Beavers back from extinction

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Hunted to extinction in England over 400 years ago, now two beavers have been released into the wild as part of a land regeneration project in Hampshire.

It was an historic moment when two beavers were released at Ewhurst Park, last January, as part of our ongoing regeneration project – this is the first time beavers have been seen in Hampshire since they were hunted to extinction in the UK 400 years ago.

Our beavers were brought down from Scotland’s Tay Valley, where their population has grown to nearly 1,000 following their licenced release in 2009, although an illegally-introduced population of beavers existed there before then. The hope is that beavers will re-establish themselves in England, just as they are doing in Scotland.

Why are beavers significant? They are known to be a ‘keystone species’ because of the vital role they play in increasing biodiversity. Their dams create wetlands in which insects and plants thrive, and this attracts birds and animals, like water voles and toads.

Their activity reduces water pollution, prevents flooding, and means water can be retained in times of drought. They are a key part of the biodiversity project at Ewhurst Park, and are part of a UK government initiative to restore the country’s natural environment – something desperately needed given that the UK ranks as one of the world’s worst countries for environmental depletion.

Mandy Lieu release a Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) into a large woodland enclosure, Ewhurst Park, Hampshire. Photo by Nick Upton

The beavers at Ewhurst Park – a male and a female – travelled down in separate cages, then were released one at a time into their new home: a seven-acre enclosure with three ponds. First out was the female – it was a delightful moment! She immediately swam out and started exploring. Then came the male, equally curious to investigate. They looked comfortable and, within minutes, they had found each other and started interacting, which was wonderful to see. We’re hoping they will mate and establish a beaver community.

We’ve been keeping an eye on them via our ‘beaver cam’. Beavers are nocturnal, so any on-camera sightings have been at night when they are active gathering bark and twigs to build dams and furnish their lodges.

Beavers have a natural instinct to dam up running water – this creates pools for diving into to escape predators, like foxes; the pools also create shelter for beaver offspring.

The presence of beavers rejuvenates the environment. To make their dams and lodges, they take down and make use of old and dead trees, which creates space for healthy trees to grow. Sometimes working for up to 12 hours at a time, they’ve been called nature’s architects. One slight issue is that the beavers have targeted some trees we didn’t want them to take down, but this is resolvable. As a deterrent, there is a type of eco-paint that tastes unpleasant to beavers, and we have applied this around the trunks of trees we want to preserve.

Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) emerging from a travel crate on the edge of a pond in a large woodland enclosure, Ewhurst Park, Hampshire.

Happily, beavers are now a protected species. Four hundred years ago, they were hunted to extinction for their fur, which was used in clothing, and for their glands, which was used to produce a chemical used in perfume. They were also hunted for their meat. Today, working in partnership with the Beaver Trust, we will observe and monitor the beavers to ensure they are safe and comfortable. We eventually hope to give them more freedom to roam. As an onlooker, I can report that their introduction has been a fascinating and humbling experience.

Unfortunately, there has been some controversy and confusion around beavers. Firstly, contrary to popular belief, they are herbivores, meaning they don’t eat fish or animals, so no creatures are at risk. And, secondly, while some have claimed beavers can cause flooding, in fact, studies show their activity prevents flooding.

Mandy finds evidence of trees gnawed by beavers – Photo by Phil Cannings

Running alongside our regeneration project is a concern to inspire and educate young people. With this in mind, we teamed up with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), via their Wilder Schools programme that helps children connect with nature. We invited 18 Hampshire schools to take part in a competition to name our beavers, and we brought in a prestigious line-up of judges: Rosemary Mayfield (whose family owned Ewhurst Park from 1950-2008), Debbie Tann (HIWWT), Rob Needham (Beaver Trust) and Rob West (North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Eventually, having considered a large number of creative suggestions for names – including ‘Justin Beaver’ – we named the beavers Chompy (the male) and Hazel (the female).

And it was a lively day in March when we welcomed to the estate 60 primary school children from the two winning schools: Whitchurch Church of England Primary School and Mount Pleasant Junior School, Southampton. Some of these children live in urban areas and were experiencing an open landscape for the first time – this felt incredibly heart-warming to witness. Inspiring the next generation to care about nature is one of the most rewarding outcomes about our regeneration journey.

The children toured the estate, visiting the beaver enclosure, and were given a talk by Eva Bishop from The Beaver Trust. Although the beavers were well hidden – no doubt sleeping after the exertions of their nocturnal activities – the children, with a little help from Eva, did find evidence of beaver activity, spotting a number of gnawed willow trees. The children then helped to plant willow and hazel trees – both beaver favourites – and watched a demonstration of coppicing, a traditional method of woodland management that involves cutting trees at their base to create a ‘stool’ for new shoots to grow. Finally, the children were presented with prizes and mementos, and given hazel trees to take back to plant in their school nature gardens.

At the end of the day, when interviewed by journalists, it was remarkable to hear how much information the children had retained. They proudly shared all the facts they had learned about beavers, with one pupil proudly commenting: “They are a type rodent and they help the cycle of life.”

Indeed, we can already report that there are indications that the beavers are changing the environment. In some daytime footage from our beaver cams, I was delighted to spot snipes for the first time, their long bills poking into the water looking for insects to eat. We haven’t seen these birds at Ewhurst Park before – perhaps they were always there, but I suspect the beavers are already having the knock-on effect we anticipated.

Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) shaking water from its fur in the shallow margins of a pond.

The work we are doing at Ewhurst Park is just one of many initiatives around the UK that are being supported by the government’s Countryside Stewardship scheme. This is an opportunity to consider what sort of environment we want to live in. Despite the hard work of conservationists, the UK is struggling to retain its natural landscapes. In case we needed a reminder, the current David Attenborough series, Wild Isles, on the BBC eloquently testifies to this. Our goal must be to do all we can to restore the landscape.

This needs to be a global effort. Also joining us on our schools’ day was His Excellency Ambassador Dato’ Zakri Jaafar, the Malaysian High Commissioner to London, and his team. Having His Excellency’s support is a great honour for me personally. I grew up in Malaysia, which has some of the richest biodiversity in the world – something that inspired me from an early age to be passionate about nature. His Excellency’s presence was an opportune moment to reflect on the grassroots principle of ‘think globally, act locally’: we are a global community with a shared interest in looking after our planet.

Ewhurst Park

Read more of Mandy’s articles in Sublime Magazine

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