Sunday, 28 July 2019


This is the second attempt at writing this - my internet did something funny and did not save the original! Not impressed)

Every child knows what a beaver is - with that big flat tail and those endearingly goofy and readily caricatureised incisors it is an easily recognisable and friendly creature. Sadly while they may be recognised, they could not have been seen in the UK until relatively recently. They have been absent from our shores for centuries having been hunted to extinction. They persisted in continental Europe and in North America too but even in these far less populous areas they suffered dramatically from hunting pressure.

Beavers are a fascinating animal. Experts far more knowledgeable and qualified than me have written about their value and importance as 'ecosystem engineers' and a 'keystone species'. This video about their return to Yellowstone was one which I enjoyed. Give yourself some time to Google 'Beaver Reintroduction' and enjoy the reading.

As with any reintroduction of a large mammal there are two sides to the story and not everyone is keen to see them back. Beavers perhaps even more so because of their ability and tendency to build dams (which raise water levels) and fell trees. This fundamentally changes the immediate environment around where they live and if your livelihood is linked to dry ground or trees there is a genuine economic concern there. All of this debate is fascinating and interesting and I hope to be able to take a greater part in it in the future but that isn't really what this blog post is about. This is about my trip to visit the River Otter Beaver Trial in Devon.

I've followed, if not closely then at least with great interest, the various Beaver Trials across the UK looking at the potential for re-introducing Beavers to the UK. While still controversial, they are perhaps a bit less so than some of the large predator suggestions. I've wanted for years to visit one of the trials and see for myself the ability of these big animals to engineer their environment for their own needs. In my current job for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust we have an organisational membership with the River Restoration Centre, and the RRC were arranging a visit to the River Otter Beaver Trial in association with Devon Wildlife Trust, which as a member, would be free... um, yes please and thank you, I'll sign up for that!

The visit was a whole day affair but Devon isn't exactly on Staffordshire's door step so my colleague Nick and I planned to go down the night before. This meant we wouldn't have to leave at the crack of dawn but also presented us with a window of opportunity to get out after dark and try to see the beavers in the flesh. Nick had visited before and knew the project manager so made some calls and got some tips as to where we stood a decent chance to seeing a beaver.

Equipped with some borrowed night vision binoculars (Thanks Dad!) and full of fresh Devonian fish & chips we parked up just as it was getting dark and headed down a path along the river otter. Not too far down river we found the first certain evidence that we were on the right track when we found a clearly beaver nibbled tree alongside the path. More excited than ever but shielding from a decent view of the river by the high vegetation we continued downstream to a point where we could get down to the bank itself and get a proper view up and down the river. Barely a few minutes after we arrived on the spot a subtle splash to our right heralded the arrival on the scene of a beaver effortlessly swimming against the current towing a bundle of vegetation. As it was by now pretty much pitch black and we were under the shade of the bank side trees too the Nigh Vision came into it's own and not only allowed a decent sighting but also records... I shared the video on social media at the time.

As we didn't think we were going to top that sighting, and by that time it was gone 11 we headed for our million-star hotel wild camping on the cliff tops overlooking the English Channel. It was well gone mid-night when we rolled out our sleeping bags under a sadly cloudy sky but boy what an evening it had been. Waking under pristine blue skies in the morning to bird song and the gentle murmur of water on the shingle. The millions-stars might have missed the mark the night before, but the hotel pool i.e. the English Channel was top-notch for a brief swim to get the day started.

From our overnight stop off it was just a few minutes to the start point of the day where we met with the RRC and DWT rep's who had organised the event and would be running the day. And what a day. It was amazing to see (in daylight) the scale of environmental modification which these animals manage. We saw dams ranging from tiny little collections of twigs you could easily write off as just natural accumulations of woody debris to huge constructions with a metre difference in water level on either side. Having tried my hand at daming streams as a child, like many others, and having managed a few decent structures in that time, I can tell you that a meter difference in water is quite an achievement!!

The Project Manager from Devon Wildlife Trust was knowledgeable and friendly and made the day not only an interesting wander but a genuinely educational few hours learning about beaver ecology, the specific circumstances of sharing land with such industrious little landscape architects. Obviously there is the potential for conflicts with land owners and managers - I am not blind to that reality. Particularly here in the UK we are a relatively crowded island and we manage our land accordingly, economic land use crowding the land designated and assigned as 'nature' or 'wild'. If you then start introducing animals which don't have a good grasp of the concept of boundaries and a physically capable of modifying their habitat beyond the boundaries of their immediate 'home' there will inevitable be compromises that have to be struck. That is just one, and there are still many other questions to be asked and answered about how a full and proper reintroduction would work.

But having seen this trial I would love for these amazing animals to be seen more widely in the British countryside. I could try to describe the day in detail but to be honest I am confident I could not do it justice - you just need to get to one of these trials and see for yourself what these fascinating animals can accomplish. Having the opportunity to stumble across a nibbled branch or a felled tree or a dammed stream while out for a stroll would be something I would love for my grand children. And maybe off the back of trial like this one they will do.


Monday, 1 July 2019

It's been a year! My not-so-new-anymore job.

Last week marked one year since I started working for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust on the ERDF SUNRISE Project. Its been a full and busy year! As I haven't really mentioned it all that much on this blog I thought it was worth an update.

My original role with the Wildlife Trust was as "ERDF SUNRISE Senior Biodiversity Projects Officer" ... I know, a mouthful. Pretty quickly I just referred to myself as a Delivery Officer because that described my role adequately. 

The SUNRISE Project which I had been recruited to work on is an urban green space restoration project. The project extends to 16 sites across the project area of Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme and funded by the ERDF (that's European Regional Development Fund in case you were wondering). On the subject of funding the total project budget was £3.6 million, of which the Wildlife Trust were responsible for coordinating about 50% of the funds on 13 of the sites. Enough to keep us busy then. 

Originally I worked with a project manager who had also been recruited as part of the project team but with some other responsibilities too. There had been some delays in the project getting started, and they weren't quite over when I joined the team but we got stuck straight in doing what we could while waiting for the admin side of things to get straightened out. While in some respects very different to my previous job up in the Peak District National Park - no moorlands, no helicopters, in the city vs out in the hills and so on - there were other elements that remained very similar. I was still working in a partnership, with land owners and other stakeholders, I was still writing work specifications and tenders, and I was still (and still am) supervising contractors so it wasn't a difficult transition on the whole. 

Time rolled on, the administrative delays eventually got straightened out and we started working officially - the first thing was to remove a weir from the River Trent, as you do. Then there was the wild flower seed which had been harvested earlier in the year to sow and the woodland management work to spec out and award to a contractor. The variety was welcome as if there was one thing about my last role (ignoring at this point the commute distance which was ultimately why I was looking for a new job) it would have been the opportunity to work in a range of habitats. Now I had rivers, wetland, grassland and woodlands to work with which was both a great learning experience and an opportunity to refresh my memory of some things I had learned previously but not necessarily put into action. 

The delays had caused some problems and required some changes, so the project plan needed to be revised to fit the new timescales and budgets had to be re-written to suit. This was a pretty involved task but helped me to get to know the in's and out's of the project detail far better than I would have done otherwise - while it was 'my project' it had ultimately been written by someone else. By the time I had re-written the project to suit the time available I felt like I understood it and knew it better.

Despite the delays and problems, things were moving forward but his role (and his commute) weren't suiting the Project Manager and he handed in his notice after about 6 months in post with his planned departure running out to the end of the year. This left a hole in the project team, and to cut a long story short I took on the role of project manager as well at the start of 2019 which was and still is I suppose an exciting if nerve-racking opportunity. The project team now consists of me and a couple of other team members who have 1 day a week allocated to the project for specific elements. 

6 months later and it hasn't all gone to pot yet. The project is still moving forward. It's not perfect, there are delays, changes, more admin work than I'd like but ultimately the project is going ahead. There has definitely been learning along the way, some of the learning curves steeper than other. Things like planning permission, large complicated construction work which is getting well into civil engineering territory, river restoration consents and permitting and quarterly project financial claims - all have required a fair bit of learning on the job!

What is there to look forward to? Well, the project has 18 months still to run, and a lot still to do, wildflower meadow creation, river restoration schemes (yes, multiple) and then we are back into a winter of woodland management and it will begin again next year, so on and so forth! There will be plenty to keep me busy delivering the project. But there is also the legacy, what comes next to sort out.

What I really hope, and have done from the beginning, is that this project will act as something of a catalyst to encourage more work in the project area on urban nature and habitats. While not a 'Stokie' I have now lived here for over 9 years, all my married life, I've studied 2 degrees here, both my children have been born here so it is home for now. I noticed years ago that there was a great potential for bringing nature into the city in Stoke and had various plans, with varying levels of reality to promote and encourage it. I even went to the point of making 'freedom of information' requests to get hold of Local Nature Reserve management plans to understand what was happening currently, but with other commitments had never got any of them past the drawing board stage.

When I saw the jobs for this project advertised it felt like a opportunity to put some of those mental plans into practice so I was a little bit disappointed when I found out that the project plan was already in place and I was just going to be delivering it. The project legacy will be where I may have a chance to put a little bit more of my plans and ideas into action, but that is the next job ... watch this space!   


If you would like to see more about the project, check out the project website at

My twitter account is going to focussed on my work from now on too so keep up to date with that at @talesofawildguy.