Establishing Wetlands

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.

Spot the Frank!
A bit more obvious!

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.


Frosty Days

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.

A Frozen Skinny Dipping Pond

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.


Beavering Away

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.

Two Beavers in the Same Trap

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.

Drew & Nick About to Take a DNA Sample

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.

The Little Known Art of Beaver Weighing
Beaver Kit in Holding Pen

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.

New Beaver Pen

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.


Photos by Jo

Baseline Survey

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.

1. Crambus perlella
Crambus Perlella – Photo: Alexander Bell
2. Aquatic surveys - Alex kick sampling
Kick Sampling in the pond. Photo: Alexander Bell
3. Emperor Dragonfly
Emperor Dragonfly – Photo: Alexander Bell

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.


Beavers on the Lake

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.



Rewilding and More

Last week Jo and I attended a meeting at the Knepp Estate down in West Sussex. There, the owners Charlie Burrell and Izzie Tree have devoted their 3,500 acre estate to an ambitious re-wilding project.We took the opportunity to have a walk around some of the estate.   Later that evening I enjoyed staying in their lovely yurt which I can recommend to anyone visiting that area.

The thrust of the Knepp project is to take the land out of conventional farming and let it lie fallow indefinitely to see what develops. So it is an open-ended project with no pre-determined goals. Many specialists and groups are monitoring the progress of habitats and species as they change and you can follow progress on the internet. But behind the scenes, as always, there is the underlying concern for financial returns from the land. Can the land qualify for any of the grant schemes? What effects will Brexit have? Are domestic animals, such as Long Horn cattle or Tamworth pigs, which are acting as surrogates for wild equivalents, making the land use eligible for payments under agricultural schemes, and can they be ‘harvested’ in a way that provides an income from the meat, while Man is, as it were, playing the role of top predator (instead of wolves etc) and keeping the numbers at a level that allows the habitats to evolve without decimating the plants? On top of this the estate has a very generous policy for public access and this raises issues of risk assessments (ugh!) and balancing amenity value against providing undisturbed areas for wildlife. It is a tricky act to play, with few precedents to guide them, and flags up the very real pragmatic issues and decisions faced by efforts to ‘re-wild’ areas of lowland Britain. This is a project to watch as it develops. Hats off to them.

We face similar issues here on the farm in west Wales and yesterday I visited the Royal Welsh Show in scorching heat. There I met up with various colleagues and representatives of organisations for updates on woodland management and wildlife management. The group of farmers in the Pontbren project have made bold steps to provide shelterbelts and wildlife habitat on a cluster of upland farms in mid-Wales and I smiled as I recognised so many of the same things we have done here on the farms over the past 35 years which have now come to fruition.

Barbro is up at the farm in Northumberland for two days, getting things ready for when we head up there at the end of the month. So in the evening I sat out on the terrace for a couple of hours with Joy the Munsterlander who was transfixed, sight pointing a rabbit in the meadow in front of us. I had two Gyr/New Zealand Falcon chicks out on the lawn with me. They have been the last chicks to hatch and can just run around now and take an interest in passing house martins nesting above their heads. As I watched, the falcons in the breeding pens started alarm calls and there above them circled a Hobby. It was an adult and was being mobbed by swallows. It is the first I have seen here for many years and was very elegant in its little parries with the swallows.

I was reading a book which I had bought at the Show, on the archaeology of the western Brecon Beacons since the last Ice Age. This is land familiar to me because we ride up there sometimes or fly the falcons. It documented the changes in habitats on this area of the Welsh uplands using dated pollen cores over the last 10,000 years or so since the ice receded. Climate has always been the main factor shaping the flora of these areas, and in more recent times, increasing influence from humans. It helps put into perspective our own efforts in our own very brief human lifetimes and whether one should leave the land fallow to see what evolves, as at Knepp, or whether one should encourage direct change towards specific ecotypes, such as climax deciduous woodland, marshes and meadows, changes which can be brought about within one human lifetime. While obviously one cannot create a 500 year old oak tree in 100 years, it is surprising what can be achieved in ecological restoration in just a few decades with steady work. Many people are astonished when they see the lake here, with kingfishers, water voles, reed beds and beavers, that was a field only 16 years ago.

As I sat there with the falcons who were mesmerised by the dog’s twitching tail, my glance was taken by a scrap of dark brown on the lawn. It was a young pipistrelle bat. This particular bat has been causing trouble lately. Yesterday I found it on the conservatory floor crawling around. I hung it up outside in a cool grape vine. Now it looked comatose, almost dead. So I held it in my hand for half an hour to warm it up. After a while it woke up and fluttered down onto the grass but couldn’t make headway. So I held it again and it took a little water from a teaspoon. But it seemed unable to fly upwards so once it was dark I left it on the grape vine. How do bats cope over this tricky teenage period? Will Mum come and find it?

Down below the meadow I could see big ripples on the pond as the adult beavers started to get busy for the evening. Their three kits are quite active now but generally they are all quite quiet. You don’t hear a lot of squealing and frolicking as with many young mammals, they are actually quite unobtrusive and I can understand how beavers can exist in places for years without actually being noticed.

In the distance I could hear the clamouring of geese and then a bomber squadron of greylags flew over me. First came a skein of eight; this is the family who hatched six goslings in the top beaver pen and who I helped get through the beaver fence when they were young. The second group of six were the family from the lake that are two weeks older and have recently lost one of their goslings. They are leaving the lake for long periods now, but often come back at dusk. Soon they will leave completely for the winter. Maybe their calling this evening was their ‘swan song’. Their ‘goose song’. See you in the spring, guys. Take care!