Tag Archives: Devon

A bit of hope in 2016

2016 has been short on good news, and I have been a bit despondent of late. Luckily this little fellow arrived in the post on Friday, to remind me that not everything has been a disaster this year.  I’ve called him (unoriginally)  Justin.

Justin Beaver
Justin Beaver

To recap: a while back beavers were found on the River Otter in Devon – the first wild beavers in England for centuries. At first the government wanted to get rid of them, citing the chance they may harbour parasites as the reason. But Devon Wildlife Trust, with the support of local landowners and residents,  persuaded the government to let them monitor the beavers and the effect they have in a trial, before making any final decisions. The beavers were trapped, had health checks, and re-released back on the River Otter.

Tree gnawed by beavers on the River Otter
Tree gnawed by beavers on the River Otter
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers

This year Devon Wildlife Trust have been crowd funding to cover the costs of the trial. I donated a while back, and Justin is my reward. The timing of his arrival is good, as I had just found out that two pairs of beavers have successfully bred on the River Otter this year, one having two kits, and the other five.

I’m intrigued to see how the trial goes. Beavers, like humans, shape the landscape they live in. Chopping down trees, creating lakes and changing the course of rivers. I got to see some of the effect they were having when I visited the River Otter. There’s evidence that the changes beavers make may benefit other species, and reduce flooding downstream. But can we learn to live with a species that can make such dramatic changes in a short time?

Fresh growth from beaver-felled tree
Fresh growth from beaver-felled tree

If the trial is successful, it will give me hope that native species we have driven to the brink of extinction may, one day, make a comeback. If Devon Wildlife Trust can’t raise sufficient funds to cover the cost of the trial to 2020, the beavers will have to be rehomed in captivity. I hope it succeeds, and one day I will see a beaver in the wild. If you’d like more info, or to donate to the crowd funding appeal, visit SupportDevonsBeavers.org

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Beavers a step closer to freedom

This will just be a short post, as I am busy researching my next Election Focus on Climate Change. In the meantime, I wanted to share some good news with you: the Devon beavers have been tested for the terrible disease DEFRA were convinced they would spread, and have been found to not have it.
The beavers are currently being held in captivity by Devon Wildlife Trust while they have a few more health tests, but this latest news means they are a step closer to regaining their freedom on the River Otter.

image
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers

If you are new to the beaver saga, you can catch up on it below:

Beavers back in the wild
Hope for the River Otter beavers
On the trail of wild beavers
Beavers get a reprieve

Beavers get a reprieve

Good news: Natural England have granted Devon Wildlife Trust a license to monitor the beavers on the River Otter for the next five years!

Beavers have been extinct in the wild in England for centuries. Last year news broke that a family of beavers had successfully bred on the River Otter in Devon. It’s unclear how they ended up there, but the most pressing question was what should happen to them. DEFRA seemed determined to deport them to a zoo.

There’s lots of evidence that having beavers on a stretch of river improves biodiversity. A demonstration project in Scotland found that beavers quadrupled biodiversity compared to similar stretches of river without beavers. There were more different types of plant, insects, fish, mammals and birds – everything seemed to benefit. They can even reduce the risk of flash flooding.

Beavers have been working on a larger tree
More ambitious beaver activities

Beavers have such a big effect because they are fantastic engineers. They gnaw down trees, build dams and lodges, and create new pools. This brings benefits to all sorts of creatures. But we’re not used to living closely with such large-scale wild engineers. We’re used to being the only animals who change the course of rivers.

Beaver chiselled trees
Beaver chiselled trees

Luckily the landowners around where the wild beavers are living are willing to find out whether it will work. And local residents have been very protective of their new neighbours. When plans were announced to trap and exile the beavers, beaver patrols were formed, petitions launched and a fundraising campaign started to find a way to persuade Natural England to let them stay, closely monitored, for at least the next five years.

Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA
Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA

I visited Otterton late last year, and was impressed by the support the beavers had. It had all the ingredients for a fine Ealing Comedy – faceless bureacrats from faraway threatening a defenceless creature, a local community coming together to defeat their plans, and plenty of potential for subversive activities on the riverbank at night.

Anyway, as many of the best Ealing Comedies do, this one seems to have an ending where the little guy (or beaver) triumphs over the bureaucrats. But, of course, the story doesn’t end here. No-one knows whether the engineering of the beavers will lead to unacceptable conflicts with humans along the river. The support of landowners is crucial. Devon Wildlife Trust will be closely monitoring how the beavers are getting on, and what impact they are having. They’ve already raised a large chunk of the money needed to do this, but need to raise more to ensure they can continue for the full 5 years.

I am really excited to see how this story continues. I love the thought that animals can come back from extinction in the wild, and hope that they, and their human neighbours along the River Otter, can learn to thrive together.

Kingfishers

When not looking for signs of beavers along the river Otter, I spent a large portion of my week in Devon looking for kingfishers. We saw kingfishers on every stroll we took along the river. Last year I didn’t manage any decent photos. This year, with the help of a tripod and some patience, I did a little better.

Kingfisher on the river Otter

The stretch of river Otter we stayed near is good kingfisher territory. There are lots of branches overhanging the river, providing handy perches for hunting from. And the bank is good for nesting – lots of suitable holes in the sheer rock. I would love to come back in spring, when the birds are busy feeding chicks.

Kingfisher nest holes in the bank of the River Otter
Kingfisher nest holes in the bank of the River Otter

Kingfisher divingKingfisher on branch Kingfisher Kingfisher flying

They’re still not brilliant images – I didn’t manage to get close enough for the shots I wanted.  And the low winter light meant I had to crank the ISOs up, which means the images are quite noisy (or soft, where I’ve used Photoshop to take out the noise). But I’m pleased to have made some progress.

My quest for the perfect kingfisher photo continues. That gives me another excuse for a holiday in Devon in spring!

On the trail of wild beavers

Reports of beaver sightings on the River Otter
Reports of beaver sightings on the River Otter

Last week I returned to the River Otter. When I was there a year ago, I didn’t believe a sign naming beavers as one of the species seen on the river. I knew beavers had been extinct in the UK for hundreds of years. But soon after my trip, video footage of a family of beavers was released, showing not only were a few beavers roaming free, they were also breeding.

So, curiosity (and a love of a good woodburner in winter) made me return to the River Otter. This time I was hopeful of seeing signs of beavers, if not the animals themselves. Our first walk along the river to the sea showed no indication of beavers to our inexpert eyes (although we did see plenty of birds).

The River Otter in winter
The River Otter in winter

Undeterred, we set out to walk 10km upstream. We were looking out for beaver-gnawed trees, or perhaps signs of dam building or a lodge. The first felled tree we came across wasn’t promising, unless beavers had bigger teeth than I thought. But soon we came across more convincing evidence: lots of tree stumps with chisel-like teeth marks.

Beaver chiselled trees
Beaver chiselled trees
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter

Most of the stumps were from young trees, only a few inches across. But on the opposite bank there were signs of more ambitious beaver work.

Beavers have been working on a larger tree
More ambitious beaver activities

I was thrilled to see these signs – it was only seeing them for myself that made it sink in – beavers really are back in the wild in the UK.

We didn’t manage to spot any obvious lodges or dams (although there were a few heaps of woody debris in the river that could have been, with a bit of imagination). If I had been cleverer I would have read up about beavers before heading to Devon. I had to wait until getting home before learning that Eurasian beavers tend to prefer holes in the river bank, rather than lodges, and only build dams if the river is suboptimal for them.

Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA
Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA

You’ve probably heard that the future of the wild beavers is in the balance at the moment, with DEFRA planning to remove them to test them for tapeworms. From what we saw, people who live near the river are very supportive of the beavers. They have organised patrols to keep an eye out for beaver trappers, and there were notices placed along the river asking people to report any signs of DEFRA activity. We even had a few people ask us what we were up to (making sure we weren’t beaver stealers…).

I was particularly taken with this demonstration of support, in the window of a shop in Ottery St Mary.

Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers

Devon Wildlife Trust have applied for a license to allow the beavers to be released back into the river, following testing, and monitored for 5 years. They need to raise £54,000 by the end of the year to show they can do this. If you’d like to contribute, go to the Devon beavers appeal website.

More enigmatic bats

The mad bat woman has been at it again, wondering the streets at night, waving a badly tuned radio around. This time it was a small Devon village that looked on, bemused, at my antics.

Following my recent bat walk, where only common pipistrelles came out to play, I thought I might have better luck ticking off new species from my list away from home. So I jammed my bat detector and id chart into my bag, along with a change of clothes, and jumped on a train heading west.

I was fairly confident that I would see bats, and, after dusk I was proved right, spotting my first one just a few metres from the gate of where I was staying. This time the bat detector issued a slapping, clicking sound, different to a pipistrelle. Horay, a new species to tick off my list! But what was it? My BatLib app helped to narrow the options down to three, but I really couldn’t differentiate between them, even with the help of recordings, descriptions of flight patterns and habitats. So, once again, I have seen a new species, but don’t know what it is.

A few metres round the corner I picked up some more bats. The detector made the familiar babbling, squelching sounds of common pipistrelles, but this time at a higher frequency – it was a soprano pipistrelle. Horay, a new species that I can tick off my list!
With that, I decided to call it a night. I am going to need some expert help with identifying bats. Luckily I have another bat walk with experts booked. I hope that they don’t all go into hiding like last time!

Do you have any top tips for distinguishing between bat species, using a heterodyne detector?

Beavers back in the wild

Last autumn, while staying on the banks of the River Otter, I was surprised to read a sign at the local mill listing beavers as well as otters and kingfishers as local wildlife highlights. In fact, I didn’t believe it.

I knew there were projects to reintroduce beavers into carefully enclosed areas of Scotland. But it turns out that the first beavers breeding in the wild for centuries in England are actually to be found in Devon. Camera trap footage has now recorded three individuals, including a young beaver, on the River Otter.

No one is quite sure where they’ve come from. It’s illegal to introduce beavers into the wild in England. While Devon Wildlife Trust are carrying out a pilot beaver reintroduction into an enclosed area, that’s at the opposite side of the county, and all their beavers are accounted for.

Personally speaking, I’m quite excited by the thought of beavers roaming free in England once more. But it is quite controversial. Beavers are by nature engineers – they shape the landscape they live in. Their dams can create pools where once there were woods and fields. If I were a landowner, I’d be concerned about the effects beavers may have.

The Mammal Society have recently suggested that beavers should be reintroduced to help reduce flooding. They are also thought to be beneficial to plant diversity, creating wetland areas. Their river engineering also creates good habitats for fish, invertebrates, amphibians, and some mammals and birds.

It’s going to be interesting to see what effect the beavers have on the River Otter, whether they breed and spread, and whether we can live peacefully with a wild creature that can dictate the course of rivers…

Barn Owls vanishing

Barn OwlLast month I was staggered to learn how bad things are for barn owls. According to the Barn Owl Trust, this year there are fewer barn owls in Britain than there have ever been. On top of this, the poor spring has meant that there have been fewer young successfully reared than usual.

Barn owls are instantly recognisable, iconic birds. When flying they are large, ghost-like white shapes in the gloom. Perched on a fence post they are neat, heart-faced birds. Their shriek is startling (no polite hoot for them).

Until I went to a talk by the Barn Owl Trust, I’d always assumed that barn owls were doing ok. I’ve had many encounters with them, both in Devon and Hampshire. But thinking about it, I don’t remember seeing any ever in Surrey, nor anywhere else in the last 2-3 years. This is very sad.

There has been a long-term decline in the numbers of barn owls in Britain since the 1930s. Barn owls are farmland birds. While, back in the 1930s, pretty much every farm had a barn owl, now only one farm in 75 is home to a barn owl. This long-term decline is probably largely due to changes in farming practices, with more grassland being intensively grazed, and silage cut twice a year, rather than grass being left to dry into hay. This has reduced the habitat for the small mammals (voles and mice) that make up the barn owl’s diet.

The number of suitable nesting sites (barns, as the name suggests) has also declined dramatically, with many barn conversions not leaving room for barn owls, and new farm buildings often not providing suitable space and access.

Poisons used to kill rodents may also be a threat to barn owls, although the evidence on this is still sketchy. What is known is that more than 90% of dead barn owls studied in 2012 contained rodent poison. What effect this has on the owls is unclear, but with exposure being so common, any problems these poisons do cause would be a large-scale threat.

On top of this long-term decline, the weather in Britain in the last few years has not been good for barn owls. Heavy snows mean the owls can’t hunt so well, meaning more die of starvation. And the poor spring this year has meant breeding has been less successful than usual.

The Barn Owl Trust is working to preserve these beautiful birds. If you would like more information about barn owl boxes, rodenticides or anything else barn owl related, I suggest you look at their website.

Kingfisher glimpses

I’ve just got back from a lovely week staying on the banks of the River Otter, in my homeland of Devon. While I’m secretly a little disappointed not to see any of the river’s namesake (not that I expected to), I’m delighted that I got some glimpses of that jewel among British birds, the kingfisher.

I’ve always found British kingfishers very elusive. While I’ve had good views of kingfishers in Africa and India, until a couple of years ago I’d never seen one in this country. Last week I was able to see a kingfisher several times. There’s something magical about seeing a flash of electric blue dart past. In my view they are the most beautiful birds this country is home to.

It’s been my ambition to get a good photo of a kingfisher for years. Sadly the kingfishers were not very cooperative, preferring to perch in trees that still had plenty of leaves to obscure them. I didn’t have the patience (nor the thermal layers) to wait in the near freezing temperatures for the perfect shot. But I would love to return in spring, when they will be busy fishing to feed their young, and the weather might be slightly kinder to a keen but warmth-loving photographer.

So, in the absence of a decent photo of a kingfisher by me, I can only suggest you have a look at these beautiful watercolour images of kingfishers by the wonderfully talented painter Jean Haines. Details of where you can see her work can be found on her website.

Fragmentation and hedges

I saw this interesting article on the BBC website a couple of days ago. It’s about a study in Thailand that found that small mammals become extinct from an area of forest within 5 years, when the area was less than 10 hectares (25 acres), and separated from other areas of suitable habitat. Even in bigger fragments of up to 56 hectares, small mammals were still extinct within 25 years. Large and medium mammals also died out in these areas. The areas in question in Thailand really were unconnected pockets of forest, surrounded by water from the creation of a reservoir. But it’s also a timely reminder for other settings.

Habitat loss and fragmentation has been blamed for the decline of species such as the hedgehog and dormouse in the UK. It’s obvious how the loss of habitat could damage a population, but why does a species become extinct if it has an area of habitat to live in, but that is small and separated from other suitable areas?

Habitat fragmentation is bad news for mammals. Lack of genetic diversity and opportunities for repopulation from other areas make populations vulnerable to disease, predation and competition from other species.

A major factor in the fragmentation of woodland habitats in the UK has been not just the destruction of woods for building or farming, but also the disappearance of proper hedges. In the post-war drive to increase agricultural production many hundreds of miles of hedges were pulled up to allow for bigger fields with less bulky boundaries. This was a tragedy for many wildlife species, who use hedges as safe highways between areas of suitable habitat. Hedges are used by hedgehogs (as the name suggests), dormice, otters, bank voles and many other species. The loss of hedges for these animals was like one day waking up and finding there’s no longer a road from your house to the shops or your work.

Where I grew up, in south Devon, seems so far to have escaped from the worst of the uprooting of hedges. Perhaps that’s partly why Devon has been a stronghold for otters and dormice, even when the former were completely wiped out of most of the rest of the country. I love the patchwork of small fields and species-rich hedgerows you get in the South Hams.

It’s not enough to protect small pockets of land for our wildlife. Small populations in small, isolated areas are just not sustainable. We need to be thinking at a landscape level – how can we join up areas for our wildlife. This will involve replanting hedges, building wildlife bridges over roads, protecting some areas from development, making sure river banks can be climbed by aquatic mammals and making sure there are gaps in our fences that hedgehogs can get through. It was also involve rethinking how we manage other areas of land. The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscapes programme is trying to address this at a national level.

As one of the co-authors of the study in Thailand said, “The bottom line is that we must conserve large, intact habitats for nature. That is the only way we can ensure biodiversity will survive.”