Building bridges (and dams)
by Roisin Campbell-Palmer
Next to humans and elephants, beavers are arguably the most impactful of engineers. They are critical creators of lifescapes, which are exploited by a whole host of associated wildlife species. Once common in Britain, beavers were hunted to extinction in the 1600-1700’s for their valuable pelts, scent glands and meat. This pattern of destruction that culminated with their near entire removal of both beaver species from water sheds worldwide precipitated ecological decline. If left to their own devices beavers play a crucial role in wetland ecology, species biodiversity and can provide important services such as habitat creation and water management. This can be challenging in modern and often heavily modified landscapes. Reintroducing beavers, though controversial with some land users, ultimately restores riparian ecosystems if we are prepared to tolerate their activities.
Beavers are fascinating animals, though typically secretive and unseen by many, their activities and field signs often fascinate. Being a part of many groups visiting beaver sites both in Britain and Europe, the excitement demonstrated by many in finding a freshly gnawed stick or seeing a dam is repeated over and over. Having worked with this species for over 11 years in Britain, I recently undertook field work on behalf of Scottish Beavers to re-trap and sample beavers in Knapdale, home of the first official release. This felt like a completion of a journey where we first released Norwegian animals 10 years previously. Even coming across one of the original males, Bjornar, on a remarkably calm and dry evening on the boat. Though looking aged with greying muzzle, he was still holding his territory and obviously adapting well to life in Scotland.
The story of the beaver’s return to Britain is long and haphazard but still has some way to go. Currently we have an ad hoc mix of dispersed wild populations in almost the opposite corners of the country, both licensed and unlicensed. Their genetic integrity is unclear. Enclosed families are scattered through a broad range of projects throughout the wider landscape. There is ample scope for improvement in regards to the beavers’ current status in Britain. At a time where biological collapse is occurring it is essential that this species that can rebuild complex landscapes and the life they contain is restored more widely in Britain. Though we shouldn’t underestimate their potential impacts on some landowners. The achievement of this will only prove possible if beavers can be tolerated and negative impacts managed in a pragmatic fashion.
Today, our Beaver Ecology and Conservation training course is taking place in Devon. We’ll be sharing photos and videos of the day live as they go ahead so be sure to keep an eye on our social media feeds! If this takes your fancy, check our list of training courses here.
We’re currently collecting data on the distribution of riparian mammals (those living on waterways) in our project Walk This Water Way. Just use the Mammal Mapper app to record any signs or sightings of these lovely creatures whilst walking at least 600m along a waterway (e.g. river, canal etc) and enter the survey ID as ‘WTWW’.
Go to our National Mammal Week page to find out what’s happening each day this Mammal Week! Make sure you are following #MammalWeek and #MammalsMatter and keeping an eye on our social media feeds for all things Mammal Week related. You wouldn’t want to miss out on our prizes would you?!