Britain’s dam fine beavers
As they finally return to the UK, Claire Cohen goes on the trail of Devon’s Mr and Mrs Beaver – and uncovers a truly heart-warming story of survival…
This is unlike any blind date I’ve ever witnessed. One half of the couple is fast asleep in bed, while the other is busy showing off her thick fur coat, broad tail and a set of nervously twitching whiskers. Not to mention eyeing up a particularly tasty-looking branch.
Welcome to the world of courtship, beaver-style.
I have come to the Escot Estate in East Devon to witness a very unusual event: the introduction of a new female beaver into their two-acre purpose- built enclosure.
Beavers mate for life. So, ever since his partner died, Escot’s resident male has led a somewhat lonesome existence, tugging his branches of willow around the pond solo.
Now, after months spent trying to track her down, owner John-Michael Kennaway finally has the next Mrs Beaver on site – if only she could be tempted to leave her straw-filled, snug home.
‘Out you come then,’ says John- Michael, lifting an old grey blanket and peering into the large crate sitting at the water’s edge. ‘This is no time to be shy.’
At first, it doesn’t seem as if this 17-kilo rodent is going anywhere. Then, all of a sudden, she shuffles forward and – with an almighty splash – plops into the water. It’s love at first sight. She glides through rushes, floats happily past lily pads, sniffs all manner of splintered tree stumps and blows bubbles. And that’s even before meeting Mr Beaver.
Escot has been home to the Kennaways for more than 200 years. The estate requires constant upkeep and so the family has transformed the surrounding 100 acres into a delightful conservation park. Their aim? To reintroduce those animal species that once played a vital role in maintaining Britain’s ecosystem.
So there are red squirrels, water voles, dormice, wild boar, otters – and, of course, beavers. Once found swimming about all over Britain, beavers were hunted to extinction for their fur and ‘musk’, which contains the same active ingredient as aspirin. The last sighting in Britain was in Scotland during the 17th century. By the 19th century, there were only 1,000 beavers across Europe. Now, though, they’re back.
During the 1970s, worried conservationists started a programme to reintroduce the species. It was a success and Europe now boasts half a million of the furry herbivores.
Britain has been a bit slow to catch on, but things are finally starting to change. In 2009, three families were released into a river near the Knapdale Forest in Argyll. And in May this year a small male was discovered living in Cornwall – suggesting that beavers could once again be breeding in the wild.
Escot pioneered this revival. Their first beaver pair arrived in 2006, after John-Michael visited Poland and fell in love with the species. They bonded and, in 2008, produced some of the first kits seen in Britain in 400 years. They also set about building a dam – a six-foot mound of sticks, stones and mud. The industrious little creatures also made some small ponds, a series of trickling tributaries and managed to refill a disused Victorian bathing pool, which John-Michael had spent decades trying to repair. It’s hard to believe that such fervent activity is the sole work of a couple of pairs of small paws and some strong teeth.
Sadly, the first female beaver died two years ago, of natural causes. And the kits didn’t make it past a few months. One was crushed by a tree just felled by its mother.
As I observe the new female bobbing about in her pool – a rare sight during daylight hours – Mr Beaver is still fast asleep in his lodge, where the animals rest during the day and raise their young. Entry is through an underwater tunnel, which the clever beavers hide by building a dam to raise the water level. The lodge is built from sticks and mud and, typically, has two chambers: one for drying off and another for sleeping. And if it all gets too toasty? The beavers simply make a hole through the earthy ceiling and let some fresh air in.
‘On frosty days you can spot the location of a lodge by the little puffs of steam coming out of the ground as they breathe,’ explains John-Michael.
We must return later that night to try and spot the elusive male and, with any luck, witness the beavers’ first meeting – ‘although we won’t know whether they’ve bonded for a couple of months,’ says John-Michael.
Escot lies in the charming village of Ottery St Mary, near Exeter. It’s the sort of place where the locals know each other’s business and the train station has just one small platform. But business in this small community is booming. There are campsites, wedding venues, B&Bs and a music festival for 15,000 people held at Escot each summer, called Beautiful Days and run by members of the 1990s pop group The Levellers.
From May, John-Michael invites the public to join him every year on beaver watches. He leaves a trail of carrots and apples next to the pools and, each night, looks for the telltale nibbles that indicate whether the beavers have taken an evening swim.
Tonight, they are intact. Neither beaver is visible. We creep alongside the water and assume crouching positions in the dark. Beavers don’t have very good eyesight so, as long as we stay perfectly still, they won’t be able to spot us. ‘Don’t move,’ instructs John-Michael. ‘Now look, over there! He’s dragging a willow branch!’
At first I can see nothing.
But as my eyes adjust, a slick black head emerges, followed by a mass of green leaves and twigs gliding through the water. Then, Mr Beaver stops, climbs on to the bank and starts happily chomping away in the moonlight. It’s a magical moment.
Beavers might be thriving at Escot, but their future in the UK is not yet secure. While conservationists lobby for their reintroduction, many landowners are far from certain and object to their impact on the habitat.
‘They simply don’t understand,’ says John-Michael, shaking his head sadly. ‘Beavers help the environment. Yes, they alter the landscape. But by creating still pools of water they actually help to encourage other wildlife, such as insects and birds. And if there are any trees we don’t want them to gnaw, we just pop some chicken wire around the base.’
For a man who spends most of his summer evenings with these fascinating animals, John-Michael doesn’t appear to be bored. Indeed, he calls them his ‘pastime of passion’. As for a passionate meeting between the new Mr and Mrs Beaver? That will have to wait a little longer – out of sight of prying human eyes.
But whatever happens, the beavers of Escot are assured a safe future. u
Escot Estate, Ottery St Mary, Devon: 01404-822188, www.escot-devon.co.uk
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