First Person: Derek Gow

I have a lot of unusual animals on my farm here in Devon: water voles, otters, pine martens, wild cats – but the most unusual are probably the beavers. They’re the only beavers on a working farm in Britain. I wanted them because they produce life; if you put them into a stream system on your land, you get more life in it.

We talk about farmers being guardians of the countryside but we don’t think a lot about what that means. For years, the whole idea of reintroducing beavers has been bogged down by myth and nonsense. It’s not as though we are looking at reintroducing a Tyrannosaurus rex that eats children.

People have the idea that because beavers have huge teeth they chop their way through forests like furry chainsaws, but they’re a creative, not a destructive, force. They open up the river banks to many other species: plants, butterflies, beetles, amphibians and fish. These are the building blocks of life, the species that support others.

I got my pair in 2006; I had to import them from Bavaria. When they started to breed in 2009 it was just great to see the first baby playing with its parents on a summer evening. We feed them during winter freezes, but other than that we let them carry on as if they’re in the wild so I can’t be sure exactly how many there are now. There are three babies from last year, so I think that brings the family up to eight or nine.

Beaver impoundments play a significant role in trapping water and releasing it slowly. If you’re growing crops and leaching silt and chemicals into the water, beaver dams help trap this material and hold it so it doesn’t end up silting up main rivers or getting washed out to sea. In short, beavers help purify fresh water and can also reduce floods in lower-lying landscapes and human settlements by trapping and slowing extreme flows.

Beavers have been managing water for millions of years; they’re adapted to do a far better job than us. We can no longer pay to maintain flood walls and flood defences so beavers are a rational option when it comes to water management and flood control. When you look into every argument against the reintroduction of beavers, you’re left with dust.

Some people think they’re just my toys. A few people are genuinely interested in what beavers actually do, but some people hate the fact that these animals are here.

In this community, the people who are opposed to beavers are commonly not the farmers: if beavers rather than manmade structures were holding water on their land, they wouldn’t give a stuff. The people who don’t want to see this happen are people who have moved into the area and don’t want change. There is an overwhelming climate of ignorance.

Many people believe beavers eat fish because they saw it in the Narnia films. Someone told me he’d seen a beaver with a fish from someone’s pond in its mouth; of course, that was an otter. Beavers are complete vegetarians. They aren’t like wild boar or deer, they don’t live right through a landscape; most of their foraging is within five metres of the water’s edge.

Without being sentimental, they’re endearing animals. And when we as a species were sitting in draughty caves, dressed in rotting skins, they managed water on a landscape scale, generating life. But, in the end, when beavers become plentiful, we should be rational about their activity. Where they’re acceptable we should tolerate them – and where they’re not we should have no qualms about making them into a stew.

In the Middle Ages, a single beaver was worth three years’ wages to a labourer and by the late 18th century they’d been hunted to extinction in Britain. Humans are an incredibly intolerant species. Beaver reintroduction boils down to whether we can put our own ignorance to bed.

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