Commodification of nature
ADDENDUM - 26 Jan 2021
I look around and see continuing patterns of degradation of the world’s forests revealed in recent studies. One study integrated data on multiple human pressures that are known to modify forests, added in an index of lost connectivity, and then generated a continuous index of forest condition across the globe based on the overall degree of anthropogenic modification (1). The finding was that only 40% of remaining forests have high ecosystem integrity due to anthropogenic modification, these mostly found in Canada, Russia, the Amazon, Central Africa, and New Guinea. Britain is not shown as having any forest with even the lowest level of integrity (see Fig. 3 in (1)). Over a quarter of forests with high integrity were found to be within protected areas, but even then nearly half of the forest in protected areas only had medium or low integrity, this lower integrity found in protected area types with the lower levels of protection that allow for more human use, such as the Category V Protected Landscapes. This is the designation of the national parks in Britain (2). What’s worse is that the risk to wild nature shown in another study is greatest in relatively intact forests – those with high integrity - deforestation substantially increasing the odds of a species being listed as threatened and exhibiting declining populations, with even minimal deforestation being shown to have severe consequences for vertebrate biodiversity (3). Thus the damage is done before forest fragmentation becomes widespread, and which then would correlate with areas of lowest integrity. In this study, Britain is shown as one of the areas of high historical forest loss and high human foot print (see Fig.1 in (3)) the fragmentation being obvious when the largest areas of native woodland are of an insignificant size (4). Unsurprisingly, the absence of human extractive use that characterises wilderness is seen in a recent study to be the best hope for the persistence of wild nature (5). Thus wilderness areas act as a buffer against species loss because the extinction risk for species within wilderness communities is—on average—less than half that of species in non-wilderness communities.
An astonishing omission
I suppose I ought to be pleased that new tree-planting projects in Britain have filled the news, as well as Government commitments to its funding (6-11). The Committee on Climate Change brought out its Sixth Carbon Budget report as advice to ministers on the volume of greenhouse gases the UK can emit during the period 2033-2037, recommending a 78% reduction in UK territorial emissions between 1990 and 2035 (12,13). This brings forward the UK’s previous 80% target by nearly 15 years, and requires some ambitious actions to achieve it, like the planting of 460,000ha of new mixed woodland by 2035 which would increase woodland cover from 13 to 15%. This amount of planting only equates to 13,142ha per year, which is less than half the rate of the Governments’ manifesto commitment (see later). A Policy report in support of the main report notes that measures aimed at increasing carbon sequestration and reducing emissions in land use are largely not cost-effective from the perspective of farmers or land managers, and need to be funded because private costs are assumed to exceed private benefits (14). It notes that take-up of grant funding for woodland creation and broadleaf management has been modest, attributing this to “an overly burdensome application process”. It suggests that a lack of local markets for the sale of the harvested material has also hindered the management of broadleaf woodlands. The Policy report then covers the range of current Government policy commitments, including the sometimes bewildering array of different funding streams (and see also this table of woodland grants and incentives (15)). It notes that early auctions for woodland creation under Defra's Woodland Carbon Guarantee - where 45 out of 108 bids were successful - covered only 1,700ha, far too small a scale to have an impact on the Government's manifesto commitment to plant 30,000 hectares per year of new woodland by 2025 across the UK (14). The committee set out some key changes that it feels are warranted, one of which is that auctioned contracts or a carbon trading scheme are needed for afforestation and could be privately funded. I just find the whole tenor of this report and its recommendations to be pandering to private land and private gain, and it is the public that will have to bear the costs without any proof of real public gain. Moreover, it doesn’t offer a single clue as to where the increase in woodland should be, other than presumably what the market will determine.
There were also 65 written responses to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee for its inquiry on Tree Planting and Woodlands that I noted last time (2,16). I got passed the response from the Lake District National Park Partnership before it was posted up. Every reference to trees in this document is hedged with caveats (17). As I have explained before, the obvious message being, when you see the parroting three times in this document of “right trees in the right places” combined with “right type of woodland creation” “where appropriate places for tree planting lie” and “scale and nature of planting needs to be sympathetic to its context”, is that open landscape species are more important and must not be put at jeopardy (4). REFARMING (Rewilding) Britain also responded, and with an early preview of its proposal advocating a Three Step Natural Regeneration Hierarchy that it claims should be “part of a broader rewilding approach where species-rich mosaics of woodland, scrub and grassland habitats are allowed to regenerate over large landscapes” (18). The report with the proposal came out in mid-December (19). As is usual for REFARMING Britain there are no authors identified. This was the case for its earlier pathetic and undated report that unnecessarily tied wildlife connectivity solely to climate change: it had no schematic for connectivity between core areas; no details on cores and connections; and no primary references to connectivity or network design – it was just hot air (20). REFARMING Britain had earlier also unnecessarily tied rewilding to climate change in another undated report (21) and the report on advocating its proposal for natural regeneration of woodland also leans heavily on climate (51 mentions – (19)) a thematic pattern across these reports that is very suggestive of who is actually driving this influence in REFARMING Britain (22,23). As I have said before, it seems past irony that wild nature is being put at the service yet again of stupid humans by having a burden placed on it as the solution to human-induced climate breakdown (23).
There is so much wrong with this rambling and confused report on natural regeneration from REFARMING Britain, not least the Knepp-inspired nonsense ecology it spouts – “reintroducing ecosystem engineer species, including beaver, wild boar, bison [???] (or proxy species such cattle and ponies)…..can additionally enhance natural disturbance and improve ecological, structural and species diversity”; that herbivores at lower densities “sculpt the growth of trees and shrubs” and “prevent species-poor closed-canopy woodland establishing too quickly”, and it has the Vera nonsense of saum and mantle vegetation such as thorny scrub facilitating tree establishment (19,24,25). As irksome is that natural regeneration is the wrong term – I have explained before that the correct term is natural colonisation when autogenic tree establishment occurs where there has been no recent woodland cover (4). I also went into much more coherent detail on the routes of natural seed dispersal, and the limitations that it poses when there are unlikely to be seed sources for all the species that could thrive at a particular location (24). While there is some recognition of this in the report, and a grudging allowance in the hierarchy for tree planting, whether supplementary or solely depending on the relative paucity of species, there is no information on how to determine what species could be at a location and thus would be missing if there is no source (19). It’s an astonishing omission. Instead, there is the oft repeated phrase “desired species”. Desired by whom or what? It seems that REFARMING Britain is, in everything, on a mission to mislead. As I have explained, I use the Ecological Site Classification Decision Support System from Forest Research to determine the woodland communities and individual trees that could grow at a particular location (24). I suppose it’s too much to expect REFARMING Britain to learn from me, but with a little effort, it could have found the recent Forestry Commission guidance on creating woodland that also recommends the use of that Support System “to help you select species ecologically suited to your site” (26).
Projects to restore wilder landscapes?
There’s been a slew of Government announcements on nature recovery, with five local authorities (Cornwall, Buckinghamshire, Greater Manchester, Northumberland and Cumbria) recruited to trailblaze England’s nature recovery pilots through producing Local Nature Recovery Strategies (27); a policy paper on the Nature Recovery Network (28); and the launch of the Nature Recovery Network Delivery Partnership (29). These all relate to the commitment in the 25 Year Environment Plan for England to have an overarching Nature Recovery Network into which are fed the Local Nature Recovery Strategies (30). As is usual with this Government, policies are announced and the details are worked out later – in the case of the Local Nature Recovery Strategies, the legislation that declares them in the Environment Bill has yet to complete its passage through Parliament and become law (31). At least from the policy paper on the Nature Recovery Network, we get some small detail on what is hoped to be achieved by it, its objectives and timescale, how it will be set up, and how it will be funded (28) since there was little in the 25 Year Environment Plan, and it is not even mentioned in the current draft of the Environment Bill (32). It does not, however, make a firm commitment to increasing woodland cover, just to support it (28). I’ve also noted an illuminating revisionism in emphasis added in since this policy was first published in October, the section about integrating funding and land management duties was rewritten in an updated version in November. The original version paralleled the listing of funding streams (see above) that would support the objectives, including the farming subsidies Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Land Management, the Nature Recovery Fund, and the Nature for Climate Fund. It said that Government would be “exploring the role of private finance and partner contributions”. The rewrite had those funding schemes, added in a Green Recovery Challenge Fund, but was then more explicit about “broadening the funding base” by giving a role to private finance to “invest in the natural environment”. The significance of this will become clear from a new commitment added in to that rewrite to establish over the next four years, and as part of the Environmental Land Management scheme, a series of “10 Landscape Recovery projects to restore wilder landscapes, with a focus on large-scale sites”
Landscape Recovery projects had popped up a few days before in a Prime Ministerial press release that announced a series of new commitments ahead of the publication of the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a “green industrial revolution" (33). It also included creation of new national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as well as the creation of jobs under the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, topped up by another £40m, in “action towards the creation or restoration of priority habitats, preventing or cleaning up pollution, woodland creation, peatland and wetland restoration and actions to help people connect with nature”. The Landscape Recovery projects were to be “centred around support aimed at incentivising sustainable farming practices, creating habitats for nature recovery and supporting the establishment of new woodland and other ecosystem services to help tackle challenges like climate change”. They were tied in the press release to the enactment of Agriculture Bill that had just passed into law. That law doesn’t mention Landscape Recovery, but it does give Government power to dispense wide-ranging financial assistance - subsidies - through direct payments for things like conserving cultural or natural heritage; restoration and conservation of species and habitats; plant health; welfare of livestock; supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland or woodland; and better understanding of agroecology although what that means is not explained (34). The Ten Point Plan, the Points allegedly “built around the UK’s strengths”, doesn’t mention Landscape Recovery, but it has this for Point 9 – “Nature: Protecting and restoring our natural environment, planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year, whilst creating and retaining thousands of jobs” (35). A Press Release accompanying the Ten Point Plan, described as “Plans to help kickstart the nation’s green recovery”, just rehashes previous Press Releases, and gets some quotes from Ministers and statutory bodies like Natural England, the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission (36). It was accompanied by a tweet from DEFRA, announcing the 10 new Landscape Recovery projects in England that depressingly singled out Knepp as one of its inspirations (37).
The next dribble of information on Landscape Recovery came from a policy paper about an agricultural transition plan for England. This was trailed in a speech given by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to a farming conference at the end of last November (38) unveiled as a path to sustainable farming in a Press Release - “The roadmap outlines changes that will come into force over a period of seven years to help farmers adapt and plan for the future" (39) and given some detail in the agricultural transition plan (40). The latter showed Landscape Recovery to be the third component of a new farm subsidy scheme Environmental Land Management, the first two components being the Sustainable Farming Incentive, and Local Nature Recovery - these components had previously been referred to in discussion documents on Environmental Land Management funding as Tiers. The Sustainable Farming Incentive will be a basic entry scheme open to all farmers, and Local Nature Recovery will be a new scheme that eventually replaces Countryside Stewardship, the current agri-environment funding scheme, and may have elements that are competitive. Do not confuse the latter with Local Nature Recovery Strategies, nor necessarily conflate Landscape Recovery with the national Nature Recovery Network, although there will be claims that they are all intertwined.
The plan says that Landscape Recovery will support the delivery of landscape and ecosystem recovery through long-term, land use change projects, including projects to restore wilder landscapes in places where that is appropriate, large-scale tree planting; peatland, fenland and bog restoration; and the creation and restoration of coastal habitats such as wetlands and salt marsh (40). It is expected that “this component will be competitive”, eligibility being based on specific projects and “limited to land with the right natural capital assets and at the right scale to deliver transformational landscape recovery”. The plan sees Landscape Recovery as enabling the Government to “meet our ambitious national targets and commitments, including the government’s pledge to protect 30% of the UK’s land by 2030 and the establishment of a Nature Recovery Network”. It says a Landscape Recovery National Pilot will be set up of 10 long-term projects over three phases, between 2022-2024, to restore wilder landscapes. These will focus on large-scale sites of around 2,000-3,000ha, with 1,000 farmers involved in the first phase, rising to around 5,500 by the third phase. It is said that Participants will be paid a competitive rate for taking part in the National Pilot on the basis of multi-annual agreements, and it is expected that “blended public and private finance” will be employed – “There is scope to blend public and private funding and finance, including through mechanisms such as reverse auctions and marketplaces for ecosystems services that offer both public and private benefits. This will help us deliver the environmental objectives at greater scale and ambition than we could using public funding alone”
De-risked private investment in his business
It depresses me that Landscape Recovery is seen only in the context of farmed land, obviously in its tying to the Environmental Land Management scheme, and without any consideration that our public lands should also make a contribution to wilder landscapes that would not be fatally compromised by the inevitable exigencies of private landowners, and certainly without the burden of having to financially incentivise those private landowners, whether by public money or a mix of public and private. As it is, the plan for agricultural transition says there isn’t any policy proposition on the blending of finance (40). I can only assume it will be banking on market solutions over the coming years as the National Pilot unfolds. It’s this language of "invest in the natural environment" “competitive", “reverse auctions and marketplaces” that ring warning bells about a commodification of nature - what is the return expected from investing in the natural environment? Unsurprisingly, Knepp - the darling of DEFRA (see above) - is at the forefront of this commodification. Having already benefited from many millions of pounds of public money in farm subsidy (41-43) Charlie Burrell of Knepp took part in a webinar on the investment case for rewilding, alongside Alastair Driver, REFARMING Britain’s peripatetic mainstreamer of safari park rewilding. The webinar was part of a series organised by Cambridge University Land Society around Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) objectives for investing in rural property – “ESG and Rewilding - Private investment is needed to help address the UK’s biodiversity decline, but are ESG credentials compatible with landscape-scale habitat restoration schemes?”(44,45). It was sponsored and hosted by Savills, the upmarket real estate services provider, and which also sells management and consultancy services to food and farming businesses, as well as having a longstanding involvement with Knepp (46,47). Also taking part was a Board Member of Natural England, and so you can gauge the interest this will have had for shaping a blending of public and private funding and finance.
I can’t tell you who the audience was, but the webinar was recorded, and bizarrely you even get to see a back view of me in amongst a group of people looking out over Ennerdale Valley in the Lake District (see 34:50min in (48)). Driver slotted his audience, aiming to appeal rather than scare. He said grazing animals were needed to maintain the “heterogeneity of vegetation”, that all the examples of rewilding he would give had grazing animals and they were all still producing meat – an inevitable exigency of private land ownership. It seems Charlie is very enthusiastic about carbon/biodiversity offsetting, and it fits with ESG criteria, allowing private finance to appear benevolent in investing in public goods. Charlie describes his rewilding as radical, and that his safari’s around Knepp allows him to educate people so they understand the correct view of rewilding. However, his vision of rewilding is used to help support the status-quo of exclusion, land-ownership, multinational interests, and banking, and so it is far from radical. The observation from the webinar chair was that Charlie had “de-risked” private investment in his business, and she asked whether there had been any interest in private finance seeking to “offset” into his business. Charlie answers that there are three strands that he is exploring to bring him more money: a venture capital fund that would buy land; a charitable foundation that would buy land; and companies or individuals presenting themselves as a good partner through offsetting their carbon or “bio-losses”. The Natural England Board member comes across as being sold on seeking private finance, remarking that it’s about business and not about philanthropy. She talks about the need for risk registers, insurance, and better measurements, citing biodiversity gain, a condition for planning permission in England being proposed in the Environment Bill (32) as a representation of the latter, although I don’t see how this relates to the wider landscape.
ESG is new to me, sometimes characterised along with corporate social responsibility as doing well by doing good. I am not the only one to have reservations, a very recent report examining the rise of ESG investing from think tank Common Wealth recommends “resisting the extension of financial logic into new domains like the protection of nature which are incompatible with demands for financial return” (49). It points to evidence that calls into question the adherence to the “efficient markets hypothesis” that underlies many attempts to price and securitise nature, that markets will deliver a sustainable outcome if it can correctly value nature and the costs of its destruction. It notes that a critical task in the coming years is the mobilisation of finance for underfunded areas like protection of nature and biodiversity and the pursuit of a socially just transition – “In contrast to the emerging Wall Street Climate Consensus, governments should be encouraged to embrace ambitious, patient public investment in these areas, while resisting the commodification and financialization of the natural world”. I would add the evidence from across North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand that shows that Governments take responsibility for wild nature through national protected area systems based on public lands.
One of our beavers has gone missing
The commodification of nature by the likes of Charlie is definitely not how rewilding was conceived, nor is what Charlie does at Knepp in any way consistent with the origins of rewilding (50, 51). It’s about time that critical theory was applied to the power and ownership structures that have created the bandwagon of safari park rewilding (43, 52). The spheres of influence of this land-wealth-power nexus are not hidden. They don’t have to be as they suffer little hindrance or restriction, and so they continue to dictate, ably abetted by populism disseminated to a poorly informed public. Sometimes though the façade can shatter and even Knepp can screw up very publicly. I noted in May last year that Knepp had a licence to entrap beaver in an enclosure on the estate, but I couldn’t find any projected date for their arrival, only confirmation of the licence and of my surmise that they would be trapped and stolen from free living in Scotland (43, 53, 54). However, a man walking his dog by the River Adur in West Sussex got a surprise a month ago when he saw a beaver swimming along the river and videoed it – “I noticed initially something coming towards me in the river, the water rippled as it travelled. When it got close, I thought, is it an otter? Then I saw the paddle like tail as it swam by, and thought ‘that was a beaver! I couldn’t believe my eyes” (55).
This forced an admission from Knepp that the release of a pair of beaver into an enclosure on the Estate in mid-November (maybe Hammer stream or some other minor tributary to the River Adur – see (56,57)) had not been publicised, allegedly for “ecological and conservation reasons” so that there would be minimal disturbance (58,59). It was the male of the pair, given the name Bramber, which within a few weeks had found a way to slip out past the fencing, electric wire and grilles meant to keep it in. Perhaps it escaped in an attempt to get home, as Bramber is a town that is downstream on the River Adur from Knepp, but why is it necessary to name a beaver? Knepp wants this male beaver back since it needs a breeding pair to facilitate the Disney fiction, the fawning adoration when the first kits are born - in to captivity - as well as their inevitable naming, and so is asking for any sightings of the beaver on the Adur or any of its streams, or evidence of feeding. I can’t find any report of his capture, unless Knepp is keeping Bramber’s return quiet as well.
Is it any wonder that Knepp kept quiet about the beaver when within days the male had made a mockery of the licencing of these allegedly secure fenced enclosures of safari park rewilding? Isn’t it also making a mockery of any national strategy for reinstatement of beaver to free living, because that is what the absurd claim is, that these trapped beaver will “Provide evidence to assist the national understanding of beaver re-introductions”, that it will “Assess the potential for beavers to be restored to the wider landscape”? (60). How can beaver trapped behind fences exhibit the full range of their life history? Captive animals exhibit only captive behaviour and their interaction with other species is limited when the fencing that traps them in may also keep others out. As it is, I don’t understand the mixed messages that are being sent about the purpose of this license for what is called the Knepp Beaver Trial (54). It is couched as a five year trial to January 2025, after which Natural England will make a decision about whether the beavers are allowed to remain. It says that if the beavers are not allowed to stay in their enclosures, they will be rehomed. Alternatively, if they “are allowed to stay, and are allowed to live outside an enclosure, beaver management may need to be employed at some point”. This implies that they may be released from their enclosure after the five years, but the positing of beaver management is another example of an inevitable exigency of private land ownership that may start as things like dam removal, but will escalate to demands to be able to unilaterally lethally control beaver numbers. Further on it is said that an exit strategy has been put in place in the event that the impacts of the beavers are considered to be unacceptable to the majority of key stakeholders – “This would involve the partnership rounding up the animals and bringing them back into captivity”. Thus they anticipated that they will be released to free living at the end of the trial. This is a nonsense. A trial introduction takes place with free living species, like that on the River Otter, not behind fences. The assertion therefore that these fenced beaver of the Knepp Beaver Trial will follow IUCN guidelines on trial introductions is thus also a mockery (60,61) unless this is the longest soft release in history – soft release is when a species for reintroduction is allowed to acclimatise for a few days in an enclosure before being released to free living (62).
All the pieces are there
We must expect endless bulletins extolling the virtues and benefits of these enslaved beaver at Knepp, these ecosystem engineers, because this is not about their existence, but the alleged benefits they will provide in being a conservation tool through exploiting their functional traits – “The Beaver re-introductions will use the natural instincts of a native animal as a tool for restoring important wetlands” (53,63) as well as the benefits to the wellbeing of people, such as flood regulation, water purification, and water regulation (54,64). As a species that smash up trees, these beaver also fit into the obsessive herbivore ideology that drives Knepp, with its grazing of captive livestock and deer, an ecologically illiterate “rewilding without predators” (50, 65,66) that is impervious to the reality of trophic ecology. A recent study that simulated large-carnivore removal on a global scale, as well as four small-scale ecosystem simulation experiments based on known locations, found a triggering of large trophic cascades, leading to falls in vegetation biomass, a rise in herbivores, as well as a rise in mesopredators (67). The results showed that the presence of large carnivores delinks the relationship between vegetation productivity and herbivore biomass, indicating that ecosystems become resource limited after the removal of large carnivores – the herbivores just keep eating the life out of the land, devastating its vegetation cover, and can end up starving when food limited carrying capacity is reached.
Given all the hyperbole there is around these captive beaver, co-opted as they are in to the rewilding without predators of safari park rewilding, I have looked past their artificial existence and pondered the ecological implications of how wild nature could accommodate the impacts of free living beaver if there were no limitation to their activities. Would they fulfill this outsize role that is ascribed to them? There is some spatial limitation since beaver are confined predominantly to riparian corridors, but there is also evidence from North America that wolves hunt beaver (68-71) that wolf odour from faeces was a deterrent to beaver damaging agricultural crops, fruit and forest trees in Poland as it resulted in reduced foraging induced by the risk of predation (72) and beavers are a regular feature of wolf diet in Poland (73). It is likely that there will be more reports in Europe of beaver being predated by wolves as both these species return to more of their historical range (74,75). The significance of this predation goes far wider than just a possible control on the numbers of beaver because it also markedly limits the whole array of their impact, as a new study from Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota has shown. The wolves there mostly kill dispersing beaver, individuals that have left their colonies and set out on their own to find a new territory (76). Because dispersing beavers are primarily solitary individuals, the only way for a newly created or recolonized pond to persist once a wolf kills a dispersing individual is if another dispersing beaver reaches that pond and continues to maintain the dam. However, this rarely occurs immediately so that a newly created or recolonised pond remains unoccupied for one or two years and possibly longer. During that time, the dam breaks down, the pond drains, trees no longer drown, and woodland succession returns. The authors believe that the ecological importance of wolf predation on beavers is altering the spatiotemporal dynamics of where beavers engineer ecosystems, that the wolves by preventing the creation of entirely new ponds for at least 1 to 2 years, forestall and may prevent the conversion of a forest to a wetland and riparian ecosystem.
Last April, I flagged up that the people of Colorado were going to get the opportunity to vote for the reinstatement of wolves to publicly-owned lands in their state (75). That vote has now taken place with a high turnout (86.9%) the proposition carried, albeit with a slim majority of 50.9%, and the planning process for reintroduction will have begun. (76-78). If only this route for the expression of the will of the people was open to us, because the immense fault of this rewilding without predators, this safari park rewilding, is that it is not an expression of wild nature comparable to that which does arise if all the pieces are there, if all types of herbivory are constrained through the natural process of predation. This ecological illiteracy will just continue if we allow wild nature to be a commodity repeatedly sold back to us by the private realm, that we allow farming interests bloated on public subsidy to dictate through its power and ownership structures what can and cannot exist, inexorably pushing us further and further away from giving all our wild nature, past and present, a space of its own. We must make space in public lands for full trophic functioning, a place where large carnivores like the wolf are reinstated. Public lands are where are the public’s money should be used to provide a safe existence for wild nature.
Mark Fisher 10 January 2021
Not only did Knepp fail to admit to the escape of the male beaver until it was sighted by walkers 12 miles away and three weeks after release into its enclosure (see above) but it also failed to admit until now - when it reported that Bramber had died on recapture - that the female beaver had also escaped around the same time (79,80). The escaped female beaver was spotted much earlier than the escaped male, turning up at the beginning of December last year in one of the ponds at a local angling club (81). Unsurprisingly, Billie (as she was named) was not returned to the insecure enclosure after her recapture, and now awaits “relocation to a licensed beaver enclosure” (79). Bramber was recaptured on the 6 January, also held securely on returning to Knepp, but then died a week later, an autopsy report identifying septicaemia – blood poisoning - as the cause of death. Knepp suggests this was most likely due a “bacterial infection contracted through ingesting contaminated food or vegetation in the days or even weeks prior to his re-capture” although no details were given of which bacteria caused the toxic infection. What we do get is that “this is a natural cause of death for many wild mammals”
There is much to tease apart here, and it goes to the competency of Knepp, as it does to the system in England for licensing beaver enclosures, and to the presumption that conflict beavers – those free-living beavers from Tayside destined for lethal control in Scotland unless they are translocated – can feed the demands in England for visitor attractions in safari park rewilding.
Firstly, to Bramber’s death. The Scottish Beavers Reinforcement Project was initiated in response to the stalled population in Knapdale Forest at the end of that trial, and covered the release to free living of 21 beavers translocated from Tayside between 2017 and 2019 to bolster the population (82). The project report describes the post-mortem results of the four fatalities that occurred, the first dead beaver found a week after release (83). It had died of a combination of septicaemia and pancreatitis associated with specific infection by two bacteria – “From previous knowledge of related historical cases, many of these similar cases appear to be triggered by a period of immunosuppression/maladaption, which may have been triggered by the animal's self-migration from its release site over 9km to the area where it was ultimately found. This migration could have led to a physiological increased susceptibility to opportunistic emerging pathogens”. It is important to note that this beavers migration encompassed 4km by freshwater and 5km by saltwater.
The irony is that it is possible that Bramber may still be alive if it had not been able to escape from the insecure enclosure at Knepp and travel so many miles up and down waterways in W Sussex, encountering salty water for weeks in the lower reaches of the River Adur that are subject to tidal flow as it approaches the coast at Shoreham by Sea - my estimate from the map of sightings is that the beaver travelled all told about 25 miles (40km) although conveniently the coast is not shown on the map (79). This journey and its exposures happened so shortly after it had been translocated from Scotland and dumped in an alien environment, and thus it may too have suffered immunosuppression and increased susceptibility to the effects of bacterial infection. The report of the reinforcement project airs a note of caution about this seeming lack of care that put the beaver from Knepp at risk - “translocations also carry appreciable welfare risks to the individuals being moved, and these risks should be accounted for when planning a translocation”. Amongst its recommendations, it stresses veterinary health screening prior translocation, and notes that post-release welfare is also an important consideration in any translocation. It points to Scottish legislation for animal welfare that requires a duty of care for any animal, wild or otherwise, held under human control “on a permanent or temporary basis” that duty of care still applying if the animal escapes – this is also the case in England (84).
So was Knepp negligent in releasing this male beaver into an insecure enclosure? At 250ha (53) it must have been one of the riskier propositions to ensure its effectiveness, being by far the largest enclosure that has got licensed. They range from 2ha at Woodland Valley Farm near Ladock, Cornwall (85) 4ha at Spains Hall Estate in Essex (86) 10ha at Cropton Forest in N Yorkshire (87) up to 22ha at Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk that had a short-lived boast that it was the largest (88,89). Knepp’s enclosure is an order of magnitude larger, the claim is of having spent £45,000, which I reckon works out at less than £10 a metre for “reinforced fencing”, and which looks even more inadequate when you factor in the cost of grilles as barriers across ditches, culverts and streams (see above and (79)). Just how secure was the enclosure at Knepp though, when you get this further belated disclosure that while licences for other beaver releases in England stipulated release into a “physical enclosure”, the Knepp license allowed the release of beavers into a “larger, semi-enclosed area”. I am none the wiser at what that means for the integrity of the enclosure when it is explained that this is “to help devise a method whereby beavers ...can, ultimately, be successfully introduced into larger, strategic areas in England”. Whatever it meant for the security of the enclosure, it was a bad judgement call by whomever approved the licence, indicating perhaps yet again that Knepp as the darling of DEFRA gets preferential treatment, as it has always done with its lack of compliance with basic standards required for agricultural subsidy that other farms have to abide by (90). It must argue for some level of inspection of the security of beaver enclosures as part of the licensing.
Billie the female beaver is now unwanted (see above) shrugged off in favour of “releasing another two beavers, this time hopefully a bonded pair, later in 2021”. This would be after “appropriate adjustments” are made to the fencing. I wonder how Knepp expects to get a bonded pair, presumably giving Knepp a greater expectation that they will breed – an essential need for a visitor attraction. Again, the reinforcement project report has a note of caution if Knepp expects to get these from Tayside – “if relying on beavers being trapped in conflict areas, be aware that it is challenging (often impossible) to plan or predict what animals might be in the area, how many of them will be trapped and what order they will be trapped in. Thus, while you might have planned to release a family, you might, for example, receive two individuals from different sites, or two individuals from the same site which might be a pair or might equally be mother and almost adult son/father and almost adult daughter. Further to this, unless genetic samples are gathered for these individuals prior to release, it will not be possible to ascertain these relationships and there will be a degree of uncertainty regarding the make-up and relatedness of the new population” (83)
Perhaps the most telling comment in the report comes when it considers the wider impact of these translocations – “Currently, beavers caught in Tayside are translocated away from conflict areas to new reintroduction projects in England. This is fragmenting and depleting the Scottish population of beavers, and likely reducing genetic diversity”. I would add that it is taking free-living beaver from Scotland and dumping them into captivity in England under the dubious notion that this would be an extended prelude to their eventual release (see earlier). The recommendations in the reinforcement project report are primarily focussed on ensuring the success of a wider distribution of free-living beaver in Scotland, advocating the need for a conservation action plan at the national level – “This strategy should look beyond the current restrictions on beaver translocations and plan for a variety of scenarios that could promote the long-term persistence, population growth and range expansion of beavers in Scotland in a framework that maximises the benefits and minimises conflict”. The same argument must also apply to England. There is an eye on the bigger picture in the report – “For the reintroduction of beavers into the UK to be a continued success, collaboration across borders would be extremely valuable. A database of beavers captured, translocated and released across the UK will aid future management and research, and feed into conservation strategies for beavers across the UK”. Instead, what we get in England is the nonsense of these captive beaver enclosures as a means to delay having to make important decisions about a wider distribution of free-living beaver in England, and avoid developing a national strategy. Meanwhile Knepp blunders through yet another strand of its business plan with impunity.
26 January 2021
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