Yesterday we hosted a group of interested folks from both NRW and Carmarthen Council. Organised by Craig at JCR Planning, it was a great opportunity to talk to people about the work we are doing at Ricketts Mill and the broader beaver project. Over the past couple of weeks we have also attended the PONT conference, given a talk to the East Carms. Wildlife Trust Group and were given the opportunity to put in our opinions at the Natural Resource Policy Consultation Engagement Event in Cardiff. Jo and I were pleasantly surprised by this last event. It had all the makings of a dreary, slightly pointless event but in actual fact it turned out that it was the Welsh Government actually wanting to hear the opinions of rural stakeholders and turning it into policy. A great step forward.
Last week Jo and I attended the Natural Resources Policy Consultation Engagement Event in Cardiff. The title is certainly a mouthful and it was with some trepidation that we traveled to the capital, fearing perhaps some jargon laden attempt at schmoozing the environmental ‘stakeholders’. We could not have been more wrong, yes, of course there was a bit of jargon but the event was a real opportunity to engage with the policy makers and make our voice heard. There were perhaps a disappointingly small number of attendees but they did come from a good cross-section of rural land users from moorland restorators to large estates, waterways officers to conservation bodies. The purpose of the event was to seek, discuss and inform the priorities of Natural Resources Policy under both the Nature Fund and Sustainable Management Scheme Projects.
By the end of it we all felt that out voices had been heard and that some very important issues had been tabled to be included in the final report next month. The discussion groups were asked at the close of the session to come up with the single issue that we felt was the priority. It was interesting to see that all the groups came up with the same answer – education for hard to reach groups. It’s quite right, if we want to run this country sustainably into the future then we must engage with everyone, it’s no good preaching to the choir.
You won’t be surprised to hear that we managed to weave beavers into most of the topics we covered – issues such as reducing the risk of flooding, water quality and ecosystems recovery. In many cases, the answer is beavers!
We have been very busy down at Ricketts Mill. The plan is to turn the old trout farm into a focal point for the Trust’s activities where students and land managers can come to get first-hand experience of management techniques. The existing lake was built for trout fishing and drops sheer at the banks to about 10 feet deep. So our initial task is to pull back the banks to create areas of shallow water and reed beds. Steve Reed has been busy with the digger sorting out the area in line with the plans from the planning permission. Because the area is a flood plain we have to be careful that water from the river is still able to enter and flood the whole area, and then drain away. The reed beds will help this process because they act like a sponge, first accepting the water but then releasing it again slowly, reducing flash flooding down river. The previous owner had triploid rainbow trout in the lake with grids to stop them escaping during floods. We are keeping the grid system but getting rid of the rainbow trout in favour of brown trout and indigenous aquatic species.
So now we have large areas of bare earth and mud. We could just leave these and see what comes. If we do this we know that we will get docks, brambles and Himalayan Balsam. So our next task is to transplant phragmites reeds and other water edge plants, from some of our ponds up on the farm. These have to be raked up, bagged, transported and then planted out like a hair transplant. There is a limit to how much we can harvest because we don’t want to upset our Water Voles, so we may have to source some from friends with spare reeds. Meanwhile a Cattle Egret has already been in checking it out, and some snipe. Back from the water edges we will do some patch planting of wild flower meadows and a lot of tree planting, mainly aspen and willow. Only once these trees have sufficient biomass will the area be ready for beavers.
The electricity engineer inspected yesterday and we have agreed a route across the site to put all the overhead wires underground. This will reduce the risk of bird strikes. We hope to get this done in mid January and we have to dig the trench ourselves, 75 cm deep.
Graham has removed the old wire netting fence along the river and we have taken down some of the falling over trees, mainly willows. They are cut up and replanted on site to start new trees. The main perimeter fence will go up later on and we hope it will be good enough to stop mink and foxes, so that we can work on Water Voles, amphibians and reptiles.
Along the road some of the hedge banks were non-existent and in places the road was subsiding. Steve has built up earth hedge banks and packed the tops of them with the soil from the old hedge. This contains all the seed bed, bulbs and seedlings which will start the re-colonisation process. We will replant these hedge banks this weekend with mainly hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and other local species. In a year or two you will hardly know they are new.
There were some big old oak trees over hanging the car park where the mill used to be. Sadly some of these were dangerous and Frank and Pete have taken them down. This has let in a lot more light. Frank is our ‘tree monkey’ and climbs right out into the outer branches to take them down section by section. Scary stuff! We have also been clearing along the old mill leat and Frank has more leaning trees to take down along there. Many have already fallen across the leat, pulling up massive root plates. Eventually we will get them clear and haul out the timber and mill it into beams and planks. That will leave an attractive walkway up along the river and later we will establish more reed beds which we hope can outcompete the rampant Himalayan Balsam.
Meanwhile up on the farm I checked out the beavers in the new enclosure at Skinny Dipping pond. They have settled in now and are not going near the fence. A couple of weeks ago, in the cold weather, all the beavers on the farm were very active, even coming out in daylight. They were busy collecting and stashing willow in the bottoms of their ponds. But now they all seem quieter and although I waited for an hour after dark, nobody emerged. Instead, in the thermal imaging scope, I could see the warmth from the beavers lighting up their lodge like a glowing campfire. A cosy family scene. I almost expected to see a stick with a Christmas stocking hanging on it! Along the fringes were three wary teal, and in the muddy clearings the beavers had made, a snipe or woodcock was busy probing for worms. I crept quietly away, watched by a fox up on the hill.
The summer seems so far away now. Daylight seems so brief and the mist lingers all day. However, my day was brightened immensely when a DVD containing lots of wonderful photographs from our friend David Woodfall arrived. He spent many happy hours in the summer photographing the top pond beavers and their kits. Seeing all the greenery transported me back from these grey days to the height summer.
It’s been a busy time with the beavers. We worked flat out to get the new beaver fence ready at the new enclosure, trapped a family of five and got them in, only to find that one of the adults found a weak place in the new fence and escaped. To make matters worse, three of us were away for a week at a conference in Ireland. However Sion, Pete and James got the traps out and caught him on the second night. The problem was that in one place the fencers had used C clips to join the above ground part of the fence to the below ground part. This need to be well over-lapped and twist wired together.
Now the family has settled down and they are occupying the artificial lodge on the island. This lodge has an underwater entrance and is a big cavity covered in green willow logs. It must be quite a squeeze for all five of them but they have been working on it and adding more sticks on top. Most beaver watching at this time of year is done in complete darkness using a thermal imaging scope. You can see the heat signature of the occupied lodge. There are also mice on the island and it is surprising how much the mice and rats climb right up into the tops of trees. They must be very vulnerable to tawny owls.
Meanwhile the great news came in that the Scottish Government has now accepted the Beaver back onto the list of native British species! Now it is just a matter of time before the English and Welsh governments follow suit. The plan is to set regulations in place so that beavers can be actively managed but at the same time properly protected. This is a massive hurdle overcome and will influence our licence application here in Wales.
We’ve also done a newsletter for farmers along the river but Jo has been away for three weeks so we have had a delay in sending all of them out. Thankyou Graham for translating the Welsh version.
While we are having this frosty dry spell, Steve and John have been busy with the digger and dumper truck down at Ricketts Mill. They are clearing up around the buildings and building up the hedge banks properly. It all looks messy at the moment, but once the banks are all planted up it will look good in the spring. There are a number of overhanging oak trees and branches that are dangerous so we are doing those as well to make a clean sweep of things. We will save any straight bits for the timber mill and the rest goes to firewood. There is plenty of natural regeneration but we have new young trees ready if there are any gaps needing filling. The surveyors and planners have been out and given us the all clear so we will soften the edges of the two ponds to create some reed bed areas and overhanging willows. This will provide shelter for wildlife, better than clean hard edges.
The hoar frosts are building up in areas that don’t get the sun. On the north banks of Blaencwm it looks black and white, stark like a Breugel winter painting. Just across the gulley, with the full sun and remnants of golden autumn leaves, the grass is still green and it looks quite benign and warm. At lunchtime in the conservatory the dogs are lolling about panting, but coming home in the evening on the quad bike my cheeks are totally numb with cold. The beaver pond has frozen over and I watched as one of the adults surfaced in the only clear spot and then systematically set about breaking the ice over an area of about three double beds near the dam. Having only been in a couple of weeks they have not had time to embed winter stashes of willow in the bottom of the pond, but with the ice broken the kits can still get out and forage on the banks.
It has just been announced that the beaver is now recognised as a native species in Scotland! The implications for the rest of the UK have yet to be seen but this can only be a positive step for the Welsh and English beaver reintroduction projects.
October has been dry and we have had a lovely Indian summer. Yesterday there were still dragonflies on the ponds. We have been very busy on the farm making the most of it while it lasts. Pete, James and Linda finished the fiddly bits of fencing down at Skinny Dipping Pond that has now become a 2.5 acre beaver enclosure. I built a temporary lodge for them up against an upturned root plate. They also have a lodge on the island with a tunnel under water, but the lodge was only built for two, and we plan to move a whole family of five.
We started trapping in the top pond and immediately caught both adults in one of our Bavarian beaver traps.
I can monitor the traps from the house using a thermal imaging scope. At this time of year it is the only way to watch beavers. It took four of us to get them out of the trap, into boxes, up the field and into the Landrover, and then up to the barn at Blaencwm. We had prepared a temporary holding pen for them there in a big barn, with a straw lodge, two water tanks and a lot of fresh cut willow. Two nights ago we caught one of the kits and we put it with its parents.
Yesterday, everything was ready so we weighed each one and plucked hair samples with follicles as a DNA record. Sexing beavers using anal gland secretions is a bit of a knack, but Drew managed to find nipples on the adult female, which is a bit of a giveaway. The kit defied us for sexing though. We microchipped them under the skin just before the tail root. The tail itself is very tough and hard to put a microchip in, but we need the chips as close to the ground as possible so that we can use plate chip readers set on beaver trails to monitor beaver movements.
We took the beavers down to the new pond on quad bikes and they spent a happy couple of hours thoroughly investigating their new home. Beavers really do not like to be away from water and at no time did they stray more than two metres from the edge. But soon they will start making little ponds and channels in the bog and this will make them feel more secure. They still have time to make a burrow or lodge and start collecting food to store for the winter. They have plenty of feed in the area. Last winter I ‘starbursted’ quite a few willows. Basically cut half through the stems so that they flopped out onto the ground like petals. Now each fallen branch has got new shoots 1.5 metres high, prime beaver tucker.
We still have two more kits to catch. They are weaned now and able to survive alone, but the sooner we can catch them and put them back with their parents, the better. This is all good practical management experience for us which is very useful. Beavers are very tough and wriggly, it is not at all like handling falcons! For beavers to successfully re-colonise Wales without causing any problems, we need to have a core team of people with practical management skills. The new Handbook on beaver management is excellent and covers all aspects, but there is nothing like actually doing it all. Fortunately Wales is probably the best suited part of Britain for beavers. With a high rainfall, little arable, and a low human population, it has many quiet boggy valleys which are prime beaver habitat.
Due to the success of our breeding beavers this year we thought it only fair to give them a little more space. We are creating a new pen for them, it will be approximately 1ha in size and will give the occupants access to willow, a pond, streams, bog and thick vegetation. Alicia, the Welsh Beaver Project Officer from the Wildlife Trusts introduced us to some keen biology students who have taken on the task of performing a baseline study of flora and fauna in the new pen and will be monitoring it to observe the successional changes as the beavers make themselves at home. Already a few species of which we were unaware have popped up. As soon as they have the data collated we will update our species list.
Fencing work has now started on the site and we hope to get a beaver family moved in for October while there is still time for them to build their winter food cache.
…so the saying goes. It was proved wrong last night. We were delighted to have a visit from a group of wildlife and countryside professionals with the specific focus on seeing the beavers. Always a little nervous when folks are keen to see something so it was with some trepidation that Jo and I led the group to the hides.On reaching the top enclosure a beaver could be clearly seen on top of the dam munching on some dogwood. Moments later the pond was alive with beavers exhibiting almost every known beaver behaviour. Some folks even got to see a baby beaver hitching a ride on mums’ back!
A sighting of one of our resident kingfishers also added to the excitement.
It was wonderful to spend time with people so engaged and pragmatic about the project and to see some very happy faces leaving later that evening.
Although we have seen beavers taking willow branches into the lodge on the lake since early May, we have yet to see the kits. Drew was out late the other night and caught images with the thermal imaging scope, but he could not be sure if they were beavers or water voles. Are water voles active at night?
Last night I watched from across the lake and one of the adults took willow into the lodge, then came out without it. It seemed that at least one kit was in there. Then I saw the other adult 30 metres along the bank hanging quietly in the water. Near it was another beaver feeding in the willows. After a while it came out and swam alongside the adult. The kit was massive, about ¾ of the size of the adult. Have we been seeing them before and mistaken them for adults? Gerhard Schaub visited last week. He is a world beaver authority from Bavaria. He and his wife Regina watched the kits at the top pair and he thought one was a yearling because it was so big. But that pair did not breed last year. Meanwhile the kit on the lake looked about twice as big as the kits on the top pen. Presumably the lake kits were born in April and are at least three months old. It certainly seems that the young beavers grow well here where they have unlimited supplies of fresh willow.
The middle pair of beavers have defied all our efforts. I have seen them take food into their burrows but Drew had cameras up last week with apples and carrots as baits. The bait disappeared with hardly a glimpse of a beaver, let alone kits! On Thursday we had some students here planning to do a habitat survey at Skinny Dipping Pond at Blaencwm in August. We will fence off a hectare enclosure there and plan to move this middle pair there in October. Students can then record the progression in habitat changes in the enclosure.