In 2012, the center of Lydbrook, a village skirting the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, England, was deluged with several feet of water. The flash flooding, unleashed by torrential rainfall across the region, sparked a mandatory evacuation and left badly damaged homes and businesses in its wake.
This wasn’t the first time this bucolic burg has been devastated by rapidly rising waters. Nestled between the River Wye and one of its tributaries, the flood-prone Greathough Brook, Lydbrook and surrounding parishes in the Wye Valley have long been vulnerable to inundation. In 2015, villagers collectively breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that a section of an aging culvert meant to tame the flow of water through the village would be replaced as part of a flood defense overhaul costing 290,000 pounds (nearly $400,000).
Now, two years later, the Forestry Commission has decided to bring in the big guns to further prevent flooding: beavers.
As the Guardian reports, a scheme to release a family of Eurasian beavers within an enclosed area at Greathough Brook has been embraced enthusiastically by villagers and, most importantly, received a governmental go-ahead despite one report that it was blocked by a minister at the Department of Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs.
The idea is that once released, the clan of industrious semiaquatic rodents will get to work doing what they do best: constructing an intricate network of dams, ponds and canals that, in this instance, will slow the flow of Greathough Brook and prevent upwards of 6,000 cubic meters (1.6 million gallons) of water from rushing into the valley-bound village below.
While a qualified team of engineers that don't have webbed hind feet could be brought in to dam the stream, the beaver is, well, cheaper and can get the job done in a swifter and less intrusive manner.
What’s more, there’s the chance that the beavers’ presence could be a boon for eco-tourism in the region as the animals, hunted into extinction across Britain and now being strategically released back into the wild, are still a relatively rare sight. A village that’s reintroduced beavers and put them to work to help prevent catastrophic flooding certainly could draw wildlife lovers to this sleepy northwestern section of the Forest of Dean.
"This has the potential to prevent a once-in-30-years flood event. These animals will also open the forest canopy to light and create a biodiversity jewel in this forest," beaver expert Derek Gow tells the Guardian. Gow, who has worked to reintroduce beavers to Scotland where they are now recognized as a legal protected species, refers to the first-of-its-kind scheme as a "tremendous opportunity."
Rodents to the rescue (with some reservations)
As mentioned, the flood-wary residents of Lydbrook are mostly all for enlisting beavers to help with anti-flood measures. Calling the plan a "brilliant idea," villager Stuart Aken notes: "People are in favour because of the potential to help against flooding and most are interested in the increase in wildlife that it will bring to the area." A former industrial town, modern-day Lydbrook serves as a pub-heavy hub for outdoor recreation seekers flocking to the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley for hiking, cycling, canoeing and horseback riding opportunities.
Some villagers, however, have expressed concerns about the beavers decamping from their designated habitat and causing problems for local farms much like wild boars have. (Boars are another animal previously hunted into extinction that are making a semi-unwelcomed comeback across Britain.)
Local councillor Sid Phelps, however, has been quick to quell any fears that the newly established presence of the beaver will be a fearsome and potentially destructive one within the Forest of Dean. Noting that the tagged (read: easy-to-recapture) and largely placid animals will likely stick to the brook where they’ve been reintroduced and be altogether non-disruptive, Phelps heralds the scheme as being an “innovative idea to deal with both climate change and the risk of increased flooding.”
In low-lying agrictultural areas, beaver dam-building activities can actually cause flooding. Greathough Brook, however, is a small, upland stream — the very type of body of water where the animals’ constructions have the most benefit.
Beaver fever: Cost-effective and pretty darn cute
While the beaver-led flood protection plan near Lydbrook would be the first to take place on government-owned land in England, similar projects have already commenced on private land as a sort of test run to see if the beaver should be formally reintroduced as a native species.
At a 7-acre test site in western Devon operated by the nonprofit Devon Wildlife Trust, a pair of predictably busy beavers introduced in 2011 have engineered a network of 13 ponds capable of holding back 650 cubic meters (roughly 172,000 gallons) of water that would otherwise flood the surrounding farmland. In addition to slowing floods, the sponge-like dams also naturally remove pollutants from water and encourage the growth of various plants, insects and invertebrates. At the Devon test site, a variety of bird and bat species, some not seen in the area for eons, have returned since the beavers took up residence.
"The beavers have transformed this little trickle of a stream into a remarkable, primeval wetland," Mark Elliott of the Devon Wildlife Trust told the Guardian. "This is what the landscape would have looked like before we started farming, and it’s only six years old. That’s the amazing thing."
You can learn more about that project in the video below:
Another experimental scheme was recently held further south in neighboring Cornwall. Here, a farmer worked in cooperation with the Cornwall Wildlife Trust to release two beavers into a fenced-in area above the flood-prone village of Ladock. Within just two weeks, the furry, log-dragging duo had engineered a robust system of canals and ponds that can hold back 1,000 cubic meters (264,000 gallons) of water.
Provided that they’re reintroduced into the appropriate areas, the reemergence of the beaver in England after a 400-some year absence seems like a win-win on several fronts: Rural parishes are less susceptible to major flooding, biodiversity gets a healthy boost, eco-tourism flourishes and local councils can save precious funds that would otherwise be spent on costly man-made flood defense systems.
While some farmers see beavers as potentially problematic, John Morgan, the retired farmer who owns the land where the Devon test site is located, is all for their reintroduction: "I think it’s a good idea," he tells the Guardian. "They do a lot of work that these different water companies have to do. If a dam gets washed out, the beavers put it back overnight. They do a 12-hour shift every day of the year. They don’t take holidays."