... a walk along the River Otter
WE can’t fly anywhere and all our favourite places in Scotland are booked up into 2022, so it’s day trips for us this summer. When we read about guided walks to see beavers on the River Otter, we booked up for one immediately.
The best holiday we have ever had was with the specialist wildlife company Naturetrek – a voyage in a sailing boat around the islands of the Great Bear Rainforest off the coast of British Columbia. The aim was to see whales, orca, dolphins, bald eagles, a vast range of seabirds – and bears, particularly the rare ghost or spirit bear. We saw everything we could possibly wish for and learned so much from the boat’s crew and from our Naturetrek guide, Matt Collis.
So imagine our delight when we learned that the Naturetrek beaver walk was to be led by Matt, an ecologist who lives in Devon and knows the Otter catchment well.
There have been beavers on the Otter for some years, initially a well-kept local secret, latterly with the blessing of Natural England, but most importantly with the active support of the landowner and Devon Wildlife Trust. These herbivorous rodents are happily settled along the river, with several family groups in different lodges.
The walk took in an impressive weir, with both fish stairs and an eel ladder, an illustration of the diversity of life in this quiet Devon river. There were kingfishers, darting turbo-charged along the water, some otter spraint (but sadly no visible otters) and lots of moths, butterflies and other insects.
Alongside the river path there is a meadow, grazed by dairy cattle, with a shallow natural pond fed by a spring. The beavers have been seen crossing over to this water. A combination of their hard work, self-seeded willows and benign neglect should result in an interesting wetland area in years to come.
There are signs of beavers in many places along the river – chewed or felled trees, trampled Himalayan balsam (it may be an unwelcome invasive species, but beavers and pollinators like it and its natural sugars are an energy boost for the creatures that eat it), an almost-hidden dam beneath brambles and concealed lodges home not only to the mother beaver and this year’s kits but further along to the one-year old kits and further again their two-year old siblings.
The female beaver works non-stop (when she isn’t eating). Surprisingly big (she is more than three feet long including her tail), she glides silently up and down the stream, bringing small branches back to the lodge, and gathering young willow shoots. She sits on the bank, almost invisible under the leaf cover, chewing contentedly on the fresh willow, making a distinctive little chomping sound.
There is still some hostility to the return of beavers to British rivers, after several centuries of absence. The opposition is mostly based on ignorance – beavers are herbivores, so they do not take fish (unlike otters which are apex predators) and indeed help to improve conditions for fish and other river creatures.
Human greed – for their fur and the oil from their tails – drove beavers to extinction in England and most of Europe. They survived only in remote wilderness areas. Their return over recent years is partly due to enlightened landowners and latterly to the National Trust.
They are valuable for the ecology of a river catchment, creating habitats that benefit many creatures and plants. Their dams help to slow the flow of water, and this in turn helps to reduce erosion and the risk of flooding. Water sinks into the ground, replenishes the water table, and increases riparian vegetation.
Beavers improve water quality and establish and maintain wetlands. They can also help to restore the original braided paths of rivers which have been channelled by man and agriculture into fast-running watercourses that are often polluted with herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and nitrate run-off.
They are also beautiful, gentle animals, unbothered by humans who sit quietly on the riverbank watching them. It is hard to imagine a more peaceful and therapeutic way to spend a summer evening.