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Beavers and Natural Flood Management

Finchingfield is a quaint village located in north-west Essex that has been around since local historical records began, with the Domesday Book noting the village as ‘Fincingefelda’ in 1086. In the past the village has been used as an official stop for horse-drawn coaches travelling from London to Norwich. In modern times the village remains busy and now has both the B1053 and B1057 roads intersecting the middle of the village across the Finchingfield bridge. Unfortunately, the Finchingfield Brook that passes through the village under this bridge is susceptible to severe annual flooding in the winter, and as a result can cause severe disruptions cutting both busy roads in half, bringing everything to a standstill, and in some cases completely isolating people within the village from the external help.

Found just slightly northwest of Finchingfield is the 16th-century Spains Hall Estate, bought by the Ruggles family in 1760 who lived in it until 2019 when chef Jamie Oliver purchased it. Archie Ruggles-Brise, descendant of the Ruggles that once occupied the hall, is now the estate/farm manager and recognised that natural flood management along the tributaries of the Finchingfield Brook would have value in mitigating the impact of flooding in the village. Having toyed with artificial natural flood management, through methods such as leaky dams and tree planting, Archie decided to trial the use of Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) in a four-hectare enclosure along one of the tributaries to see the impact they have on flood mitigation through the dams they create.

Beaver-gnawed willow trees at Spains Hall Estate.

Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK in the 16th-century for their meat, fur and castoreum secretions that were used in medicines and perfumes. As beavers typically stay in one place with a lodge, it was relatively easy to capture and kill entire families by placing traps outside the entrances of these lodges. With beavers gone for so long in the landscape across the UK the benefits they bring have been mostly forgotten, and now the mention of beaver reintroduction can face strong opposition from a host of landowners, through the worry of productive land being lost to flooding, or loss of timber through tree-felling. Luckily for Archie, the village of Finchingfield was largely in support of the project. The enclosure at Spains Hall is ‘over-engineered’ so that the chance of escape is non-existent. The fence was buried to a depth of 30 centimetres and buried deeper where the stream passes through it to ensure that the beavers wont burrow under it. The fencing itself is otter-proof, of a finer wire mesh.

Archie presenting the work of a beaver.

Beavers are known to prefer areas of deeper water as this provides them with more security and enables them to transport food and building materials easily. On our recent members' visit to Spains Hall, Archie explained to FWAG East that the beavers in his enclosure were in suboptimal habitat, originally just a small patch of woodland with a narrow stream passing through the middle of it. As a result, the beavers had to get to work on creating dams -initially a series of small dams, which they eventually connected over the years they have been in the enclosure - to produce a very impressive dam (of which pictures don’t do it justice!). Beavers are herbivores and their diet consists of tree bark, twigs, leaves, grasses, sedges and other aquatic vegetation. Willow trees are a known favourite of beavers, and at Spains Hall Estate, there is around £60,000 worth of cricket bat willows within the four-hectare enclosure, which Archie has cleverly protected by painting the trunk with a mixture of cement, sand and pva so that the beavers can’t chew them.

Part of the larger dam the beavers have been working on.

The lodge that the beavers have created and live in is considered the largest in the UK, and the wetland they have created is vast, with a series of small ponds and pools that can hold large quantities of water during heavy flooding events and greatly slow the flow of water downstream. These dams also reduce downstream water pollution, promote the growth of aquatic vegetation, and create favourable habitats for a host of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. The coppicing of trees by beavers also reduces canopy cover and creates further habitat diversity through increased levels of light reaching the understory. Another extremely important resource they supply is dead wood, which is becoming rarer as woodlands are 'tidied up'. As well as these vast ecological benefits, last winter Finchingfield faced another bout of relatively severe flooding, which to the surprise of many subsided rather rapidly, although the direct reason for this cannot be attributed to the beavers and their natural flood management, it is likely that they had a beneficial mitigating effect by slowing the downstream flow of water reaching the Finchingfield Brook.

The beaver lodge (the vegetated mound of dead wood and mud behind Archie).

With beavers comes tourism, and Archie has diversified by allowing people to rent a hide to beaver watch and photograph, and in the future he may open up an Airbnb in the wooden hut found in the enclosure. Archie has an extensive Countryside Stewardship agreement and receives payments for his flower-rich and grassy meadows, allowing him to take these areas out of production, especially along the tributaries, without losing too much income, and to let these areas seasonally flood as part of his natural flood management project.

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