Beaver Training with Derek Gow

As the release of the beavers at Willington, in the Trent Valley, gets closer, a small group of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust employees and volunteers have been lucky enough to receive beaver training from the legendary Derek Gow. Funded by Biffa Award who have greatly supported the beaver release project in Derbyshire alongside Severn Trent Water and the amazing public and businesses who have contributed to the crowd funder campaign.

As the release of the beavers at Willington, in the Trent Valley, gets closer, a small group of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust employees and volunteers have been lucky enough to receive beaver training from the legendary Derek Gow.  Funded by Biffa Award who have greatly supported the beaver release project in Derbyshire alongside Severn Trent Water and the amazing public and businesses who have contributed to the crowd funder campaign.

Derek Gow is a formidable rewilding expert, whose efforts in water vole and beaver releases have placed him solidly in the hearts of many conservationists. Often referred to as the guerrilla rewilder in the press, Derek has a no-nonsense approach to rewilding.  With projects of his having included water vole and beaver reintroductions, as well as breeding wild cats and storks.

Derek has been working with water voles since the 1990s and runs a specialist water vole consultancy, it was through his work with water voles and restoring wetland environments that he noticed a vital keystone species missing from British wetlands, the beaver. He has since been an important advocate for the reintroduction of beavers in Britain as part of an attempt to improve wetlands and increase biodiversity.

He is the author of “Bringing back the beaver” the story of one mans quest to rewild Britain’s waterways, released in September 2020. A brilliantly written book, that incorporates many of Derek’s stories from the last 25 years related to beaver projects across the country. 

As part of his ongoing rewilding work, Derek owns and runs a farm in the Devon countryside, originally a sheep farm, Derek and his team have gradually turned it into a rewilding oasis.

Nestled in the twisting lanes of Devon there is an unassuming farm but look a little closer and you’ll realize the livestock roaming the fields isn’t your usual cattle. Derek’s farm is home to an astounding range of animals, including Exmoor ponies, heck cattle and wild boar, and that’s before you notice the pens which are home to wild cats, or visit the farmyard. 

Wild boar

(C) Andy Rouse/2020VISION

Having arrived late on Sunday evening, ready for a wild camping experience, I was pleasantly surprised by the luxurious composting toilet and warm showers on site. Once it was dark it was easier to understand that the “wild” in the camping referred more to our surrounds, with sounds reminiscent of Jurassic park filling the air. Foxes, wild boar and tawny owls adding to a cacophony of noise, heightening the senses and allowing us to imagine how our ancestors would have heard and perceived their environment. Our rewilding experience had truly begun. 

Monday morning was our first opportunity to experience the environments created by wild beavers. 

Following an al fresco breakfast we met Derek ready for a day of walking, training, and most importantly, beavers, made possible thanks to the Biffa Award.

We were able to visit 2 different beaver habitats during the day, the first was Devon’s wild beaver population. We marveled at the environment created by these habitat engineers. Dams created by the beaver families on site provided pools and streams, holding water in the land around us, where various species were thriving, including birds attracted by the increased insect population (In the evening bats would also take advantage of the abundance of insects available). I was lucky enough to see a kingfisher also enjoying a successful fishing trip through the pools too.

Derek discussed with us the range of benefits beavers can provide to the wider ecological environment and was extremely positive about the habitat created, providing additional resources for amphibians, reptiles, birds and other mammals.

A wide range of vegetation had taken up residence, we noted there wasn’t a spot of Himalayan balsam in sight, and the “management” of the riparian corridor, was something we could only dream of reproducing using tools and management plans. The beavers really knew their stuff. 

We walked through the territories of the resident beaver families, whilst Derek explained how the beavers worked together, how they marked their territories and benefitted the environment around them.

Beaver

(C) Shutterstock

Fish jumped, deer stalked through the woodland behind us, all while we inspected beaver felled trees, providing deadwood refuge for spawning fish and invertebrates, and looked for further signs of beaver activity.

Derek shared his knowledge freely with us, allowing the habitat features around us to enhance his explanations, provide examples and allow us to picture how Willington could develop in the future. 

Following lunch in the barn, we had a short drive through the lanes to a beaver enclosure on a neighboring farm. Here we were shown around by both Derek and the landowner. We meandered our way through the canals created by the beavers, viewing their lodge and feeding stations, finding sticks decorated with beaver tooth marks and their trademark 45-degree eating angle. Derek explained family dynamics and use of the enclosed space by the family, as well as aspects of the site that would be both similar and different to what we could expect to develop at Willington. 

We had the opportunity to discuss opportunities for other species, such as wading birds, and were given the chance to ask questions about the beavers and the enclosure. Bursting with information, we headed back to the camp site, with the offer of beaver watching that evening. Obviously, we couldn’t say no!

A quick snack, gathering equipment and a short walk down the lane, and we were ready for an evening of beaver watching. Awed silence fell over the group when George pointed out a yearling beaver swimming and snacking in the pool in front of us. We scrambled round for a better view, and there were not 1 but 2 beavers enjoying an evening swim and snack. I could not tell you how long passed; we were mesmerized by these amazing creatures just going about their business. 

Whilst watching the beavers we were able to take in the wider landscape around us, a herd of sika deer appeared behind us, enjoying the long grasses of the enclosures on the farm. Eurasian cranes were also out in the evening sun.

Sika deer

(C) Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Tuesday was a classroom day, with us based on the farm. Derek went through the history of beavers in Britain, as well as their ecology and biology. He also went through elements of the reintroduction and how we could get the best out of our beavers. 

Out in the yard we were able to get our hands on beaver traps and travel crates, giving us a firsthand experience of how to trap set in order to catch our beavers, should we need to for health checks or movement in the future. 

Derek showed us round the beaver holding pens and went through his top tips for looking after them inside, and general health and husbandry for the species. 

While on the farm for the day we were also able to discuss rewilding in general, tap into Derek’s extensive knowledge and understanding of rewilding in Britain, and see many of the other species Derek works with, including water voles, storks and owls. 

Another evening of beaver watching, wild beavers this time, was offered and readily taken up…

I think I can safely say we all left Derek’s farm feeling inspired, not just ready for the beavers to arrive at Willington, but inspired for the rewilding opportunities in the future and how we can create a wilder Derbyshire.

Written by Debi Gibson, Living Rivers Officer.