Four centuries after being hunted to extinction, could the much-maligned, tree-chomping rodent turn out to be humanities’ new best friend?
Photo credit - Josh Harris
Beavers are, in environmental circles at least, very much in vogue.
Up and down the UK environmentalists are championing these industrious rodents as crucial allies in reducing the risks from future climate and ecological shocks.
Much has been made of the beaver’s potential to rejuvenate and re-wild degraded river ecosystems, prevent both flooding and droughts and even create sinks that soak carbon out of the atmosphere. No wonder boosterist Boris Johnson is on board, declaring he wants to “build back beaver” in his recent Conservative Party Conference speech.
Increasingly, also, beavers have become totemic to many people who are hoping to reverse the dangerous declines in the numbers and spread of wildlife in Britain—declines so shocking that the UK ranked lowest of most nature-depleted countries in Europe at the last count, and just 29th from the bottom worldwide.
Could the most expedient way to claw our way up that list a bit be to allow a little wiggle back into our waterways?
To find out more, I joined a press trip, funded by The European Nature Trust, to visit two burgeoning beaver projects in Cornwall. I was blown away by the extraordinary abilities of these wonderful little creatures and utterly charmed by the fervour of the humans who have made it their life’s mission to reintroduce this keystone species to the UK.
As a fully signed up, card-carrying supporter of biological diversity in general, and the rapid rewilding of our nation in particular, I wasn’t hard to convince. However, I was bowled over by three extraordinary beaver benefits even I had never heard of before.
Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK about 400 years ago: their exceptional fur was traded widely, and their scent glands were used in perfume manufacture. Weirdly, humans might have eaten the animals too, after a Catholic decree bizarrely reclassified them as fish to eat on Fridays.
People in the UK have forgotten what it is like to live alongside beavers and a great many misunderstandings and myths abound. Critics of beavers often claim they cause damage or “make a mess.” Whilst they do cut down trees and build dams - to ecologists this is creative engineering because it opens up new habitat for other species.
There was also widespread misconception that these harmless herbivores eat fish (perhaps confusing them with otters?) which of course would make them the enemy of anglers who are very invested in the UK’s river management. In actual fact, beavers’ endless earthworks create a large, living landscape of ponds and tributaries all of which increase fish abundance by up to 5.8 times.
Sophie Pavelle who starred in the documentary, Beavers Without Borders said -
“It’s so easy to forget that beavers and fish co-existed in rivers for millions of years - way before people arrived on the scene. Beavers are brilliant teachers in showing us how much nature can do for us, if we trust it, and give it space.”
Photo credit Gordon Muir
Wildfires are terrifying. They create a lethal, broiling, hell-on-earth that creeps across the land destroying property and indiscriminately killing all beings too slow to get out of the way. As they burn, they return millions of tonnes of carbon back to the atmosphere - a positive feedback loop that can drive more wildfires. And they are already happening with increasing regularity and ferocity both in the UK and abroad.
Emily Fairfax is a scientist whose work has highlighted this unexpected contribution of the beaver to our dangerously changing world. She is based in California which, along with mediterranean areas of Europe is being increasingly devastated by out of control wildfires.
Photographic documentation by Emily shows how land occupied by beavers simply does not burn. By turning small streams into broad wetland areas they actually create landscapes that act as crucial, natural firebreaks. Could countries like Greece that used to be wetter with abundant beaver habitat also benefit from reintroduction?
Chris Jones from the Cornwall Beaver Project has no doubts that the beavers on his land helped his farm get through a period of drought. He said -
“During the drought of 2018 my neighbours looked on with envy as I irrigated my land from the beaver ponds whilst theirs was dry as tinder. I have seen first-hand how beavers hold back water keeping the land wet. This is good in a drought year and potentially lifesaving if you live in a wildfire zone. The ability to hold more water has the added effect of slowing down flow during heavy rainfall events, the Yin to the drought Yang of extreme weather.”
Photo credit - Nina Constable media
It is Earth’s biological diversity that makes it possible for our planet, unlike every other barren rock in space, to sustain life. Humans depend on other species – on Earth’s unique, complex web of life - to live, to thrive and to enjoy good lives.
But humans have taken control of so much of the material and energy flows on the surface of Planet Earth that many of us have forgotten that our very existence depends on other species and on the maintenance of this delicate balance. For all our ingenuity and technology, our civilization now teeters on the brink of collapse and the climate and ecological emergencies threaten life as we know it.
While beavers can not only play a role in helping address the specific challenges of wildfires and floods that our human experiment has unleashed, they also demonstrate this crucial wider point: that, in spite of all our progress and cleverness, our human lives only remain viable thanks to the work of innumerable other lifeforms.
Allowing nature to lead much of the way in land stewardship will take a humility unfamiliar to modern man. But it is completely crucial to our collective survival.
Beavers teach us we can step off the gas and allow the wild world to regenerate around us. And if we do so, that wild world will do more than just keep us safe: it will wow us with each of the innate gifts every living being brings to the planetary party.
As James Wallace, CEO of the Beaver Trust, guided us around ponds and dams made by beavers he wondered aloud if human creativity might not have been stimulated and catalysed by their re-engineering of the world around them. Indeed, the earliest human houses were not so different from beaver lodges.
He thinks we still have much to learn from beavers. He said -
“I first met beavers in the Bronze Age! As a young archaeologist excavating an ancient beaver dam, we pondered whether beavers once taught us to move water around the landscape using dams, weirs, canals. In the past, humans used the same technology to drain the land to access fertile beaver-wetland created soils. However, our modern canalised, deeply-incised ditches rush water off the land to the sea, flooding towns and fields on the way. Could we learn from the beaver to re-wet our floodplains, re-creating natural sponges to soak up water and create mosaic habitats for myriad species of wildlife? Beavers could be allies in helping us build resilience to the climate emergency and reverse species extinctions ”
Glamping at Cabilla, Cornwall
Our next stop was to the wild spaces of Cabilla retreat centre. After sleeping deeply in bell tents nestled between oaks under one of the UK's few truly dark sky environments. We woke early to visit the resident beaver family.
As I squatted in the mud, breathing slow and steady, trying to keep my excitement in check, I saw a beaver kit’s head in the mirky morning gloom. A wave of excitement rushed through the group and we leaned in, utterly thrilled to be in the presence of this special creature.
Beavers used to be abundant across Europe and Asia and they shaped the surface of these lands. The kit looked so small and insignificant and yet I was struck by how closely our destiny may be linked to theirs and also how strange we have become that our laws stipulate that they can currently only live inside wire enclosures.
I leant back against a tree deeply satisfied and happy. When had I last had an experience like this? We have become so used to the green concrete of a wild-life free countryside. An insight seemed to bubble out of the swamp. Allowing beavers to share the planet with us is no sacrifice. It is an honour. Our trip to the ponds was profound...
People and beavers were meant to be together.
Photo credit - Josh Harris - www.joshuaharriswildlife.co.uk