Beavers brought back to Cornwall
Beavers were once found across Europe, and used to be common across England, Wales and Scotland. It was only in the 16th century that the insatiable demand for meat, fur and a secretion used in perfume led to these animals being hunted to extinction throughout Britain.
The loss of beavers would have had a marked impact on the British countryside. Building dams, for which beavers have international fame, has an important role in providing a range of habitats. Beavers build dams to raise the water to a level which is ideal for a beaver to hide from predators. However, these construction projects do not only benefit the beaver, the range of habitats created by the building of dams is thought to also benefit a whole variety of mammals, insects and birds. In addition to the habitat creation, dams can also play an important role in preventing soil erosion, as well as providing valuable protection against flash flooding.
Beavers have already been reintroduced to Scotland and have mysteriously reappeared in Devon after an unlicensed release or accidental escape, and studies on these populations have suggested real benefits that beavers could bring to Cornwall.
Chris Jones is a landowner and farmer who has lived in Woodland Valley Farm since 1960. While he had long been interested in the beavers reintroduced to Scotland, it was not until 2013 when serious flooding hit the local village of Ladock, that he considered that beavers could perhaps help the village.
In a following parish council debate, it was suggested that the flooding could be due to farmers not clearing their ditches.
Chris said, “I thought about it, and thought, absolutely nonsense! I invited someone from the Environment Agency to look at our stream, [to see] what can we do to hold more water in this land. We went through a whole load of things we could do, by the time it got to the end, I said how about getting some money to for doing this?” With funding unavailable, “We said what if we get beavers to do it for nothing”. While the Environment Agency scientist could not advise on beavers, Chris got in touch with colleagues in North America and East Africa who all had an interest in ecological restoration, and they said, “Why not?”
However, without grants or government assistance the reintroduction of a species is a daunting prospect. With personal donations from Chris, and financial assistance from the Wildlife Trust the project began to move. A turning point came with the Wildlife Trust’s crowdfunding campaign, as public interest soared, raising over £17,000.
With funding and collaborators, the project was able to snowball, but not without setbacks. In Chris’ words, “To begin with, we thought about sort of straight release in the environment, but there needs incredible buy in from everyone” After realising this may not be feasible they decided that it was “too important to just give up like this, let’s have a controlled experiment with these animals and a chance to gather data”.
In collaboration with scientists at the University of Exeter the chance to gather data has been leapt at as a brilliant opportunity to be able to study the river before and after the reintroduction of beavers, which will provide invaluable data to understand the impact that beavers have on the British landscape.
After months of planning, fundraising and collecting baseline data, on the 16th of June, a pair of Eurasian beavers were released into their new home. They have been hard at work already on their first dam.
They likely have no idea of either their real scientific importance, or the monumental collaboration of community, scientists, charitable organisations which they represent.