The beaver is a creature few people dislike. Many think they’re cute. They’re clever – making their dams and their lodges with such craftbeavership, that anyone who’s played with sand on the beach is impressed.
I’ve been trying to spot beavers for almost thirty years, since I spent a summer in Colorado and had a pond up the road. I visited it, and later others in Massachusetts and New Hampshire while I lived there for 7 years.
Always, I was disappointed to find the builders hidden from view in their lodges.
The ponds, though, like this one, were always full of other life: birds and dragonflies, fish and pond skaters. And I saw a whole lot of muskrats, which are pretty cool in their own right, I have to say.
In Pamplona I’ve seen their signs in the River Arga. But despite photos in the paper of brazen beavers crossing bridges, I’d never seen a ripple I could deem a rodent from the banks and bridges I lingered on.
But this summer I found that a pair of beavers have set up home on a very small (usually…) river very close to our village, and right beside the road, to boot, making it possible to spot them without hardly a trek, and since they’re used to the road noise, they don’t spook too easily.
I’d spotted the pond, but just assumed it was a deep gouge created by the huge floods a few years ago (we’d been swimming ourselves in these during the summer of Covid restrictions..) and this year of drought and very little flow, had been kept from drying by someone with time on their hands making a dam…
When I’d realised what the pond actually was, I was back next morning, but saw no beavers – though I did see their lodge entrance – built into the bank rather than in the middle of the pond, like I’d seen in North America.
I’d been told that European beavers don’t make dams, but that’s clearly not true. Perhaps those seen so far in Spain had not because they’ve been on large rivers – there’s no need for a dam on the Arga, I can tell you, though the beavers have been actively felling fairly large trees there (several older trees along the river park are now protected by chickenwire to dissuade them from taking away the perambulator’s shade!).
Which brings me to the title of this post – Beaver Spread.
Beavers are spreading.
These two are descendants of eighteen animals that were illegally released in the Ebro near the Aragon tributary, back in 2003. They’ve been moving up the rivers since then. With mostly no reaction, as most folk don’t notice them – until they started eating large trees in the middle of Pamplona (though that didn’t make anyone call for their removal, as far as I know.) There were some complaints, and, in fact, some animals were removed by the local governments, though, strictly speaking that was illegal, as once reestablished, they should be considered a protected species under EU law.
Anyway, they’ve spread now to smaller rivers, where their positive effects should be a lot clearer. At least to me in this particular brook, it’s plain as day.
This river drains a long valley which is usually very dry in summer, but gets a fair few heavy storms (our house was flooded just from rainfall in the field above us), one of which gouged out that bank in the first photo. Above this pond a bridge was washed out because it got clogged with trees and stones during the flood, and below it, the local town was devastated with huge economic losses when the river flooded houses and businesses within minutes of the storm.
At the time of the flood there were calls for better drainage – in the way of cutting the poplars and other trees along the bank – to let the water flow without slowing down at all. This came from farmers, and I have to say it’s either in ignorance or apathy of the effects it would have had on the town if that bridge and the trees and culverts had not led the water to spread out across their fields and slow its pace…. it would have washed away houses rather than just fill them with mud, and cars would have gone down like corks in the flow – and a lot more people would have died than did, without time to get out of harm’s way.
We all know that it’s cheaper to compensate a farmer for loss of a crop than a whole town for all their broken windows and destroyed merchandise etc…
But here, despite what I see as large erosion problem, they still dig drains into the fields so they can get the heavy machinery in after the rains they often (more often nowadays of course) wait (and possibly pray) for.
Which brings us to the drought.
We had a forest fire upstream of this pond this spring, and there are worries that the next storm (still waiting on rain) might wash down huge amounts of ashes and soil that’s no longer held in place by vegetation.
But meanwhile the river is down to a trickle. And it’s ponds like this one that are keeping the river alive. While I sat there waiting on the beavers to emerge I was entertained by a plethora of dragonflies, pond skaters, ducks, a heron, and even a nightjar that came down to drink before setting off to hunt. I can’t see, but I assume there are some fish in the murky water, too. And crayfish – European ones – are in that river, as well as European mink.
There is nothing but benefit to beavers – they keep the river alive in drought and they stop the river washing away everything in flood.
What’s not to like?
In Britain they have been reintroduced in a few places, with positive reaction in general. They’ve sorted out flooding in the places they’ve made home, and you’ve probably already heard of these cases.
In Ireland, there are some calls to introduce the beaver to have these same positive effects there. I support this, even if the beaver was never actually officially a native species. Most of Ireland’s fauna was not native. At least this one does some good. We have feral goats allowed to graze the vegetation to nothing in many places simply because it was there for a few hundred years, for goodness sake.
The only problem I see is the same a for so many other species we’d like to see (back) on our island – there’s not enough trees. We need to let scrub grow instead of burn, and get forest cover back in the simplest way possible, and then we have habitat for trees, and then the ugly as feck drainage and flood schemes that beset our lovely towns and villages would not be half as necessary.
Meanwhile, this pair of beavers, and I hope their offspring, are one of those little glories we can enjoy while they last.
We’re going to have to learn to all get along, eventually…
I had originally thought of using that title for a blogpost/rant about cycling in the city – but everyday I get on my bike new things occur to me about that, so it’s not quite finished!
Anyway, I decided to write this after reading that a farmer had killed a bear central Italy (http://www.rewildingeurope.com/news/the-sad-story-of-a-killed-young-bear-brings-24-mobile-electric-fences-to-the-central-apennines/ The photo above is from the cited article, copyright Bruno D’Amicis/Rewilding Europe, of Marsican / Abruzzo brown bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus) adult in spring mountain meadow. Critically endangered subspecies. Central Apennines, Abruzzo, Italy. May 2012
I asked myself the question: How much effort is wildlife worth?
I mean, really, how much effort is too much to bother with? Will people (the great mass of us in general) keep on saying, “That’s asking too much of us. We’re all for wildlife and nature and that, but really, we have priorities…”
There are always priorities.
And we have to place human life above other life (for the moment: let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet!). So if there is a conflict between an aggressive bear and a human, well, yes, shoot the bear. Even in cases where a bear has become a nuisance because people have not made the effort to keep their food safe or their garbage cans closed, it’s probably necessary to kill the bear.
This can go to extremes, of course: just today a deer in my local park (a mini-zoo in the old walls closed off to the public – I’ve videos on my youtube channel…) that gored a worker who didn’t make the effort to take precautions during the rut, and went in to feed the animal with no protection (a stick!) and no other person to help (or even know about it) if there was a problem has been removed – most probably via lead injection.
Was that necessary? Hardly. The deer hasn’t become a man-killer, like a man-eating tiger…
But that wasn’t even the case in Italy. The bear was raiding chickens. Instead of going to the bother of putting in an electric fence, however, the farmer decided it was handier to shoot the bear, so he did just that. End of problem.
But not exactly. The bear is protected. The farmer will pay a fine – one hopes. The move to rewild Italy has meant the expansion of the bear population into areas from which they’d been eradicated, and where people had got used to, got lazy about, not having to take elementary precautions for their livestock from these predators.
Of course, farmers still put a fence around their chickens, to protect them from predators that haven’t been eradicated – foxes, stoats and weasels, etc. Is it that much more effort to put in an electric fence? Obviously was for this guy. Will his fine exceed the price of an electric fence? Well, that’s hard to know.
And farmers still shoot foxes – they’re just hard to exterminate across a whole landscape.
To give an example of just how reluctant some (even wildlife-advocates) can be to do anything different, or inconvenience themselves in the least, an English angling spokesman Mark Owen, head of freshwater at the Angling Trust, was quoted in a recent Guardian article about rewilding (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/19/-sp-rewilding-large-species-britain-wolves-bears) as saying that reintroducing beaver would produce “a list of concerns, including half-gnawed trees posing a threat to fishermen.” I mean, come on! Give me a fucking break, as they say.
Can we ask the anglers to avoid sharp sticks? Or should we start to put fences along the rivers to stop the poor lads potentially falling in?
Of course, it’s mostly a wish to keep things the way they are: keep the sheep on the hills, the rivers running straight and fast. “Don’t inconvenience us with new situations we have to change our habits for.”
But inconvenience is something we all have to look forward to, people. It’s a coming!
Hopefully, if we do things right, it will be relatively minor instead of very fucking major. But it’s coming.
After the shooting of the bear, the rewilding team decided to pay for farmers to install electric fences, so lower their inconvenience. Perhaps, if we, as a society want wildlife, we have to pay for the farmer’s fences? Perhaps.
But the sway of the farmer is waning – their insistence that we keep everything the way they prefer is not going to last forever. Sheep farming might be what people think has been going on forever on our hillsides, but not in the way it’s currently practiced, where sheep could be left untended for weeks on end. The word shepherd meant something – still does in many parts of the world. But sheep farmers have labelled their way of life a tradition that must be supported by subsidies. There was a time before we left our hillsides to be grazed to the nub and there will be a time afterwards.
Farming doesn’t have a premium on the past as future. Nobody thought of implementing subsidies to keep cinemas afloat when video took their business away. I saw a video shop in Barcelona on the television just last week – looking for some government help to stay open, because they were the first, and would probably be the last ever video store in the country, and were an example of an industry that has gone by the wayside.
So sheep farming, as currently practiced might have some value as a show piece, but we can keep flock or two around Bunratty Castle and preserve them that way, if we really have to, like we have people spinning yarn and making wooden barrels – all those traditional skills and jobs that are no longer economically viable.
Farming, of course, is vital in a way that coopering is not. We need to have a source of food – and I’m willing to pay top dollar for meat, as I think we should be for all our food, especially milk and eggs.
But we all need to learn to get along, and move forward. Because I was thinking that while paying farmers for livestock that are killed by bears and wolves is the sensible thing to do to get acceptance for large predators, it might not always be considered the best idea.
No. If the farmer’s keep losing expensive animals, perhaps we (the people) should eventually prohibit livestock that are going to be expensive for us to pay for, or, if there is a farmer who is too lazy to put up fences and bring in stock and keep them protected, well, let him pay for his own animals.
If he reacts like the farmer in Italy, and kills the predator let him go to prison for a proper time, and confiscate his farm to pay for further conservation to remediate his actions…
It could all escalate pretty quickly.
Yet the balance of power between farmers – who traditionally had political clout – and non-rural folk, is going towards the city dwellers – who, ironically, want to see bears and wolves, as well as beavers and lynx, return to places they themselves perhaps rarely visit…
The countryside is changing. It’s inevitable.
So let’s all try to get along right now.