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Dirty Rivers

(Nearly) everyone loves a beaver. I have to say, I'm a big fan. They're such wonderful engineers, creating wetland habitat and reducing flood risk. So far as I understand, they're classic keystone species - making a disproportionately big impact on their ecosystem. They look cute too, of course, and have become the posterfauna (sure that's not a word but it should be) of the rewilding movement. 

But not all are convinced. Some landowners complain about tree damage. More curiously, several fishing organisations are very vocal about them on social media, complaining about introducing such effective "messy" predators into trout streams, for example. 

"More curiously", because you would think they had more to worry about. The impact of beavers on fish populations is as nothing compared to the appalling damage done to aquatic life by the disgusting state of our rivers. 

Rivers in Crisis

Raw sewage is now routinely pumped into the river system - as rainfall events become more severe this problem worsens as local sewage systems are overwhelmed. Run off from slurry, effluent and manure is getting worse and worse as the Environment Agency suffers from continuing funding cuts, soils degrade and extreme weather events become more common. Industrial farming - like the chicken farms in mid Wales - contributes to a hideous cocktail in the waters of once pristine rivers like the Wye and Usk.

There are no - or at best limited - incentives for water companies or farmers to improve their behaviour. And given the cuts in recent years, the chances of actually getting caught for this kind of thing are diminishingly tiny. And even if you are a water company that gets caught, you'll face a tiny fine.  

What Is It About Beavers?

All these issues are well known in conservation world. The main purpose of this blog, however, is to ask why beavers occupy so many more column inches in the real world than this story. Why are we so obsessed with beavers (and otters, incidentally) when we should all be much more excited about the appalling pollution of our freshwater habitats?

In many ways this story is entirely typical of lots of other conservation issues at the moment.

Beavers are portrayed in the general Press in a completely binary way. Beaver good, no beaver bad. Like lots of other charismatic megafauna we anthropomorphize beavers. They look cute, and how could they possibly do harm? People can also readily understand what benefits they bring. Beavers build dam. Bosh. Wetland habitat creation, flood mitigation, etc. It looks like a big win.

And it doesn't just look like a win, but a simple win. Like the wolves in Yosemite, re-introducing a single species will lead to a cascade of beneficial effects. This kind of re-introduction isn't just photogenic. It feels right, and has a powerful logic. It goes some way to absolving our guilt for driving the species to extinction in the first place. And yet...

Re-introductions are tricky, not least when you're trying to win over a local population with at least some reason to be deeply sceptical. You can't be quite sure what impact beavers will have. All this stuff is complicated. 

Fiddling While Rome Burns

And while we're getting excited about beavers, why aren't we doing something about water pollution? Why aren't we tackling this much bigger problem? The fishermen of the Frome shouldn't bother worrying about beavers when the water quality of the river is so poor all they'll be catching soon is old prams and sanitary towels.

These bigger issues are more complicated and less easy to grasp. Their answers are dull, bureaucratic and long term. And it's human nature to respond positively to an animal like a beaver, rather than being moved to action by a video of a river with raw sewage and condoms floating in it. This is what many would say; the key is to engage people with positive messages about environmental change, even if they're simplistic and even misleading. 

Honestly? I don't know what the answer is. I do know the state of our rivers is a national disgrace and that something needs doing about it NOW. How we excite the same degree of enthusiasm about this cause as we have about beavers is the challenge.