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Beavers and Back Gardens


I went on a wet farm walk the other day with uber-enthusiast Derek Gow to see what the most recent arrivals were doing to the local landscape. The beavers had been busy, and in a good way. They were doing what they do in the headwaters of the River Frome, so not just helpful in terms of biodiversity gain but also protecting the good burghers of the town downstream from flooding.

It's Not Simple

The arguments about species re-introductions are complicated and well rehearsed. Even beavers, which seem such a clear win as herbivore ecosystem engineers, inflame passions. The hapless Therese Coffey is luke warm about re-introductions - but then she's luke warm about a lot of environmental initiatives. There are some which seem nuts to me (terrapins?!) but others which - on the face of it - make at least some sense. 

We're never going to get our woodlands to a reasonable condition unless we massively reduce our plague of grey squirrels, for example. There are an estimated 2.7 million in the UK. I can't overstate the damage these wretched animals create, to new and established plants. Our woodlands are in a terrible state and we must do all we can to improve them. And greys have some spiffy predators, only recently extinct or endangered here, which would do them no good at all.

Recent experience in Ireland and follow up work in Scotland suggests pine martens could do the trick. Not only will they wack the greys, but the more agile Red Squirrels have long ago learnt to be wary of them. Their numbers increase as the greys' reduce. Even with pine martens there are causes for concern though; they do like a squirrel but they're generalist predators, potentially scoffing other animals we'd like to encourage.

I was less enthusiastic about the wildcats I met in a breeding cage on the farm walk. They'd find a grey a tasty snack, for sure, but I'm not sure about their interactions with the local moggie community. It's said they scare domestic cats, which consequently reduce their hunting range (the ecology of fear). A good thing for wildlife, as they're said to kill something like 270 million animals a year in the UK. On the other hand, although wildcats have enormous territories and seem not to colonise urban areas, they do mate with our domestic friends. Not such a good thing for wildlife. Or maybe go the whole hog and re-introduce lynx, who would dispatch the deer which are nearly as troublesome as the grey squirrel. It's complicated, and I'm definitely not an expert on any of this.

Bottom Up And Top Down

Regular readers of this blog will know, though, that I tend to bang on more about the good we can do by re-engineering landscapes from the bottom up. Less charismatic megafauna and more everyday flora. Perhaps that's what you might expect from a purveyor of plants! There's room for both approaches; we should be evidence driven rather than ideological about this - and, after all, most of us can't fit a family of beavers into our back garden.  

Small Is Beautiful

Most renaturing efforts just aren't on the same scale that many rewilding enthusiasts are operating at, but that doesn't make them any less valuable. It's been a mantra for our business that well thought out interventions are really helpful however small they are. You can see the difference small projects - or even small changes in management - make, pretty much immediately. 

That's certainly been our experience personally too; thought and hard work have demonstrably added massively to the biodiversity at Habitat Aid HQ. We're a couple of acres in a green desert of dairy farms, but wildlife seems to find us. Together with our friends up the road we've established two stepping stones for nature, and nature seems to love them.

It's been hard to find scientific papers to back up this kind of observation though, which is why this one out last week - looking at exactly this issue - is such a zinger. Key findings:

  • Meta-analysis of small interventions shows the greatest impact on pollinators abundance happens at 432m².

  • Interventions on farms were also studied, the positive effect of these small interventions decrease over larger farm sizes.

The paper also makes the points about smaller interventions being relatively ignored, and being both more practical and easier to encourage wider uptake. In terms of the specifics discussed there's nothing in it I'd disagree with either, including the proper management of hedgerows to produce a fantastic resource for pollinators (and many other animals - Ed.).

While we continue to be disappointed by policy makers, let's get on with the stuff that makes a difference - whatever that might be.