Guest blog: Nature’s Climate Rebels by Eva Bishop of the Beaver Trust

I work on climate, ecological and environmental issues, with a history in renewable energy and conservation.  But most things I do now are in response to the climate emergency; I want to help people and wildlife adapt because I believe things are going to get a lot worse, pretty quickly.  As a personal response I have an increasing interest in permaculture and horticulture (the practical applications of which are having varied results at home) and get outside on hills, in woodland or in water as much as possible.  I am slowly learning to embrace my childhood nickname, Eva Beaver.  Twitter: @evabishop

I can barely fully absorb the Australian catastrophe we witnessed from afar this winter, most painful of all the billion or more animals who were burned alive. A catastrophic and real time result of climate and ecological breakdown. That’s a term often used to add emphasis, but in this instance it is every bit the catastrophe and by no means the only one unfolding right now.

My passion for tackling the climate and ecological crisis has now spanned about fifteen years and I find myself shifting further along the spectrum of climate anxiety every week, as the scenarios for 2020 we talked of in 2005 unfold with greater speed and force than any scientist was able to predict or perhaps willing to admit.  But however bad it is today, it’s fairly guaranteed that you will soon look back fondly on the year 2019 as a relatively easier climate in which to live. The bottom line is this: not giving our all to drive adaptation and resilience is wasting these precious ‘practice years’.

So it is that I have joined the Beaver Trust, at its heart a group of people so passionate about helping turn around the ecological crisis that going to work actually gives me hope. Hope being sometimes hard to find in a world of rapid and permanent biodiversity losses, ‘insectageddon’, dangerously poor levels of soil quality, rates of rainforest destruction that are hard to comprehend.. and so on into the abyss.  Having spent decades undermining the complex web of life on Earth, we humans, the ‘hyperkeystone’, now have a monumental responsibility to restore nature, habitats, species and resilience of natural processes on which we will increasingly depend for our own survival.

Luckily for us there still exists this magnificent, stealth operator species, the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) that can accelerate nature’s recovery process, transforming landscapes literally overnight, and rapidly build some resilience to the impacts of climate breakdown across Britain if we, in the hyperkeystone role, let it back. But the controlling nature of our society makes us very wary of change and the island mentality (perhaps) in Britain leads to every square inch of land being overmanaged. So there’s a significant job to do reimagining how our river catchments might develop, particularly across farmland. We need to encourage a shift in mindset to allow nature space to recolonise riversides and reverse the downgrading, domino effect caused from seeing our rivers purely as drainage channels rather than a source of abundant life.

The Beaver Trust wants to support and help communities across Britain understand beavers and how to live alongside them again. We believe they are one of the fastest and most economic methods we have to restore the health of our rivers and streams. But we need to be able to discuss the pros and cons of beavers in a positive way in any setting. If we are to succeed with beavers tackling climate instability in Britain we need to be sharing knowledge, engaging experts and facilitating open discussion.

Beavers are a delightful creature to witness in the wild. They offer tangible reasons for hope that rebalancing depleted landscapes is possible. In this great video from the River Otter Beaver Trial, Mark Elliot of Devon Wildlife Trust demonstrates the beaver’s capacity to improve riparian habitat, reduce flood impacts and severity and create beautiful wetland habitat.

There is a slowly shifting perspective among the custodians of Britain’s land and waterways towards ecological restoration as a response to the climate crisis and depleted state of nature. People want to see positive change and be part of making it happen, but aren’t always sure where to start or able to give up land to rewild. So we need to help people understand how bringing beavers back might play out locally for them. We are taking our colleague Chris’s experience at the Cornwall Beaver Project and the lessons learned across Europe and the USA to show how beavers can be a force for good.

Best of all for me, as a parent, is the opportunity to inspire and engage our primary school children, that section of society brimming with hope and positivity even in this time of global crisis. With the beaver as a figurehead for positive change and adaptation, we are designing a schools education programme with talks, lesson plans, games, practical and hands-on learning tools and outdoor sessions aligned to the curriculum. Beaver sites offer an ideal outdoor classroom, a platform for exploring nature and the plethora of subjects relating to wetland ecosystems; keystone species, our place in nature, endangered species, pondlife, sediment and water flow and climate change.  Pertinent, given the importance of young people in drawing attention to climate change and the increasing likelihood of a Natural History GCSE soon becoming available.

Perspective and mindset change is a big part of this; children need to know what nature and our landscape could (and arguably should) look like, and it’s not what they see if they step outdoors today. What they see today has been downgraded over decades. The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82% and natural ecosystems have lost about half their area, according to a planetary health report by 450 scientists and diplomats last year. We need to help the next generation understand what they are facing and strive for constant improvement rather than accept the desertification of our farmland and riverscapes.  Freshwater shortages don’t have to become a climate crisis inevitability, but we persist in taking freshwater for granted in this country. Time to appreciate that the river network is one of the few existing corridors already connected across the UK, making the ideal nature recovery network and beavers the ideal nature recovery instrument.

It feels important to be part of the effort to bring back nature’s climate rebels and we want more people to join the movement. With enough support we can let them get on and build a foundation of resilience for wildlife and humans, and find something that brings hope through action.

For more information about the Beaver Trust – click here.

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20 Replies to “Guest blog: Nature’s Climate Rebels by Eva Bishop of the Beaver Trust”

  1. Inspirational blogpost Eva, but ...
    Exactly what damage has the climate done that the beavers are repairing? The main reason our environment is trashed is because we first chopped down all of the trees, we pulled out all the hedges, drained the land, cleared all the waterways and then threw chemicals all over the place. Not to mention carving up the landscape with impenetrable fences and roads. And we also release over 50 million alien gamebirds into the countryside every year with completely unknown consequences on everything else. If you removed all references to the climate from your otherwise excellent piece, it would help to focus attention on the real causes of our trashed environment. In the context of what you are talking about, the climate is irrelevant and just a distraction.

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    1. Thanks for these thoughts Dick, you're absolutely right of course about the myriad causes of our downgraded environment. But I think that climate breakdown is a lever to respond to these things; as a result of its impacts and the trajectory we face, it is waking some people up who have previously been able to ignore the issues you mention. The recent popularity of tree planting is a good example. With soil productivity in jeopardy, flood and drought escalating, species extinctions rocketing, climate breakdown is bringing people together towards systemic change (though clearly we must accelerate efforts to stop trashing the environment in the first place).

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      1. Thanks Eva,
        Just so it is clear, everything that you say about the great things that beavers do I heartily support and your blog was heart-warming in its enthusiasm. However, I dislike citing an irrelevant reason for solving a problem. One runs the risk of being accused of crying wolf. More trees, less flooding, richer habitats, fewer extinctions are all great. These problems have other causes than the climate. However, there is a large section of society and not a few politicians who are not signed up to, what Cameron called, 'all this Green Crap'. The problem is the Climate thing is conflated with all of the other abuses of our planet. How often do you see a list of problems trotted out with a gratuitous "...and climate change" tagged on the end. The net result is that, whether it is Trump, the Tory's or the Australian PM, when they chuck out climate change, they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Everything that environmentalists want gets chucked out. I would like to have Turtle Doves purring at the bottom of my garden and Spotted Flycatchers breeding in the front garden again - reducing CO2 emissions will not achieve that.
        By distracting everyone from all of the other issues, the environmental movement has become one of the biggest dangers to the planet.

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        1. The Amazon has essentially been reduced to something we need to fight climate change - Bolsonaro gets in office, says CC is crap and makes it easier for his chums to carve it up for cattle and soya at a time when the world wastes a third of its food. You're spot on, more people need to be standing up to this CC monomania which has wrecked the environmental movement and make life easier for Trump, Bolsonaro and their ilk.

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        2. By distracting everyone from all of the other issues, the Climate Cult has become one of the biggest dangers to the Environmental Movement.

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    2. Hi Dick. Our climate seems to be getting warmer and less stable. I think we observe more intense periods of rain, longer and deeper dry periods, colder weather too sometimes. Beavers can help us by holding more water in headwaters which has the effect of reducing downstream flood risk, reducing the impact of drought, by maintaining water levels and potentially limiting the spread of wildfire. the effects on bio diversity are also striking. I observe growing biodiversity and abundance of wildlife and cleaner water going out of their dams than is coming in. It is early days but there appears to be a role in carbon sequestration too. I never ignore other impacts like local flooding and tree cut to g but these are both manageable fairly simply.

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    3. No it isn't. Eva at no point suggests that the climate has done damage thatbeavers are repairing. What she does say is that beavers can and should be part of the response to climate change. You don't say it but I suspect you are irritated by the brigading of possible actions under a climate change heading. But Eva doesn't do that either: she says for example: "There is a slowly shifting perspective among the custodians of Britain’s land and waterways towards ecological restoration as a response to the climate crisis." and depleted state of nature. It's both/and not either/or.
      And I would add that if climate change is engaging more of the public in the issues than hitherto has concern for nature, then so be it. Why, to move to another place, should I in my contribution to the campaign against driven grouse shooting somehow ignore, despite its apparent resonance with the wider public, the level of carbon loss on grouse moors when there could be carbon sequestration?

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      1. For fourteen months my job was to talk to the British public about cutting both their fuel bills and carbon emissions - the only people who showed any interest in the latter were the more environmentally aware, I didn't get the impression CC campaigning was turning the public on to environmentalism in general and have to say I firmly believe the opposite. The impetus on everything from protecting rain forests to reducing packaging was lost when Global Warming was rebranded as Climate Change and became the foremost and often sole issue being pushed, even though it's only a byproduct of the others. I knew a time when even kids on rough council estates were showing interest in rain forests, sellers of tropical hardwoods were panicking, recycled toilet paper sales were on the up, population growth was receiving some intelligent scrutiny for a change etc, etc, etc. All that's been lost now to rather incessant screeching that we are all doomed because of increased atmospheric CO2. An awful lot of people have become pissed off at this and I don't blame them.

        If it's not one or the other then you better tell that to the environmental organisations. The second consecutive year I was about to propose a motion at the FoE Scotland AGM that it initiate a formal campaign against bad practice by 'sporting' estates a member of staff told me before hand that 'they didn't want to dilute existing campaigning' (that means the CC mantra). A complete hatchet job was duly delivered and the motion was defeated on what I consider was convoluted and contrived rubbish. That FoES eventually became a member of the Revive Coalition and has a new campaign fighting plastic are really only because it could no longer squirm out of doing them - but they were followers when they should have been leaders. If you look at FoES' pronouncements on grouse moors they are virtually 100% about carbon emissions. The organisation's membership has been dropping like a stone literally - not only in numbers, but it's aging too and legacies have at least once pulled it from dire financial straits. Not much sign of a growing public interest in CC there in what used to be the premier enviro org dealing with issues comprehensively - as they should be.

        Maybe just maybe people will act like mature responsible adults when they're treated like mature, responsible adults and that means trusting they have enough intelligence to deal with more than one concept i.e carbon emissions might be harmful. Other topics (the ones that lead to CO2 levels rising incidentally) such as reducing waste, saving forests, curbing population growth - and thereby poverty as well as environmental harm - green consumerism, preventing over fishing could become high profile topics within the public sphere too. Not pie in the sky, they once were and instead of building upon that it was effectively pissed against the wall by an environmental movement that went from genuine campaigning to marketing a 'cover all' brand. There aren't short cuts to turning the ship around and that includes kidding ourselves that prodding people with CC is a substitute for doing our job which is providing full information not marketing. A decade plus of little more than CC monomania has not stopped coal burning, drilling for oil and gas, tar sands or created a cultural shift towards driving smaller and more fuel efficient cars - it's definite 'achievement' has seen farmland and forest used to produce 'biofuels' for still acceptable gas guzzlers.

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    4. Beavers coppice, not cut down. Coppicing encourages fast regrowth, and stronger root structures; thus preserving riverbanks and helping to form more water retentive structures. The new green growth also helps take more carbon out of the atmosphere.

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      1. They also create pollards, some as high as seven foot in Scandinavia where firm snow lasting into early spring can be at least five foot deep. It's a puzzling sight when such woodsmanship is encountered by a first time traveler of the northern forests in the summer.
        Eva thanks for a great article. Go get more beguiling beavers for us soon please.

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  2. Superb and hopeful article Eva! It all boils down to this one question to put to the British public - What do you think is more important to be able to keep throwing a third of our food away or to reduce the flooding of homes, businesses and good quality farmland? It's hard to argue we can't in any way sacrifice food production for wildlife and reducing floods when we waste massive quantities of food on top of a national obesity crisis - and this is even before we discuss how eating less animal protein saves land for nature. There's just been a report from the Scottish Wild Beavers Group of an illegal beaver cull planned for the upper Tay catchment before the fishing season starts, this is being flagged up and hopefully more eyes looking for signs of wrongdoing will prevent it. When the presence of beavers on the Tay first became public the Scottish Gamekeepers (sic) Association with its typical generosity of spirit and deep love of our wildlife volunteered to have its members go out and kill them all. I'm so glad there's now a Beavers Trust it's needed. The beaver isn't just a fantastic keystone species, it's potentially a brilliant catalyst for raising interest in ecological restoration. We're hoping that a display mentioning beavers and the important role of dead wood in conservation and reducing flooding will be added to a local urban nature centre. The case for change on our grouse moors to reduce flooding by ending muirburn and restoring peat bogs is increased significantly by adding in complimentary tree planting and addition of dead wood to water courses to slow the flow. Of course the latter effect is amplified beautifully by the presence of the beaver. Plus with dammed water courses and damp riparian woodland this would create fantastic firebreaks on our currently tinderbox uplands. The rather desperate attempt to malign rewilding as an increased fire risk losses impact somewhat when beavers are brought into the discussion. Hopefully the benefits of bringing trees and beavers on to parts of the grouse moors will start to get more attention. Thanks for the article good start to the day!!

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    1. Les thanks for your kind words. I think you sum it up nicely with the beaver's potential for raising interest in ecological restoration. Of course flooding, farmland, food production and waste are not mutually exclusive, but part of a long list of things that need attention. It's important to keep all conversations open.

      On beaver wetlands as firebreaks, here are a couple of great articles and images of the 'lush green in burnt landscape' in case you haven't seen them already:
      1) by Joe Wheaton (Prof of Fluvial Geomorphology at Utah State Uni): https://www.martinezbeavers.org/wordpress/2018/09/23/telling-the-right-beaver-story/

      2) Pic of the "emerald refuge" https://blog.nwf.org/2018/10/beavers-water-and-fire-a-new-formula-for-success/

      and 3) a fun animation explainer:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAM94B73bzE&feature=youtu.be

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      1. Thanks for this - been looking through the beaver trust info and BINGO it does mention that we throw away 40% of our food, which really puts the non argument about conservation versus food production in context. I wish the other wildlife orgs did this! Should be a no brainer. So far I'm bloody impressed.

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  3. Brilliant, absolutely, more power to you, we’ve been talking and getting advice from the Cornwell Project, we are about 5 years away, maybe less if we push it.

    It makes such a nice change to have someone write about a species that should be here, instead of the usual cretins who see conservation solutions as a pill you take at night and all’s better in the morning and yes I’m writing about the Forestry twit and his ilk who wants to plant non-native conifers all over the place because they grow quickly.

    Climate change is inevitable as its part of the evolutionally soup the human race has created; every human on this plant daily contributes ingredients to that stock. We just don’t like to own up to the fact that we are the problem, so pseudo conservationist look for excuses, we establish a blame someone or something culture, and like most of the people who read this blog, it’s convenient to justify a conservation voyeurism from your computer screen, so they play a form of ‘conservation pass the parcel’ pastime, because writing about who’s to blame actually makes them feel as if they understand the problem and it’s a sight more easier than having anything to do about it.

    It’s coming up to seven years now since we have established this rewilding farm, and it’s my condemnation on just how few people within the conservation charities who want to get their hands dirty, unless you wave the cheque book in front of them.

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  4. I'd suggest the climate is anything but irrelevant - as a flooded member of the public remarked 'we seem to be getting an awful lot of 60 year storms' and on top of that it's been reported that traditional (ie heavy engineering) protection improvements in Sheffield increased flooding downstream - pretty obvious really, but we remain addicted to concrete pouring. Beavers are (superb) standard bearers for what we really must be doing (not should) which is using the landscape to absorb the flood - it's always interesting when people say 'protect houses and productive arable land' - the land is only arable because we are flooding the houses - it is arable because it's been drained (at great expense in the 50s-70s) and rushes the water off the land - into people's houses. We've removed more riverine woodland than any other natural woodland type - restoring floodable meadows and riverine woodlands, with Beaver assistance to slow the flood is crucial to absorbing what are likely to be ever greater extreme weather shocks.

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  5. There is little doubt that we need the benefits of Eurasian Beavers in OUR countryside given as wide a publicity drive as possible. Even the BBC gets its reporting on Beavers wrong, often quoting information about the American Beaver, a different species. Most of the "countryside community,"ie. the shooting and farming lobby groups and their sad hangers on( SGA, NGO etc) seem opposed to having beavers here. Then they too are fond of quoting misconceptions based on Castor canadensis, a cynic may even say this is deliberate misinformation. As part of restoring our wildlife and native habitats European Beaver is a keynote species as should be European Lynx. We cannot really restore ecological balance to our hopefully increased wild lands without the presence of top predators and the habitat modifying Beaver ( or Wild Boar). We also need a means of getting a grip of burgeoning deer numbers native and non-native if we are to increase and improve our woodlands and help a number of woodland bird species.
    It has always seemed strange to me that it is against the law ( quite rightly) to release from captivity or rehab Grey Squirrels but not alien deer species. DEFRA have spent and may still be spending a fortune on looking at ways of limiting Wild Boar ( a native)populations but have done absolutely nothing about Muntjac or Sika, both far more damaging to our environment.
    None of this of course has anything to do with climate change.

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  6. I like the thought of beavers coming back as part of our environment. But please let us not use them as a global warming message. I don't understand the science behind the arguments: man induced or part of a natural process (as was the ice ages) - forgive me, but I am a basically a birdwatcher who loves wildlife, but I do get worried when I hear things that are just not true. In the last three weeks on Radio 4 I heard (put simply) that plastics in the ocean are due to global warming and that the decline of birds in Britain is due to global warming. People jumping on a popular band wagon, I guess.
    I suggest that conservationists should concentrate more on the issues of the over-exploitation of our planet. In the UK intensive farming and the misuse of pesticides should be higher on the agenda.

    Going back to global warming, I once chaired two 'greening' committees (for two conservation organisations). Global warming was never mentioned - the concern was that we were not using our planet's recourses sustainably and with careful thought. That is the message I believe we should be pursuing. Don't let us take our eye off the ball.

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    1. Absolutely right Richard,
      Eliminating CO2 emissions has become the equivalent of blood-letting which 'cured' all ills for centuries. Please can we get everyone focussed on solutions to the real environmental problems that we face now.

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