part of Exmoor. “We’ve removed a lot of the hydromorphological complexity so we have a very simplified landscape. Beavers are a way of putting that lost complexity back, which increases the resilience of a landscape in extreme weather conditions.”

But Eardley accepts that beavers won’t be welcome everywhere. “You probably wouldn’t want beavers rewetting large swaths of high-grade agricultural land, but if we could use new farm subsidy systems such as the Environmental Land Management scheme to pay farmers for wilder river corridors with more space for water and nature then perhaps farmers would be happier. It just needs a commonsense approach so the farmers’ concerns are addressed.”

As part of his research, Eardley visited intensively farmed Bavaria. Farmers there opposed the return of beavers 30 years ago, but today live and farm alongside them (assisted by a compensation fund when problems arise). “Speaking to farmers in Bavaria, they are like: ‘What’s the problem?’ When they were talking about beavers returning 30 years ago there was a lot of resistance. It’s not just about mitigating the impact of beavers. It’s about creating good habitats where they want to be. It’s carrot and stick – if you create good areas of river catchment for them, that’s where they will want to be.”

Brazier says that to better cope with extremes of floods and droughts, we need to rethink how we use many of our farmed flood plains (the clue is in the name). In the River Otter, where at least 100 beavers now roam wild, the key to managing conflicts with landowners has been to have a “beaver officer”, so farmers can report any problems and get an immediate response.

“Overall, beaver reintroduction is hugely positive in loads of different ways but the benefits don’t always accrue to some of those who bear the costs,” says Brazier. While little that emanates from central government seems well planned at the moment, he still hopes for a sensible national strategy to ensure beavers are “managed out of intensive farm habitats” so there is a “mutually beneficial renewed coexistence” between people and the animals. “There has got to be some flow back from society that benefits from beavers to the person who bears the cost in a well-thought-out, strategic way.”

This article by Patrick Barkham was first published by The Guardian on 24 August 2022. Lead Image: Beavers have been reintroduced into fenced enclosures by dozens of English landowners. Photograph: David Plummer.

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