charles rangeley-wilson – writing about fishing, travel, rivers, conservation

Beavers, Anglers and Unhelpful Headlines

I had heard about yesterday’s article in The Times from several sources before I’d even had a chance to read it myself. What a very unfortunate article and headline, indicative of how divisive this debate will become in a hurry if both sides don’t get their heads together.

We can do our bit as anglers (I’m a passionate angler and river lover) to sign up to a vision for wilder chalk rivers, but that will be made much harder if we are pushed. It’s worth remembering that many anglers have been signed up to this vision for thirty or more years and in that time have done most of the heavy lifting.

There wouldn’t be a River Piddle but for Richard Slocock’s pioneering efforts to do something about the massive over abstraction of the river in the late 1980s. It was Richard who founded the Wild Trout Trust with me, in the mid 1990s, in direct response to the legacy of dredging and over abstraction that had almost destroyed our chalk streams. Stocking and ersatz fishery management were much more of a symptom than they ever were a cause.

The West Country Rivers Trust, The Wye and Usk Foundation, The Tweed Foundation: these were the organizations driving river conservation in the early days and – just like the Wild Trout Trust – they were all founded by and largely supported by anglers.

What is going on now has a whiff of annexation about it, with anglers being portrayed (and stitched up in the case of this article) as stubbornly resisting a vision for a wilder countryside, one that they very largely shepherded through thirty years or more of no one else listening or giving a damn. Even now I still get told that there’s no clear link between abstraction and ecological health in chalk streams!

It is also worth remembering too that there are lots of endangered species in our chalk streams which are not yet extinct, but are getting close. But who cares about the eel, and the salmon? Neither of these fish can live at all in a dry chalk stream, or very well in a polluted chalk stream. In Dorset, much of this beaver drive relates to cutting nutrient levels in Poole Harbour. Hmm. I don’t know, but I suspect sewage treatment works may have something to do with that, not least the one at Toller Porcorum, in the same catchment as this beaver release site, an STW that doesn’t remove phosphate in a waterbody that is failing its WFD phosphate status. The Wraxall Brook, over the hill, does not have an STW and weirdly enough, its status for phosphate is “good”.

Richard is right, there is a touch of Beatrix Potter about the beaver narrative. The Wildlife Trusts do use this narrative to sell themselves and to drive membership numbers. But it could well backfire.

As much as some anglers might not get the full picture of the biodiversity beavers could add in certain parts of our river systems, many of the general public seduced into thinking beavers are some kind of riverscape silver bullet won’t get that it’s not as simple as all that either. 

They won’t get that a beaver pond on a channel that has intact gravel bed and good lateral connectivity in a broadly uncultivated floodplain is a very different thing to a beaver pond in an incised, dredged river with no lateral connectivity in an otherwise cultivated floodplain. But many miles of our chalk streams are much more the latter, than the former. 

I accept that left to their own devices beavers would modify these latter systems too, if man left them alone and stopped using the floodplain, and if we waited a hundred years or so for the result: they might well push the river channels off on to a different courses where they would find gravel again and rebuild themselves in more interesting ways. But the interim phases of that evolution would be totally and disastrously unacceptable to many people.

It will only take a few untimely, early iterations of the latter to turn the whole thing into a culture war.

What I’m not hearing at the mo are genuinely convincing ideas about how we will control where beavers set up camp. I can think of hundreds of chalk streams and reaches of chalk streams where beavers would provoke no resistance whatsoever. 

But we have to be honest here: the pro-beaver lobby is expecting chalk stream anglers and fishery owners to step aside and allow the assets in their stewardship (for better or worse, but in any reasonable person’s mind with a sober look at what the alternatives might have been, largely for the better) to be re-engineered in a way that will hugely impact their passion and in some cases livelihoods, and all based on a few statements like “it will improve the fishing” and “you can put wire around the trees” and “you don’t understand rivers”.

More convincing ideas need to come – loud and clear – from the pro-beaver lobby. If they do, I like to think that most anglers will be very happy to find space and places for beavers. But right now those ideas are absent or unconvincing. 

And it would be a disaster if the beaver controversy were to sideline what we could and should be doing together anyway. The system engineering and biodiversity gains that beavers offer can very largely be imitated by man, with the advantage that man can control what happens, where and in what order. We have utterly knackered our rivers. It’s nice to think an industrious rodent could undo all our carelessness, but that would be wishful thinking and apart from anything else, irresponsible.

If our chalk streams get pickled into their incised coffins by protected beaver habitat and protected beavers and we have to wait decades or more for the far end of that process to manifest itself in a way that ALL stakeholders can appreciate, then we will have scored a massive own goal.

I get that purist ecologists and hydromorphologists will not be bothered by that scenario, but they must appreciate that a very large number of people who could and should be their allies, will be.

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