“I have no desire to become a hat”
I am beaver! If nature’s furry engineers could talk
A beaver with connections from Devon to Argentina interviews top ‘human’ ecologists and guerilla rewilders – in an animal tale like no otter
“I’m an engineer. A mother. An organiser. My dam-building technology is unrivalled. I snuck onto the River Otter in Devon over a decade ago. Until the humans finally caught on to our presence, my husband and I had been left to get on with our important work for a number of years.
We sourced only the finest natural materials – local sticks and heritage stones – to create our handcrafted dams, using our forepaws to pack the materials together. We started a family. In the year 2014 of the human calendar, all this was threatened. We’d been rumbled. Some photographer had caught our offspring on camera.
Rumours flew around the human media about where we’d come from. Did we escape from a zoo? Were we deliberately released into the wild? I overheard talk on the riverbank – the human leaders were going to take us away. We might be put in a zoo. We might be killed.
But there were humans on our side – The Devon Wildlife Trust for starters. Instead, they proposed that we should stay while they studied us. The human leaders agreed. We would be given a five year reprieve. Those five years have passed, and we are still here.
The humans hunted my ancestors to extinction. So now, I’m intrigued to see how they plan to live alongside us in our once native home. Just why do humans want to bring back beavers?
The Great Escape
To begin my research, I caught up with Steve Hussey, who works in communications for the Devon Wildlife Trust. Steve and I go way back. I asked him about the moment we were discovered on the River Otter (a ridiculous name that I must petition to change).
“That was the most significant moment, because that told us that we’d got the first breeding population. And that was the first breeding population in England, probably for at least 400 years,” Hussey said.
The humans’ Department of Environmental, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) eventually agreed to a trial, but with stringent conditions.
Before we knew it, we’d been rounded up for testing. DEFRA wanted to be sure we were Eurasion beavers, and that we were free of disease. I recall being tricked with carrots and apples – irresistible to this day. We spent three weeks in a field hospital, being prodded and poked, slipping in and out of consciousness. At the risk of gloating, one vet said we were the biggest, fattest, healthiest beavers they’d ever seen. We passed all their tests, of course.
For the next five years, Hussey told me, the Wildlife Trust (along with independent scientists) gathered evidence on our impact on humans, local agriculture and wildlife. Would we cause friction? Would we chop down all the farmers’ trees? Would we destroy habitat for other animals? Incidentally, I have noticed wire guards around some excellent specimens of apple trees. I must put my mind to liberating them.
We largely ignored their study to focus on the more important task of creating the perfect habitat. The careful curation of materials, the precise architecture of our lodges, the craftsmanship of our dams. Nonetheless, it seems we met the humans’ requirements. DEFRA let us stay.
“Personally, I was euphoric,” Hussey said.
We, of course, already knew of our talents. It was a relief that the humans recognised them too.
Now, there are at least twenty groups of my extended family. Some of my grandchildren and great grandchildren are local celebrities, attracting riverside visitors every evening as they start their days. The humans say it helps their tourism. They gawp at us like they’ve never seen a 20kg furry engineer running a tight-knit firm of skilled tradesfolk before.
Our skills are passed down from generation to generation. Other species would simply die out should they not have what they need. But we beavers are resourceful. If the water is not deep enough, we make it so.
“Beavers are one of the only wildlife species that can shape the landscape around them to fit their own needs,” Hussey said. “They can create the landscape that they want around them by building dams, and creating localised wetlands.”
An intuitive human. This is exactly what we’ve been doing on the River Otter and its tributaries.
“Over the last 100 years, one of the biggest habitat declines that we’ve seen in our landscape has been wetlands. Beavers are recreating those spaces,” Hussey said. Our wetland projects help frogs, toads, and insects. They encourage wetland birds. Some might even call us heroes.
“Beavers are not doing this to be friendly and helpful to other animals. They’re just doing it because it suits their own ends,” Hussey said.
This is correct. We’re not here to help humans. But they’re in a mess and we can go some way to sorting it out before they completely wreck the place. Take our world-renowned flood mitigation systems. Where rainfall is now heavier, where rivers thunder through human towns and cities, our network of dams slow the flow. That’s exactly what we did in a human settlement in Devon called East Budleigh.
Our top-quality dams also trap a lot of silt, and all the absolute rubbish that humans are putting into the land. We trap carbon in the landscape too. But we’re a small team on the River Otter, and if the humans want to reap the rewards of our incredible talents, they need to welcome us in greater numbers.
“My fear would be that we would be too slow and too cautious in the way in which we look to reintroduce beavers,” Hussey said. “Our natural world is on its knees. Beavers can help us with that.”
Our natural world is on its knees. Beavers can help us with that.
Some say I’m a star of the beaver world. Many of my friends from other nations have also led high profile existences, but none more so than my Bavarian cousin, who was involved in an international scandal. I watched it all unfold on her Instadam stories. She had a close call with an angry farmer, who was fed up with the beaver population explosion, but at the last moment she was drafted into a European relocation scheme. She now runs a tight team of architects in Hungary.
There’s been a similar story in Mongolia, where the humans needed special engineers to restore the Tuul river. Unloved and unwanted, my fellow beavers from Russia and Germany were called upon to solve the problem.
In Scotland, my relatives are wild. But they’ve faced a tough time. Many of my Scottish colleagues have been shot on private land for being too abundant, rather than being moved onto a new home as some have been in mainland Europe. While the humans fight with themselves about whether culling is legal or moral, we continue with our important work.
Bringing back the beaver
“Beavers are the architects of life,” he told me, perhaps to butter me up. “They are creatures that through their behaviour – through the felling of trees, through the building of dams, through the creation of canals – sculpt environments, which are a rich opportunity for other species.”
We talked about last summer, when we were granted permission to stay in Devon.
“It’s good that we’ve got to this, but it’s been far too slow,” Gow said. “It’s been made way too difficult right here right now, by narrow-minded bureaucrats who do not want to see us move swiftly.”
Beavers are the architects of life.Derek Gow
Gow is clearly fed up with bureaucracy – something that we beavers do not tolerate. If a dam is broken, we fix it. The human construct of filling out forms sounds tedious. Gow tells me about how a potential beaver trial in London is engulfed in endless consultations.
The human leaders are now consulting on whether to allow us across the whole country. Gow fears it will be too cautious, and therefore slow. Everything the humans already need to know about us, Gow said, they have learnt from my European and North American relatives. They’ll manage interventions where they need to (like those apple tree prisons I presume), but most people will never meet us.
“We are near the last Western European state to reintroduce this animal,” Gow said. “It’s been returned to every other European state barring the Vatican City, and at the rate that we are taking with regard to this restoration, it’s going to sneak in past the Swiss Guards and be flopping around in a font in front of the Pope, before we get to us taking any action that is decisive and clear.”
My global colleagues
We beavers are not the only creatures being reintroduced by humans. Take my esteemed colleagues in Argentina, the giant anteaters. They’ve collaborated with the humans at conservation organisations, Tompkins Conservation and Fundación Rewilding Argentina, to repopulate their homeland in Corrientes, from where they’ve been missing for around 70 human years.
The humans find orphaned anteaters, bottle feed them, and raise them until they’re ready to be released into Iberá Park. In their annual family newsletter back in 2009, an anteater friend announced that she had given birth to the first wild anteater born in those grasslands since the reintroduction. Since then, she’s sent us picture after picture of babies, nieces, nephews and grandbabies.
I spoke to biologist Talía Zamboni from Fundación Rewilding Argentina, who is the conservation coordinator of the Iberá Project. She told me about the great work anteaters are doing.
“As ant and termite predators, anteaters have an effect controlling the population of these insects, which in turn have an impact on vegetation,” Zamboni said.
The anteaters seem to be getting on well with the humans – unless their canine pets are involved. That only leads to trouble.
I should probably mention wolves, seeing as they’re members of the Keystone Species Society along with beavers (meaning we both have a disproportionately large impact on our environments). In Portugal, the humans are working with Iberian wolves through Rewilding Portugal, a nonprofit nature conservation organisation. If you ask me, the last thing we need is more wolves, but I suppose it makes for an interesting case study.
The populations south of the Douro river are at risk and the humans are doing everything they can to support them – educating about positive aspects of wolves (Big ears? Big eyes? Big teeth?), reducing poaching and increasing their prey (deer apparently, not beavers). As long as the wolves don’t hop on a flight to Heathrow, it’s an interesting project worth following.
Facing the future
“The humans are now consulting on whether we beavers (a native species offering free labour), can spread out across this country. Meanwhile, we are continuing our work as nature’s engineers – in Devon for now, but perhaps across more of England in the future.
These land-dwelling folk are still learning how to collaborate with us, and we are cautious. We are sure we can work side by side. But we know what’s happened in the past, and we do not want to find ourselves reliving history.
I have no desire to become a hat. We are building our own beautiful homes, in land that is as much ours as it is theirs.
I have no desire to become a hat.
What’s so good about this?
Can we live side by side with our furry architect friends? If native species like beavers are re-welcomed to their homelands, entire ecosystems could change – for the better.
We’re scratching our heads trying to solve the climate crisis. What if part (but of course, not all) of the answer lies in nature itself? Groups like The Wildlife Trusts, Rewilding Europe and Rewilding Argentina are forging ahead with this work, but they need the public to speak out for nature, to support their campaigns and to create welcoming environments for creatures with every right to share our world. We can all do things to improve our environment.
Perhaps we’re all a little bit beaver.
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.