The sun never has to try very hard to lure me away from a desk and computer screen, and Thursday was no different. All day it teased, dancing between ominous clouds but when it finally showed promise to stay a while, I happily pressed ‘save’ and closed the lid on my laptop.
Eyeing the Himalayan Balsam stealthily spreading its army along the riverbank, I made a mental note to return before its flowers opened and the seeds explode, strengthening its muster of troops, forcing our native flora to surrender to its domination.
As I turned, what lay before me was both amazing and the most exciting thing I have seen for a while.
Ok…I understand that maybe you are not quite as amazed or excited as I was in that moment…but in that precise spot, in the ‘nano-seconds’ before I could get my phone out, there were three, yes, THREE otters before me. A mother and two not-so-young ones. Their coats so densely brown and glossy, and in such good condition, they exuded perfection in bonniness as they bounded for the safety of the water.
Of course, the temptation was to fetch my good camera and evidence another sighting….but the moment had gone. As I am sure, so had the otters.
Besides, I was on ‘borrowed time’ from my laptop. That brief 15 minutes away from the screen, gave me a wonderful ‘mind’s eye’ moment and lasting hours of delight. It made my day.
With the long summer evenings we have quite a few visitors coming to see the beavers. Currently the beavers emerge around 20.15, but sometimes earlier than this. While most people get to see them, some don’t realise that you have to sit still, without speaking and just watching quietly. Beavers hear and smell very well and feel vibrations through the water if you move your feet clumsily. So fidgety children are not an asset in a beaver hide!
But whenever I watch I see the beavers. Our new pair of imported Bavarian beavers are flourishing and must now have kits because we have seen them taking food into the burrows. We haven’t seen the kits yet but the beavers are now using several burrows which is a sign the kits are moving about. It’s amazing how a full grown beaver, about the size of a cocker spaniel, can emerge from an underwater burrow right in front of you, then swim underwater across the whole pond to the other side, with hardly a ripple, just occasional bubbles. If you don’t know what is going on you don’t understand the quiet movements and could miss them altogether. But eventually an adult will come out onto the bank and spend several minutes slowly and carefully grooming and scratching a large corpulent tum.
Scotland has now fully protected its beavers and established a management programme. About 50 beavers are being translocated from places where they are not wanted to new homes in Yorkshire and Devon. Step by step the beavers are reclaiming their lost homes. Here in Wales, as far as we know, NRW has made no decisions at all.
The recent protests and awareness of climate change are what the Bevis Trust is all about. How can we somehow reconcile the needs of producing food for an ever-expanding human population while at the same time reducing carbon emissions and improving biodiversity? It’s all very well talking about it. How to actually do it?
Here on the farm we have of course insulated and double glazed everything and nine of the houses are now heated by ground-source heat pumps. This has been a somewhat mixed blessing because you still need electricity to pump the water around. We have a total of 57Kw of solar panels on three of the buildings. This could have been more but the tariffs have been tricky and have now stopped. As batteries improve I hope that not before too long we will be able to do more solar power and run the vehicles from it. It would not be difficult for architects to design roofs and walls to face the sun and collect energy.
But probably our biggest contribution has been to take about 30% of the farm out of agriculture into trees. We have targeted the steep slopes and boggy corners, digging ponds and planted indigenous trees. Our early efforts with larch and ash have hit the buffers with ash dieback disease, but we have learned our lesson. We did sacrifice some better land to plant four north-south orientated shelter strips, but these are paying off now by improved microclimates in their wind-shadows. With the trees now around 10 metres high, the wind speed is halved 50 metres out into the field, which improves grass growth and provides shelter for livestock, reducing their feed requirements for maintenance metabolism. Although we lose 20 metres or so for the shelterbelts, the improved performance of the field probably balances out the loss of area.
We bought the farm in stages since 1982 and it is interesting to show a map of it at the time we bought each part compared to how it is now. As well as the new woods, we have about 30 new ponds, 14.4 km of old hedgerows, 6.4 km of new hedgerows and 8.4 km of new tracks.
The farm as we have bought it in parcels since 1982.
The farm in 2019.
Farming makes no sense at all at the moment with return on investment on land running at about 1.25% and average farm income on our type of farm at £17,000 per year. Currently 86% of farms in Wales would have negative incomes were it not for the subsidy payments.
In theory it’s lovely to have otters on the lake, like this one caught on camera last night. The reality is that they have cleaned out all the fish and if this one stays much longer it will kill all the young goslings, ducklings, moorhens and dabchicks. In years when an otter takes up residence we have a total clean out of all the young waterfowl. Our first families of greylags are on the lake now so I hope the otter will go elsewhere. It comes up underneath and pulls each bird down. I have even seen one take a herring gull down and, after drowning it, take it away over the dam and down the valley.
I did an interview with Jemima Childs last week for her university project. Jemima is the daughter of Ben who manages Caldey Island. Great news to hear that our Red Squirrel colony that we started two years ago has now reached about 30 individuals. Some of them are getting tame enough for visitors to see and can thus perform a role as ambassadors for the species and the issues involved in their conservation. Thanks to David Mills at the British Wildlife Centre for supplying the founder stock and to Simon Hart MP for facilitating the project.
Since we have cleared Caldey of rats the seabird colonies are thriving and even spreading up into the fields above the cliffs. A few puffins are now using the island and we hope they will start a nucleus of nesting birds soon.
After three years of answering increasingly silly questions from Natural Resources Wales about our Beaver re-introduction programme we have withdrawn the application. We spent £6,000 providing the veterinary Disease Risk Assessment which has been passed by the Chief Veterinary Officer but then NRW wanted us to undertake water quality surveys of the entire river catchment in order to answer any foreseeable objections. Any scientist will tell you that to do that you need to complete at least three years of baseline data before starting. Meanwhile the river continues to be polluted with farm slurry and the fish killed. Locals are complaining: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/the-slow-death-slurry-rivers-16022019? htm_source=sharebar&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=sharebar
We worry not about the potentially beneficial effects of beavers on water quality but on the potentially toxic effects of the polluted water on the beavers. Therefore we have withdrawn the application in favour of another river system further north. The application is now in and we will provide beavers for it when the time comes. Meanwhile spring is round the corner and many people are coming to see our beavers and do evening watches from the beaver hides.
Bryony Coles, formerly Professor of Prehistory at the University of Exeter has just published an interesting book: Avanke, Bever, Castor: the story of Beavers in Wales. She examines the evidence for the presence of Beavers since the last Ice Age, as sub-fossil remains, in place names and myths, and in the written records since Geraldus Cambrensis at the end of the 12th century. She brings back to life how the beaver had a rightful place in the ecology and culture of Wales before humans killed it off – when? That is the question! Records of beavers into the 17th century become dim, but one is left wondering: just how long did the beavers hang on quietly in some of the secret boggy valleys of Wales? Beavers can be very obvious, and yet also, sometimes they can be completely over-looked.
On our farm, down below Cwmduhen, we have a big boggy stretch of the river now overgrown with alder and willow. In it are various ‘canals’ making a network totalling about 200m. They are irregular in direction but with parallel sides and the water in them is either very gently moving or static. These canals are visible in early spring and have remained unchanged certainly in the thirty years or so that I have known them. Are they old beaver canals? One of the pictures below is a real in-use beaver canal inside an enclosure in the same valley. The other pictures are of the old canals. Can you tell which one is definitely beavers’?
Intriguingly, Bryony documents beaver-chewed sticks carbon-dated from 1500 BC to 300BC at Newton Moor near Cowbridge, and at Caldicot. Beaver-gnawed wood with the trademark chisel teeth patterns have been found at many sites from the medieval periods. Our bog itself may be made up of sediments from a long-silted up beaver pond. Wouldn’t it be exciting if Bryony’s students could do a dig there and discover the original dams with signature teeth marks? That would be a little paw reaching out to us across history.