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The return of the water engineers

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As landscape architects, we often work in large landscapes, sometimes preserving, sometimes restoring and sometimes transforming. With all the modern technology at our disposal, it is humbling to recognise that there is an animal that has been affecting landscape-scale, geological transformation for millions of years. It is the beaver, a creature that has a special place in Novell Tullett’s history.

As has been widely publicised, beavers have been reintroduced under licence in the UK in several protected locations including Devon, Dorset and Hampshire, while Defra has been holding public consultation with landowners on the expansion of the programme. The intention is for the herbivores and their breeding and resting places to have full legal protection from harm or disturbance.

There are naturally concerns expressed by some about what this means for the traditional English countryside. So it is with a jolt, that American environmentalist Ben Goldfarb** reminds us that we have lost our collective memory of our historic landscape shaped by the beaver, and only know and expect our familiar, ordered countryside. He challenges us to reawaken our imagination to visualise a more chaotic and dynamic landscape of meandering waterways, ponds and wetlands, lush vegetation and dead trees, redolent with wildlife.

That shifting wetland scene was familiar to our ancestors, until they hunted our native Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) to extinction in the 16th century for fur, meat and castoreum, an excretion from the scent gland used in perfumery and medicine. We lost what is termed a ‘keystone’ species, one which creates habitat that supports many other species. Beavers are capable of cutting down substantial trees to feed on their tender leaves, and they are strong enough to shift them to form metre-high dams to create pools for their refuges and underwater food stores.  These behaviours are important for their consequential benefits such as reduced flooding downstream, improved water quality from the filtration through vegetation and the boggy habitat of so-called ‘beaver meadows’, which supported birds, fish, plants, mammals and insects. A Finnish study in 2013 into carbon sequestration in beaver dams showed that inhabited dams retain more carbon than abandoned ones because water and damp soil inhibits the carbon-releasing decay of fallen timber*.

Back in 1995, Novell Tullett was commissioned to help with the restoration of the Old Loyalist Cemetery in the Canadian coastal city of St John in New Brunswick where the earliest European settlers were buried. At its centre was a new bronze fountain by the late British sculptor Michael Rizzello OBE, featuring the city emblem of four North American beavers building a lodge in a pool of flowing water, symbolising the spirit of hard work and innovation.

Image credit: Mariannika Lowell

It was funded by the Irving family in memory of KC Irving (1899-1992) who opened his first garage and service station in a backwoods town in 1924 and built it up into a national energy company with an HQ overlooking the memorial park. Today the beaver is more symbolic than ever of the fightback against climate change.

Beavers, or course, don’t wait for consultations and some have either been illegally released in the UK or have escaped as they have successfully bred and expanded their territory. It was therefore a secret pleasure for us to hear that a beaver has moved into a secluded English waterway we helped to design a decade ago. That new landscape was shaped with bulldozers but now the real water engineers are back and our beaver story has come full circle.

Key words: Beaver, eco-engineering, waterways, rewilding, beaver meadows, keystone species

* P NummiM VehkaojaJ Pumpanen… - Mammal Review, 2018

**Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb



Georgina Harvey

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Georgina Harvey

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