Drone shots show how beavers are defying Devon drought

As drought is officially declared in the South West, a network of dams built by beavers in East Devon is showing how the enterprising mammals could help in the fight against climate change.

New drone photography has revealed how the beavers’ construction activities have helped to maintain an area of wetland that they’ve created on farmland, despite the UK experiencing one of its hottest and driest summers on record.

While the surrounding countryside shows the effects of the tinder dry conditions, a one hectare area of land owned and farmed by Clinton Devon Estates, can be seen underwater.

There are a number of beaver families living on the Lower Otter catchment. They were the subject of the successful River Otter Beaver Trial, which the Estate was involved with in partnership with the Devon Wildlife Trust and Exeter University.

The major five-year study explored the impacts of beavers on the British countryside. It concluded in 2020 that they can bring measurable benefits to people and wildlife through flood alleviation and their ability to ‘clean’ water supplies. They were also found to help boost numbers of fish and amphibians. As a result, it was agreed the beavers could stay.

East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Ranger Ed Lagdon said: “It’s quite incredible to see this area, when the conditions have been so challenging in recent weeks. Beavers are very territorial and as the Lower Otter is near full capacity, beaver families will explore nearby tributaries and culverts to find small areas of wetland to settle. They feel safe in water, so will seek a water source and that’s likely to be why this family chose this particular area.

“It’s when they come away from the river in this way that they can have more of an impact on their surroundings – they will change the environment around them and manipulate the conditions to suit them. In this location the beavers have used sticks and mud to create several dams which are now holding back large volumes of water.”

“The water is up to two feet in some areas and is fantastic for wildlife such as birds and invertebrates. It also brings flood prevention benefits and carbon capture within the wetland.”

However, despite the many ecological benefits they bring, these new images also highlight the challenges beavers can create for land managers.

Clinton Devon Estates’ Head of Agriculture, Sam Briant-Evans, explained: “It’s been quite surprising to see how quickly they’ve worked, it’s taken less than six months. We’ve lost about two hectares of the field as a grazing platform for our dairy herd – one hectare of this is now permanently underwater. It was May this year before we were able to get the cattle onto it.

“The concern we have is if we move them on, they may move upstream again which could cause issues if they are closer to the main farm. It’s a bit of a conundrum for us as an Estate as we can see both sides of the equation. We need to accept that the beavers are there but they need to be closely monitored and managed going forward, so their activities and any potential flood issues can be monitored and we can tackle it quickly.

“There’s no clear solution. However, what this does highlight is that with the right management and by working with them, they can help in the adaptation to climate change.”

It’s a pivotal time for the mammals as new government legislation comes into force on October 1st, which will see beavers given legal protection as a recognised native species in England, meaning it will be illegal to disturb, harm or kill them.

This follows a government consultation last year on the future of beavers in England. It was a development welcomed by the Estate, which shared its experiences with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

John Varley, Clinton Devon Estates Director, said: “In the right place, beavers can bring about major benefits for wildlife, the environment and society, including increased biodiversity, which is a key aim of the Government’s Nature Recovery Network.

“Clinton Devon Estates supported the River Otter Beaver Trial from the beginning because we wanted to understand the full impact of beavers in a real-world setting. During the project we learnt a great deal about these benefits, such as cleaner water, natural flood management and habitat creation.

“However, we have also witnessed negative impacts when beavers are in the wrong place: farmers’ fields, private property and roads flooded, as well as trees damaged.   

“As the beaver population on the River Otter grew and expanded, so did the need for proactive management, and all the costs associated with that. We believe that if properly funded by Government, the cost of managing beavers is far outweighed by the social and economic benefits to nature and the public.”