A partnership between the Woodland Trust and the National Trust

Eager Beavers at Fingle Woods

There are no beavers at Fingle Woods but diesel-powered machines are building beaver dams

As the “rewilding” debate expands its wings outside the confines of the conservation world and enters the mainstream media, Fingle Woods finds itself looking at where it can play a part. In the light of recent reports, we can see that both numbers and diversity of wild species are dropping at an alarming rate, many wild animals are being lost from the landscape, and some are now extinct in the UK.

But, how should we react to the falling levels of flora and fauna? Should we, or can we, reverse these catastrophic changes? As the human species, how will favouring the balance of nature affect our lives? Is there a compromise to make or should we take a step to re-introduce wild species that once roamed free? It’s not without its contentious clashes for sure.

Remains of a now extinct straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus were discovered in Barnstaple (North Devon) in 1844 [image: Wikimedia Commons].

Writer and environmental activist, George Monbiot wrote in his Manifesto for Rewilding the World that “most of the deciduous trees in Europe can resprout wherever the trunk is broken” pointing out that this, initially innocuous, observation reveals evidence that there were once many species of megafauna around Europe. The trees and shrubs are still here but the elephants and rhinoceroses that trampled vegetation while they rumbled through the forests here tens of thousands of years ago are long gone. It is likely that humans had a large part to play in reducing the range of these giant beasts to parts of Africa where they still continue to decline.

A resident Devon beaver with her kits [image: Mike Symes/Devon Wildlife Trust].

In more recent times our ancestors saw the last wild beavers in this country and, 400 years ago, pushed them past the brink, prompting their demise. So, the question is, with a restoration project like Fingle, how far back do we look in order to “restore” the wild habitat? Last century, when the protection of National Parks and Nature Reserves began? Or back to the times when the now ever-present humans were a minority species on the face of this wonderful planet we have inherited? Whatever we do, it should be our responsibility to bring some of it back, to find a point where ecological diversity can return as an ally rather than a threat.

We have seen how otters have survived persecution and, though their watery habitats are not perfectly natural, they have still made a comeback since the middle of the 20th Century. Among the doom and gloom, the stories of success and the resilience of the wild world are there to see; we have to give nature a chance.

Fingle Woods otter captured on a trail camera

So, should other species be given the freedom to recolonise their long-lost territories? How about the beaver? Once driven to extinction, there is a growing movement to bring it back. Here in Devon there is a small group of “wild” beavers on the river Otter. The Devon Wildlife Trust keeps an eye on them, their habits, their integration with other species and their effect on the landscape. The DWT and University of Exeter have also learned from hosting a group of beavers in an enclosure in West Devon. In conservation circles, they are known as a “keystone” species or habitat engineers that not only build dams to hold back water but, in doing this, they create new habitats for invertebrates, birds and bats. There is also good evidence that water quality can be improved, and flood risk reduced by beavers just doing what they do naturally.

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Standing areas of open water are a rare habitat in Fingle Woods and recently, Woodland Manager Dave Rickwood led a guided walk along the stream in Hall’s Cleave to show how a new partnership project was progressing. The Environment Agency, Devon County Flood Risk Management team and Westcountry Rivers Trust have been working with us to create this habitat. He explained that, “we are replicating what wild beavers might do along this stream. We are constructing leaky dams that will allow fish to pass but, at the same time, will create a new wetland habitat. We are monitoring bats and birds here and will be observing the numbers and species of invertebrates that populate the ponds. We are hoping to see some very positive changes in the diversity of species. In the wild the wet woodland species of trees that vigorously regrow after felling would provide food for beavers, cover for birds and a foraging site for bats so, the gradual build-up of standing water will engineer new habitats in a similar way to the beaver, though none are being re-introduced here.”

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“We will also be looking at the effects that these dams have on water quality and flow rate by using measuring devices up and downstream. Based on previous studies, we’re expecting to see improved water quality and reduced potential for flooding.”

After so many years of our species feeling compelled to control nature, it is time to lend a hand then stand back, leave well alone and just observe; watch what nature can do to heal itself. These dams are built by woodland contractors and the beaver in this case is a large diesel-powered machine but, in the longer term? Wait and see, study, observe. Maybe we need to be eager beavers for now and make a start, but “rewilding” has a long way to go.

by Matt Parkins

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