Chelsea Green, 2020
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
As Wilding author Isabella Tree explains in her Foreword to this lively and interesting book, the beaver is what is known as a keystone species, …a creature that has a disproportionately large effect in its environment. Like the keystone arch, biological structures depend on it.
Beavers, in their ability to slow down rivers and streams by building dams that alter their courses and by creating side channels and meanders that turn into pools, have the ability to transform a landscape, create new habitat and restore water to dry areas.
They are, in fact, wonderful landscape architects, especially when it comes to restoring lost wetlands, rehydrating dried-out areas and repairing the human-created damage – such as the misguided dredging and straightening of watercourses – that all too often leads to downstream flooding problems.
The author, Derek Gow, who started his working career as a farmer but later turned himself into an ecologist, is a straight-talking, irreverent and delightfully witty writer who is passionate about wildlife and totally dedicated to the project of re-establishing beavers in our British rivers.
Because of course beavers were once indigenous to the UK, just as they were – and in some cases still are – in most parts of Europe. As witness the many place names here that are based on the presence of beavers in past centuries. But being hunted remorselessly for their fur, they eventually disappeared from our shores some time in the Middle Ages.
Having witnessed at first hand the amazing handiwork of these industrious creatures in North America, I have found it hard to understand why there has been such a high level of opposition to the reintroduction of the species here. It would seem to me that given all that is wrong with our environment, the benefits of having them here would more than outweigh any disadvantages.
Scottish National Heritage obviously felt the same way when they reintroduced some beavers on the River Tay in 1994. But ever since those animals made themselves at home and started to proliferate, there has been a lot of opposition to their presence in Scotland. Some of it comes from anglers who worry that beaver dams block the migratory pathways of game fish. Some comes from the owners of tree plantations who resent having their saplings felled by those razor-sharp, orange teeth and turned into building material. Most of it comes from farmers who fume that corners of their prime agricultural land are getting waterlogged. And all of it is exacerbated by the ponderous workings of bureaucrats at various levels of government. Gow’s book chronicles this long, slow – and still ongoing – Scottish battle and all its ups and downs. Plus the parallel story of his efforts to reintroduce beavers into England.
Along the way, we learn a lot about the nature of the beaver, its lifestyle and habits and how its populations differ in certain ways such as colouring. We also get some fascinating nuggets of historical information. Such as the fact that at one time the Catholic Church officially classified beavers as fish – because apparently their meat has a very fishy taste even though beavers themselves are vegetarians – and that meant that Catholics were allowed to eat beaver meat on Fridays. Who knew?!!
As well as his work on behalf of beavers, Gow has been busy on his Devon farm breeding and restoring to the wild thousands of creatures from depleted populations, particularly water voles, whose numbers have crashed, largely due to the predations of escaped, non-native, fur-farmed mink.
Mostly, this book reads like an adventure story, replete with a host of very funny anecdotes interspersed with passages of lyrical and inspiring Nature writing. And, thanks, in large part, to the years of dedicated effort by this author and his colleagues, I think the story will end in victory. There is now at least one river in England – the River Otter in Devon – where beavers are living legally, albeit still on a trial basis but it is looking as though they will soon be granted permanent residency. They will prove to be vital allies in the coming years as we re-balance our priorities and work at repairing our damaged ecosystems and at restoring habitat so that our wildlife can prosper, thereby successfully re-wilding what we hope may once again become our truly green and pleasant land.