A short while ago, residents near Llanblethian village hall may have been surprised to see a beaver being carried along the road!
It was, however, a stuffed one and there was a good reason.
There have been articles recently in national newspapers about the proposed return of beavers to Wales, so Cowbridge U3A Natural History group was extremely fortunate in February to welcome Alicia Leow-Dyke, the Welsh Beaver Project officer, to give an illustrated presentation on the ‘Past, Present and Future of the Beaver in Wales’. The beaver was one of her exhibits.
The Eurasian beaver was once native to Britain, but Gerald Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) reported in 1188 that the only river in Wales to support beavers was the Teifi and even then there were few of them. The animal became extinct in the principality probably in the 15th century.
Indeed, by the late 19th century it is thought there were only about 1,200 remaining in Europe, in four isolated regions, as the animal was hunted for its warm, waterproof pelt, the castoreum from its scent glands (used in perfumes) and for meat (an adult in the wild can weigh 25kg).
The beaver is a herbivorous, territorial, monogamous creature, mainly active at dawn and dusk, well adapted to a semi- aquatic lifestyle, with eyes, ears and nostrils on the top of its head to facilitate swimming. The animal is, of course, well-known for its habit of felling trees, which is done for feeding or construction purposes.
Logs are used to build lodges, where the beavers live and breed, and, as these always have an underwater entrance as a predator-avoidance measure, dams are made to ensure water levels are kept suitably high. It is this practice that has led to beavers being called ‘ecosystem engineers’.
The dams, made of sticks and logs, can reduce the risk of flooding by creating pools which store rainwater, but being porous, only attenuate water flow rather than stop it completely. Similarly, streams can be prevented from drying out in hot summers (remember them?) through the formation of reservoirs.
The wetland areas created by damming provide ideal habitats for a range of wildlife from fungi and invertebrates to fish, mammals and birds. Beaver dams also trap sediment, which helps to filter the water and reduce the amount of pollution entering river systems.
It would also appear that more, and larger, migratory fish are found above beaver dams than had been the case prior to the construction of the barriers.
The felling of trees is a form of coppicing, as the trees usually regenerate, where woodland canopies along a riverbank are opened up to allow other plants to flourish.
The Welsh Beaver Project started in 2005 and since then it has been investigating the feasibility of reintroducing beavers back into Wales, using information gained from the study of animals already living wild in Scotland and Devon. Alicia has also visited Bavaria to see how the re-introduction of beavers there has been managed and their effect on the local ecology monitored.
An assessment of river systems identified six suitable sites in Wales, where habitat, topography, land use and absence of urban areas indicated a good environment for beaver release.
Wildlife Trust reserves, where a substantial human effort is already needed to manage birch and willow monocultures, offer an ideal opportunity to release beavers into areas already under ‘sympathetic’ ownership.
Of course, not everyone is in favour of the return of the largest rodent in the Northern Hemisphere, even if it was once indigenous to Great Britain, but control measures are possible. Where appropriate, wire mesh cages can be used to protect trees, fencing can restrict access to specific areas of woodland or pasture and, when constructed, dams can be modified or removed if necessary.
The Welsh Beaver Project is currently working with Natural Resources Wales with the aim of re-introducing beavers later in 2017, if approval is given.
If all goes to plan with the beaver release, Alicia has offered to travel back to Cowbridge from Llandrindod Wells in the future to give the group a presentation on beavers in the wild in Wales – the record attendance of February 2017 may well be surpassed for that talk!