The Scottish Government are consulting on beavers in Scotland:
Have your say.
The Scottish Government are consulting on beavers in Scotland:
Have your say.
We are currently plating about 16 acres of deciduous woodland as part of the carbon woodland creation scheme. We were very keen for the woodland to be planted in a random pattern rather than in lines or waves. Random planting makes it much harder for the planters to achieve the correct stocking rate but the effect, especially a few years down the line, will be worth it.
We are planting a mix of sessile oak, wych elm and downy birch with a few willows and aspen on the lower edges plus a good number of more shrubby species.
Over the next few years the canes and tree guards will degrade, the growing trees will shade out the bracken and we will see an increase in biodiversity. At the moment it’s all wheel marks, piles of bags and boxes and sweat and toil but soon the wheel marks
will grass over, the boxes and bags will all have been removed and nature will be allowed to take over. I just wish I could see it in 150 year’s time.
A good podcast about beavers making a comeback in America:
Michael Gove’s speech at the Oxford Farming Conference this week gives a clearer picture of where things are heading in in the farming scene. While he proposes to continue Single Farm Payments until Brexit, the transition will move away from area payments towards environmental benefits for the public good. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/farming-for-the-next-generation?utm_source=emailmarketing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=copy_weekly_news_22_december&utm_content=2018-01-05
Of course we have seen all this before. We are returning towards the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold https://www.humansandnature.org/aldo-leopold-reconciling-ecology-and-economics , reconciling land use and economics. There is a growing realisation that land cannot be managed solely with economics in mind. This led us into the pesticide era, and now a 75% loss of insect biomass and global warming. Our daffodils that flowered on 9th November were over by Christmas. Here in Wales the diffuse nitrate pollution, mainly from dairy farms has led to major concerns which are currently still unresolved. https://consultations.gov.wales/sites/default/files/consultation_doc_files/160929-nitrate-vulnerable-zones-consultation-en.pdf The Nitrate Vulnerable Zones in Wales are widespread and it is estimated that if restrictions are declared, it could cost around £80K per farm to bring them up to standards for slurry storage and disposal. As about 95% of farms in Wales would be declared bankrupt businesses if it were not for the subsidies, this is not a rosy picture. And if those subsidies are taken off agriculture itself, and put onto environmental schemes, we could see many farms going bust. This is hinted at in some of the reports we are seeing, and it is not new. A number of Welsh farms were abandoned and bought up by the state in the last agricultural depression, and planted into forestry.
The Farming Unions are not fighting for the future, but to retain the past. It is no good keeping our heads in the sand and hoping it will all go away. We have to innovate and adapt to the future.
Our work with beavers has shown their potential in smoothing peak water run off and purifying water by filtering slurry particulates. Exeter University and others have published many papers showing the results of the scientific trials. So beavers are great news for dairy farmers. With a change of emphasis on the grant system, we will be pushing for farms hosting beavers to receive points for their environmental schemes and a financial benefit too. As well as purifying the water, the beavers are opening up some of the shade canopy which allows the aquatic invertebrates to flourish, providing increased growth rates for fish fry.
Even thirty years ago the small family farm was profitable. A family could live well on 100 acres. But the price of land has gone crazy, so that the return on investment does not stack up. Also, even in my youth, just after the war, farming enjoyed much simpler lifestyles. Electrification and tractors were just coming in, and freezers and TVs had yet to come. The aerial photos of the Bevis Trust farms in 1967 all show flourishing vegetable gardens. All gone now. The increasing demands of a cash economy and higher standards of living mean that 100 acres simply cannot produce this level of income any more.
Having farmed in New Zealand in the 1970s when we still had subsidies, and seen what happened when subsidies were removed in 1984 http://dailysignal.com/2016/09/22/what-happened-when-new-zealand-got-rid-of-government-subsidies-for-farmers/ , it would be calamitous if this happened in Wales. New Zealand saw land prices (which had been held up by the subsidies) plummet. This is likely to happen in Wales too, resulting in a massive loss of equity. For those with mortgages, this alone would cause bankruptcy. Whereas New Zealand farmers are young and innovative, the average age of Welsh farmers is over 60. Many want to retire but cannot, while potential young farmers cannot get on the ladder or don’t want to. Farming Connect’s Joint Venture Scheme has 23,000 acres available but is struggling to find young farmers willing to take up the opportunities.
Here at the Bevis Trust we have been pioneering how wildlife can live alongside productive farming. About 30% of the land area has been set aside for woods and water. We currently have about 35 ponds on the farm thanks to the beavers. No slurry is spread anywhere near the water courses, we try to keep a one-field barrier of old grass between any slurry and a stream or river. Some of our wildlife land is now producing more income, even without subsidies, than our best silage land and we have diversified so that we can survive without subsidies.
Times are changing. The writing is on the wall. Trying to plod on as we have always done is no longer an option.
It is a quiet time of year for the beavers. They do not actually hibernate and in mild weather are active every night. In the autumn they collected plenty of willows and buried them in the bottom of their ponds so that they can access them even if the surface is sealed with ice. They’ve also collected oak, hazel and alder branches to repair their dams with. The family down at Skinny Dipping now have at least seven ponds, creating habitat for other species. When I checked there last week I flushed five woodcock and a fox in the pen.
It’s important to be able to manage beavers and I saw Michael Gove last week at a reception in Westminster. I impressed on him that farmers and land-owners need legislation that will enable them to do beaver management without onerous licences. We have just completed trapping and checking our beavers and now our specialist beaver traps are heading down to Devon to be used in trapping and monitoring the Devon Wildlife Trust beavers on the River Otter.
Genetics are another potential issue for British beavers and recently 12 wild echinococcus-free beavers have been imported from Bavaria by Derek Gow. These will complete their quarantine in May and we hope to take delivery of two unrelated pairs. The Ricketts Mill enclosure is now predator proof and it is interesting to see how the vole numbers are increasing without mammalian predation. We are working to increase biomass of willow in the pen ready for the new beavers.
We have decided to plant up a block of 16 acres into indigenous broadleaf woodland. We are in the final stages of the woodland grant process and plan to have it all planted by the end of March. It is a steep north facing bank that is beginning to scrub up and will be far more productive in trees. With ash off the agenda, most of the trees will be oak and downy birch. Our tree nursery is coming along well and we have a lot of oaks in the pipeline. We’ve also planted a few Wych Elms on the farm to compensate for the loss of the elms with Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile Steve has been busy upgrading over a kilometre of farm tracks and Frank has been busy with the timber. We have taken down a number of dangerous leaning trees and sadly several old ash trees dying of Ash Dieback. Now we are inundated with timber for the sawmill and logs for firewood. We will haul it all out when the ground dries out.
Tomorrow Friday 22nd December we are on BBC One Wales with Kate Humble ‘Off the Beaten Track’. Kate comes looking for our beavers on a typically wet day in Wales.
An early spring in West Wales….
It’s been a good mast year for acorns and we’ve collected plenty. We are planting up about 7 hectares (17.3ac) of the steep north facing banks. Bracken is rapidly taking over on these banks and with Azulox being phased out, it is almost impossible to control it. The banks are too steep for a tractor (a previous owner rolled one to the bottom) and we don’t keep cattle anymore because bovine Tb is rife. So we decided to plant them up in deciduous trees and applied for a grant. This has been a tortuous process of inspections and edicts. Our latest instruction is that they are disallowing a 15 metre margin all along the hedge boundaries because they are ‘under the drip line’. This means that the effective grant area has been reduced by around 3ha of course we cannot claim for it as agricultural use any more, so we lose out in both directions. So much for encouraging environmental schemes!
The next stipulation is that the species should be restricted to local indigenous ones. With ash and elm being off the agenda, and wych elm and aspen being virtually unattainable, this boils down to oak and birch. But the squirrels do horrendous damage to our oaks, wrecking about 60% of them within the first twenty years by stripping the bark. And it is impossible to control squirrels; we just don’t have the time and resources.
Actually, if these woods are to live for the next two or three hundred years, what are the best species to plant? Should we use history as our guide, or the future? In my lifetime I have seen elms disappear, and now ash. Natural Resources Wales say we cannot plant beech or sycamore because they are not native. So what choice is left? My view is to plant a diversity of species, both of trees and shrubs, to help prepare the new woods for what is to come.
Then the forestry people want to plant everything in rows. It makes it easier for them. Now we are left with woods with regimented rows that will look artificial for a century or more. For me, this kills the spirit of a wood. It bears for ever the heavy stamp of the administrator. We have a fifteen acre wood on our north bank that we grant planted about 18 years ago. What a disaster! They insisted that the top half should be larch and the bottom half should be ash. Both these species now have serious disease issues. We now have seried rows of dying ash and dense larch that has killed the understorey. Being steep, there is no way we can get this timber out economically without making a hell of a mess. So I am slowly trying to remedy the damage. I’m cutting down all the larch which are poor or with bent stems and leaving the timber to rot where it falls. This is good for wildlife. In the open glades this creates I am under-planting with anything I can lay my hands on: oak, beech, birch, field maple, hazel, even hawthorn. Slowly the rows will give way to a diversity of species of multiple ages….
There is also the question of what stock to plant. Should we plant acorns from existing oaks on the farm, most of which grow poor timber? Or should we select acorns from the best timber trees we can find, so that perhaps someone in the future will have timber worth using? So we have compromised, using a bucketful of local acorns and about three bucketfuls of acorns from specimen trees from Duncombe Park in Yorkshire.
And what is the most cost effective way of planting? Acorns are already sprouting; should we just plant them straight out and mark them with sticks so that we can spray around them when they come up in the spring? We have high vole densities at the moment and they will no doubt take a toll. Or should we pot them and plant them out in a year or two when they are 60cm high? This is a lot of work, but more will survive. The grant trees will all be bare rooted 60cm with plastic tree guards. These tree guards make massive litter scattered around the countryside. The whole process is environmentally unfriendly.
As for the margins that we cannot get grant for, I was planting up a gulley the other day, a steep bracken and bramble bank hosting a centuries old badger sett. For the first time in history this sett is now disused. People forget that the Tb doesn’t just affect the cattle. It kills the badgers too.