Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Natural dam builders munch above their weight

April 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Beavers are set to play a key role in water and flood management on an Essex estate. Judith Tooth reports.

Beavers are famously good dam builders. Absent from this country for at least 400 years, though, we don’t have first hand experience of their skills.

Essex landowner Archie Ruggles-Brise is hoping to change that and demonstrate that reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver is a viable ecosystem service model. In other words, it will provide cleaner water, enhance biodiversity and reduce the risk of flooding.

Natural capital – environmental assets such as soil, clean air and clean water – and water management are particular interests of Archie’s. A biology graduate from Newcastle University, and now a part-time masters student in rural estate and land management at Harper Adams, he worked for Northumbrian Water on technical water and sewerage treatment projects.

Then he took a job with the Rivers Trust, the umbrella body of the rivers trust movement, looking at how to pay for such ‘environmental goods’ – something he says DEFRA secretary, Michael Gove, is very keen on.

Through the Rivers Trust, Archie is also involved with the EU project Topsoil, which is tracking sediment flows from Layer Brook to Abberton reservoir, and looking at managed aquifer recharge – putting water back into rivers – in the Suffolk Sandlings.

At home on the Spains Hall Estate, Archie is planning a series of leaky dams – piles of logs in ditches – that push water on to the surrounding land, in this case, 5ha grassland on the Spains Hall Estate above the village of Finchingfield, turning it into a temporary flood storage area. When the water spreads, it slows and any sediment drops out of it.

Measuring success

Water quality monitoring equipment, funded by the Environment Agency, has just been installed at two sites, collecting data on water temperature, which relates to dissolved oxygen; conductivity, giving a measure of salts; turbidity, which shows how much sediment and, therefore, how much phosphate, is being carried, and, finally, ammonium. The aim is to compare results over three months this year with the same period next year.

Now he’s seeking permission from Natural England to fence an area of wet woodland upstream of Finchingfield in which to release a pair of beavers, so that they can build the dams for him.

“I’ve visited other sites in Devon and Wales, and in the right place they can be massively beneficial,” he says. “They’re a keystone species, so their influence on the landscape goes beyond
a direct effect.

“They pick a spot to build a dam, and then, because they prefer to travel across water, they dig channels to spread the water further. Over time they create new habitats for invertebrates, fish, kingfishers and so on.

“There is political will behind this, and I want to use the project as a test bed to try and gauge reaction to it and address any issues that arise. For example, beavers love willow, and bat willows are an important crop in Essex, so we’ll have 25 trees of our own within the 3.5ha beaver enclosure, and look at ways to protect them.”

Grant Funding

Another aspect to the project is grant funding from the Environment Agency and from the local rivers trust, through an agreement between the World Wildlife Fund and CocaCola – whose corporate social responsibility programme focuses on conservation of water.

“I’m trying to push the practical thinking of natural capital along,” says Archie. “At the moment it’s designed for government agencies. The Natural Capital Committee has won the argument with the government on this: all plans should take account of natural capital, so the Treasury should incorporate it in their cost benefit analysis work.

“My interest is in trying to help myself and others turn natural capital into a business where we’re paid to provide goods where we might make a profit, using the estate as a base.

“We’re trying to generate examples, so we can say, this works, enable this. For example, reducing ammonia emissions for cleaner air, it’s unlikely to be anyone but government that will buy that, so there is a public purchasing element.

“But to allow a private purchasing element enables so much more.

“So if, for example, I’m trapping water every year and that can be quantified, I can go to an insurance company and agree a business contract – not a grant – paying me, say, £5000 a year for reducing claims for flooding to that company by, say, £1million.

“It’s a massive opportunity and needs to be demonstrated as sustainable and profitable to government.”

Close relationships

The 820ha estate, including 80ha woodland, is farmed by three long term tenant families, and Dunmow-based EW Davies Farms Ltd on a farm business tenancy. Archie maintains close working relationships, especially with Andrew Davies, whose arable management includes controlled traffic farming and cover crops.

When Archie returned to the estate in 2008, he was not on his natural stomping ground. The nursery his father had run for 30 years had been replaced by a new enterprise, using converted farm buildings and a newly-restored Spains Hall – an Elizabethan manor lived in by Archie’s late great uncle, Sir John Ruggles-Brise, for all of his 99 bachelor years – as a wedding venue. Archie’s role was to run the hospitality business while continuing his work on national environmental policy.

Set up pre-financial crisis, and in a massively competitive market, it was to prove unsustainable. With Archie and his family, and his parents, settled on other parts of the estate, the decision has been made to sell the house and buildings, retain the land and refocus as a land-based business.

“When I first came back, we were focused on big projects. Now we’re concentrating on low level, low risk projects, with probably lower returns, but which can be wound back if they’re not working. It was a very conscious decision to create more diversity and flexibility in the business.”

Wild venison

Archie runs a wild venison business, working with volunteer stalkers help him shoot the deer, mainly fallow and muntjack – most of the native roe are left – and then butchering and packing the meat for sale direct to game dealers and butchers.

Hides have been set up across the estate for a new wildlife photography business, whereby keen photographers buy a half or whole day ticket of quiet and solitude to try and capture on camera some of the estate’s wildlife.

The bonus for Archie is that the resulting shots show him what there is: so far, buzzards, red kites, deer, greater spotted woodpeckers, kingfishers, a barn owl and various songbirds.

A programme of improvements to residential properties on the estate, some occupied by old farming tenants, is underway to conform with upcoming EU regulations on energy efficiency. Three properties are being let as holiday cottages, and are growing in popularity as positive reviews bring in more custom. A small campsite, certificated with the Camping and Caravanning Club, and 12 miles of tracks for horse riders, provide further opportunities for people to enjoy the countryside.

“We’re trying to be really on the ball with what markets are doing. For example, we moved into holiday lets with the growth in airbnb, but, if the market was to contract, they would make perfectly good homes. The key thing is to retain flexibility for future generations.”

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