Friday, 17 July 2009

Bringing Beavers Back to Britain

The beaver appeared out of nowhere. One minute the water surface was as still and smooth as ice and the next minute, a beaver was slicing through it like a torpedo.

Photograph courtesy of Ben Lee

It was summer 2008 and I was watching the beavers at Escot in Devon, where I had been monitoring the effects that they had on their enclosure's habitats. Since their release, they had been hard at work; feeding, building lodges, creating pathways and caching food. Their activities were already changing the woodland and aquatic habitats in which they lived. They had felled and pruned many different species of tree, both native and ornamental, including aspen, alder, bay, cherry laurel and rhododendron. They had also coppiced a large stand of willow, reduced the amount of water lily and bulrush in the ponds and added a huge volume of woody material to the lake (something that proved highly unpopular with the anglers that shared it). Earlier that day, I had come across a beaver dam, probably the first to be built in Britain for 800 years and a story which quickly became headline news.

I settled down amongst the meadow-sweet and angelica to watch the beavers as they swam silent laps of the pond. One of the beavers hauled itself onto the bank and waddled along a well-worn pathway towards the stream, dragging its tail on the ground like the tongue from an old trainer.

Its mate climbed onto the opposite bank, shook droplets from its fur and rested back on its haunches. In a sequence that is followed by all beavers, it started to groom. It ran its forepaws over its face, combed its belly fur, its forelegs and hind legs, and then reached behind to groom its flanks and back. And the end of its grooming regime and as the last of the sun was sucked from the sky, the beaver slipped into the black water and out of sight.

A few weeks ago, I was delighted to hear that the beavers at Escot had raised at least one kit, which was probably born at the end of May 2009. At around the same time, a group of beavers was released in Knapdale, Scotland, as part of a trial reintroduction of the species. If the scheme proves successful, it is likely that beavers will be restored to the rest of Britain and perhaps Escot’s British-born kit will be released, to live wild on our waterways.

Now you do it
See Escot's website to find out more about the beavers. They are fascinating animals to watch, carrying out a huge variety of different behaviours, from tree-felling to canal digging, dam-building to grooming and beaver watching at Escot can be arranged - email

Beavers are also present at the Lower Mill Estate
at the Cotswold Water Park, the WWT reserve in Martin Mere, Lancashire and at KWT's reserve Ham Fen in Kent.

A five-year trial reintroduction is underway at Knapdale in Scotland. As the beavers were only released in May, it is recommended that you visit the site later in the year, when the beavers have settled in and there are more field signs to look out for. You can’t miss beaver signs when you see them – look for felled trees, gnawed bark, cut vegetation such as reedmace, which may be floating on the surface of the water, lodges, food stores, footprints, well-used pathways, canals, dams… the list goes on!

Conservation Status
The European beaver is legally protected under Annex IV and Annex II of the EC Habitats Directive and meets criterion 1b of the Species Action Framework as a species for conservation action. There is some debate about exactly when European beavers became extinct in Britain, although recent research shows that they may have still been present in 1800. As they were once native, Britain has a legal requirement to study the desirability of their reintroduction. Any such reintroduction would need to satisfy IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Happening Upon A Hare

This brown hare had clearly never read a ‘How to watch wildlife’ guide. It was midday and in my fluorescent yellow vest, laden down with equipment and standing in the middle of an otherwise featureless field, I couldn't have been any more conspicuous. Yet, the hare was apparently oblivious to my presence and lolloped calmly and directly towards me through the furrows of the pasture. I turned the dial of my digital camera to 'video' and pressed record.

As the hare drew closer, I tried to keep the lens focused on it, but, I was too interested in watching it in the flesh to spend much time checking the LED screen. It had grizzled, tatty fur like that of a much loved teddy and black-tipped ears that swivelled at the slightest sound. I was down-wind of it, but even if it was unable to smell me, I couldn't understand why it hadn't seen or heard me. Apparently, hares aren't able to see well directly to the front, a fact that photographers sometimes take advantage of by lying in wait on a tramline within a crop. So, maybe that could explain its apparent disregard of me.

When it was almost at my feet, it sat up on its haunches and fixed me with a stare. I held my breath, expecting it to spin and speed away, but, it didn’t. Instead, it took a few more hops towards me, before turning back the way it had come and ambling off again in an unhurried way. Only when it was nearly out of sight did it pick up the pace and sprint, leaping effortlessly over the tussocky grass and away.

Now You Do It
Although brown hares are still relatively widespread and common, they are easier to find in some parts of the UK than others and are absent from the northwest and western highlands in Scotland. According to the guidebooks, brown hares are nocturnal, so you are most likely to see them at dawn and dusk.
The National Trust and Countryfile websites list a few places that they occur and the Slimbridge WWT reserve is also a good place to see them.

Conservation Status
It is thought that brown hares were introduced to Britain by the Romans. In recent years, they have shown one of the most dramatic declines of any British mammal (second only to the water vole), probably as a result of changes in agricultural practice. In comparison to the water vole, they receive relatively little legal protection, but they are a UK BAP Priority Species.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Weird and Wonderful Whirligigs

In the shadow of enormous white satellite dishes and flickering wind turbines, I am lying on my stomach over a pond, my nose almost touching the muddy water below. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some passing ramblers want to know what on Earth I am doing. What I am meant to be doing is a survey - recording the land cover at a particular GPS referenced point, somewhere in the middle of Goonhilly Downs on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall. But, I got distracted.

I couldn’t pass by this tiny pool without stopping. Surrounded by ghostly pale orchids and yellow spikes of bog asphodel, it is brimming with life. Common blue damselflies perch delicately on the scrubby pond-side willow, whilst all around me, their larger, more aggressive relatives, the gold ringed dragonflies and broad-bodied chasers, buzz and collide with a zzzpp. I got down onto the ground in order to photograph a newt - a male palmate, with black, conspicuously webbed back feet – but the camera couldn’t focus on it in the murky water. Once I was down there though, I noticed the water boatmen steadily rowing through the water and became mesmerised by the whirligig beetles, which carved crazed circles on the surface, like cars on a Scalextric track.

These tiny beetles live life on the edge, at the interface between air and water. As I watch, they hunt for small invertebrates trapped on the meniscus, using a form of echo-location to find their way. The waves they create in front of them are reflected from obstacles and sensed by their antennae, allowing them to detect their prey. But, whirligigs aren’t restricted to just the surface. They have a divided eye; the top half allows them to see in the air, and the bottom half allows them to see underwater. This means that they can hunt below the surface too, taking a silvery bubble of air with them when they dive.

The ramblers have become interested in the whirligigs and as I haul myself to my feet, thinking that I should really be getting back to work, they are readying their own cameras and taking my place on the bank of the pond.

Now you do it

Whirligig beetles are com
mon in all types of still water in Britain. There is more than meets the eye to these creatures, so why not temporarily transfer them to a jam jar or tray and study them with a hand lens? See if you can see their orange legs and divided compound eye. ARKive has amazing close-up videos of whirligigs (much better than mine!).