Meet the man bringing beavers to north Essex after a 400-year absence
PUBLISHED: 09:37 22 December 2018 | UPDATED: 11:59 24 December 2018
Hopes the semi-aquatic mammal will help slow floodwaters in Finchingfield.
The wood is nothing out of the ordinary.
A thicket of poplar, ash and hazel trees with cricket bat willows dotted throughout; the low-lying ground damp and criss-crossed with fallen trunks whose roots have struggled to secure a firm footing in the moist soil.
But this site in north Essex is soon to be the location of an exciting and pioneering natural flood management project that will see beavers re-introduced to the region early in the new year, after an absence of over 400 years.
The four-hectare plot is a small section of the Spains Hall Estate on the outskirts of the picturesque village of Finchingfield, where the large duck pond in the centre of the green floods in dramatic fashion from time to time. The last major inundation in 2014 saw the pond quadruple in size, expanding to within inches of the Fox pub and even prompting one local to try and surf it with his boogie board.
Improving river systems
The estate is a family-run business, which Archie Ruggles-Brise has managed for more than a decade alongside his main career working for the Rivers Trust - a group of charities involved in land management projects aimed at improving river systems for both people and wildlife.
As such, Archie has been exposed to the idea of natural flood management for many years - soft, small-scale engineering schemes placed in the headwaters of river catchments designed to ‘slow the flow’ of water running into built-up areas. This can take the form of tree-planting, building leaky dams such as laying fallen trees across water courses and reconnecting rivers to natural flood plains. Beavers and their ability to build dams have also been used in several pilot schemes around the country.
Additional benefits of the natural flood management approach are that schemes tend to be inexpensive to implement and also help to create new habitats for wildlife, as water is held up in small ponds and meanders, and trees and dams offer shade and shelter to fish and invertebrates.
Archie can remember the exact moment when all these themes came together to form one light bulb moment
“I was sat in a meeting with a colleague from Essex Wildlife Trust who showed us some work that had been carried out in Devon where they had kept beavers in an enclosure,” he said.
“As a result of the beavers’ activity, they had taken some wonderful measurements - there was more water, more dams, more wildlife, cleaner water and less flood peaks.
“It just clicked, I have some woodland that is on a river, that is upstream of Finchingfield, and is absolutely ideal for this type of thing. We started talking and just over a year later here we are.”
Since this epiphany, Archie has worked with partners: the Environment Agency, the Essex & Suffolk Rivers Trust and Essex Wildlife Trust, and secured funding from the Anglian Eastern Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC) to set up the project. The plan is for a pair of beavers to be enclosed within the woodland, and work on the fences and pipes, designed to keep the beavers in and allow the water to flow through, is expected to start after Christmas, with a view to the semi-aquatic mammals arriving within the first months of 2019.
The beavers earmarked for Essex are Eurasian beavers, which have been captive-bred in the UK. The species was once widespread throughout Britain before they were hunted to extinction by the beginning of the 16th Century for their meat, fur and scent glands.
A number of beaver reintroduction projects have taken place in Scotland since 2001 while earlier this year a pair were released into the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, an event attended by Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
“Beavers are a keystone species – they change the way the rest of the ecosystem revolves around them,” continued Archie.
“They will create more standing water in the woodland - they are going to fell trees to create dams but also to eat, letting more light into the woodland. If the examples of other projects are to go by, we’ll get more amphibians, more butterflies, more birds and more predatory species like red kites and buzzards.
“At this stage we don’t know exactly what we will get but we will do our damndest to measure it.”
But it’s not just the beavers that are exciting Archie. A second tributary, which also runs through the Spains Hall Estate into Finchingfield, will have man-made log dams installed to see how this approach compares with the use of beavers. The hope is that by holding up the water in these two brooks, that water gushing from other sources into Finchingfield at times of high rainfall will have passed before the extra water arrives from the direction of Spains Hall.
“We’ve two branches of the river on our land and I’m interested to test man-made versus beaver made,” said Archie.
“We will monitor both tributaries to help us determine which one works best at which thing, for example, which approach will result in cleaner water.
“The man –made dams will hold the water for a period of time but are designed to let the water flow out again - they are much more dynamic whereas the beavers will hold the water up longer. But the beaver dams are porous, meaning they will hold water up in the winter and release it slowly in the summer - an important function if you consider the summer we have just had.
“Up until the last month or so, we have had virtually no water in the landscape - all the ditches and ponds have been drying up.”
The project has been “overwhelmingly supported” by local people, according to Archie who presented the plans to a meeting of 80 people in Finchingfield village hall last month.
“People are very interested and captured by the idea of the beavers,” he said.
“I’ve had numerous people ask me if they can bring school groups out when the beavers are established - that will be something we will try to do.
“People are understandably concerned about flooding and we’ve been open with them that this is a flood reduction project, not a flood relief project. We cannot guarantee that no-one will be flooded because we have these things in the landscape.
“Having your property flooded is one of the most traumatic experiences you can have. We are going to try and slow the water up a bit, to give people more time to prepare and hopefully let other volumes of water go through Finchingfield.”
A webcam has been set up to allow people to follow the progress of the beavers when they arrive - visit www.spainshallestate.co.uk