Thursday, 24 February 2011

Floodplains and their anxious Owners

These photographs are of a stretch of the River Isla a little to the south of Alyth. This bit of the Isla is occupied by a family of beavers. Much of this length of the river is bare of riparian woodland. The beavers have settled on the south bank, where there is some patchy willow scrub. 

On the left of the photograph is the south bank. The tree on the north bank is one of the rather few on that bank and may even be one of those felled by the beavers this winter.

The photographs below were taken last week, when the weather was mild and wet.

This photograph was taken from the north bank of the Isla on Grange of Aberbothrie, a farm belonging to George Fleming. Beavers have cut down one of the few trees on his side of the river and provoked outrage. George claimed that this tree would be carried down river and finish up, lodged against a bridge, which might collapse in the event of other large woody debris forming up against it as well.

Unfortunately, I didn't take any photographs of the opposite bank. There are a couple of places where the flood waters blew out the burrows that beavers had been using. The Fleming view was that these breaks in the bank would render the whole flood bank on that side of the river liable to collapse and then the inundation of hundreds of acres of farmland. Others have suggested that these burrows are filling up with sediment already and that the flood banks themselves have a core of stone that is unlikely to be broken through so easily.

This simple controversy brings up so many questions. From the point of view of present day agriculture the soils of the flood plain are excellent silty loams in many cases and have to be protected from floods. From another point of view these bits of flood plain should be turned over to nutrient farming and the reinstatement of wetland with all that that means for the restoration of wildlife and wilderness.

I asked George if he had thought of planting this ground next the river with willows. He keeps this area of river in permanent pasture, recognising that the annual intrusion of flood water makes it too difficult to crop. Unfortunately, the grazing of cattle erodes the river bank and there are places where it is collapsing into the river. Having said that this stretch of eroding river bank is no worse than a great many stretches of river bank throughout Scotland. Nonetheless, it is symptomatic of the degradation of so much of our riparian habitat. The memory of my visit to Oregon reminds me that what they lost in 150 years, starting in the 19th Century, our ancestors had achieved around 1000 years ago. A reading of Professor Callum Roberts's 'The Unnatural History of the Sea' - Chapter 2 (Gaia Thinking 2007) is instructive.

In the 1990s the WWF set up its Wild Rivers' Project with its intention of restoring Scotland's degraded rivers to some of their wild state. I wonder what became of the project. And what became of SNH's plan to encourage riparian planting around the year 2000?

The present SRDP has as a priority in its environmental section the planting of riparian woodland. I wonder how much success this is having. I should find out.

This was a burrow that had been flooded and abandoned by the beavers.

Here is some really amazing debris from the floods earlier this winter. What quantities of plastic bottle and cans!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Three Killings and the Importance of Gravel

The news that three beavers have been killed somewhere upstream of roughly Meigle is upsetting, but not surprising, given Allan Bantick's advice to his audience in Forfar a year or two back that landowners might shoot what they saw as errant beavers. Ian Ivory was given similar advice by Scottish Natural Heritage, though I am told that he has not followed that advice so far. For which, Ian, grateful thanks, should you read this blog.

It is sad that the Scottish Wildlife Trust, through Chairman Bantick, and SNH should behave in this way. Can it be that they are jealous of the success of the accidental return of the beavers to Tayside? They seem to think that the free beavers of the Tay are a threat to the success of their project.

So far as local tourism is concerned our beavers at Bamff have been a draw for the Cateran Trail and those that live along the Isla are bringing interested walkers to visit the banks of that river.

Here is the dam that Ronald Campbell of the Tweed Foundation claimed would be impassable to salmon, but which John Thorpe stated would be passable. I asked another fish scientist if the name of Professor Thorpe, uttered in the presence of Ronald Campbell, would be enough to cause him to vanish in a puff of smoke. This person assured me that it would.

Anyhow, here is that dam again: it would be a very weak salmon that could not make it up to the pool above.

My recent visit to Oregon and the Joe Hall Creek reminded me of the importance of gravel for salmon redds. As I look at the fast flowing waters below the dams here I see signs of development of the kind shown me by Stan Petrowski.

These two photographs might have been better if I had thought of taking a polaroid lens with me.
I like the effect, even if you cannot make out the gravels very well.

A point that Louise makes from time to time in the discussion of whether the Burnieshed Burn is a suitable place for salmon to breed in is that this was an agricultural ditch until 2007 when the beavers built the Ronald Campbell High Dam and the two other big dams downstream. The ditch is undergoing a process of rewilding with all that means for the return of complexity and enriched biodiversity.

Water tumbling through a spill way in one of the dams.

A real beaver swamp

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Canyonville and Tiller

The Alhambra Creek is the name of the river that runs through Martinez in California. Heidi Perryman's excellent web site is to be found at

Stanley Petrowski's article there is a must read because it describes so much of the background to the present socio-economic situation in Oregon and the rest of the Pacific North-West.

Not only is Stan's piece excellent, but Heidi has written a really good summary of the conference, which makes it unnecessary for me to say any more about the presentations.

I will, however, say something about my visit to Stanley Petrowski's ranch, Singing Falls, at Tiller.

Before I left Canyonville, I dropped in to the local general store where, a couple of days before, I had photographed the stuffed cougars, mounted high on the wall.

Here is one of the cougars

This mat lay at the entrance to the store.

Later, I saw this T-shirt in the airport at Portland.

Twenty years ago timber was the main industry through much of the Pacific North-West: communities such as Canyonville were heavily dependent on it. Unfortunately, the lumber industry had no notion of the meaning of sustainability, limited understanding of the environmental value of old growth forest, and so the plundering of the forests sped on fed by the notion that the forests of the West were inexhaustible.

 The timber industry is still very important in the area, as I noticed from the number of trucks driving loads of first class timber along Interstate 5 up to Portland.

Conservationists were disturbed by the destruction of the ancient forests and ornithologists noted that numbers of the Northern Spotted Owl, which had been declared an endangered species and which is dependent on old growth forests, were declining. There followed litigation, which went right up to the US Supreme Court. As a result the timber companies were forced to restrict the amount of timber they might cut.

Coinciding with the period of extreme cutting, and subsequently, the timber companies had been mechanising and automating their sawmills. The result was that the '90s saw a radical reduction in the number of people employed in the timber industry.

The unemployment that followed caused enormous bitterness, some of which was focussed against environmentalists.

The clear cutting of the forests of the Pacific North-West, along with a variety of other causes (including runoff from roads, pesticide use) had a devastating effect on the salmon fisheries. Rivers and creeks that had run with salmon early in the 20th century had lost their abundance by the 1990s, even reaching the point of local extinction by 2000.

The recognition that communities must recover from the depression that resulted from the loss of employment in the timber business led to the formation of groups and associations of people who had come to recognise the links between community and land. The South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership is one of these.

The South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership organised the conference at the Seven Feathers Casino Resort. The motto of this group is 'Build Community - Restore Watersheds - Sustainable Stewardship'

The restoration of rivers is one of their main projects and the recognition of the part played by beavers in the management of healthy river systems came to them early.

Duncan Halley told me of the remarkable work of restoration that was being carried out along the Joe Hall Creek.

I had some warning of what to expect when Leonard Houston gave his talk on the last day of the conference. He showed a photograph of a Chinook helicopter that was used to lift timber up to the creek and lower it into a precise position. I took a photo of this photo:

Here are some photos of the Large Woody debris that was placed in the course of this project.

The recognition of the importance of Large Woody Debris and Coarse Woody Debris has come about relatively recently. Stan told us that it was as recently as twenty years ago that fishery managers were still keen to remove fallen trees, branches and other woody debris from water courses in the supposition that they would make obstacles for migrating fish.

 Much of the damage to the river system had been caused by the timber industry's practice of splash damming. This involved storing felled logs in a pool in the river that had been dammed and breaching the dam when enough timber had been gathered there, and in a time of high water. The timber would be washed downstream to some point where it could be gathered up and stored before being loaded onto ships and exported. The scouring caused by this method of transport eroded the river bed down to the bare rock in many places with the resulting loss of gravel beds where the salmon redds used to be. No redds = no salmon.

The figure 5 that you see in this picture refers to the weight of the log i.e. 5 tons.

Stanley pointed out that, after only a couple of years since the placing of the Large Woody Debris, gravels and sands were settling out into the recreated bed of the creek.

The Joe Hall Creek is a tributary of the Elk Creek, itself a tributary of the South Umpqua River. Leonard Houston had described the return of beavers to Elk Creek in his talk about the restoration project for that river.

Where the scouring timber reduced the rivers it rushed through to simplicity, the return of the timber and the beavers is bringing back complexity. In the Pacific North-West before the advent of industrial forestry and other European forms of land use this provided the niches that enabled the six native species of salmon to evolve in their waters.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Oregon Spring, Perthshire Winter

'The beaver is the state animal of the state of Oregon', said the immigration official. I was glad to learn this and, thanking the official for his benevolent attention, gathered my bags and set off to find my hired car.

The next day I drove south along Interstate 5 from Portland to Canyonville and its Seven Feathers Conference Center, Hotel and Casino, the place of our meeting, 'The State of the Beaver, 2011'.

The podium of the hall where we met was flagged with the Stars and Stripes, the Oregon flag and a flag for the Seven Feathers' Center. My immigration official's assertion that the beaver was the state animal of Oregon was borne out by the beautiful, golden beaver that adorned one side of the flag. The other side depicted a covered wagon to represent the arrival of European colonists in the 1840s (or so) and the date of the establishment of the State.

Duncan Halley held the flag and gave me a short account of the establishment of the State of Oregon.

Where to begin?

The Seven Feathers Hotel and Convention Centre and Casino is the property of the Cow Creek Band of the Umqua Indians, one of the many tribal groups native to the North-West of America. The Cow Creek Band recovered some of their land and were recognised by the government of the United States as having sovereign rights in their territory. Among the activities of the Cow Creek Indians has been the building and management of the Seven Feathers complex. 

After welcomes from Stanley Petrowski, President of the Partnership for the Umpqua Rivers and Amy Amoroso, a representative of the tribe, Louis LaChance performed a ceremony.

Then, the presentations began and they were formidable in their style and content. Dennis Martinez of the Indigenous Peoples' Restoration Network ( spoke eloquently about traditional ecological knowledge, the title of his talk being 'Climate Disruption, Beavers, Fire and Traditional Indian Land Practices.' 

He was followed by Donald Hey, Senior Vice-President, of the Chicago based Wetlands' Institute, whose presentation was entitled 'Nutrient Farming, The Business of Environmental Management.' 

Duncan Halley of NINA, the Norwegian Conservation Agency, gave a decisive rebuttal of the Scottish salmon fisheries' opposition to the return of the beaver to Scotland and concluded that the controversy over the return of salmon to Scotland had little to do with the ecological realities and a lot to do with sociology.

Michael Pollock, who was to have spoken about 'Beaver and Salmon, a Keystone Relationship' was most unfortunately unable to come to the conference.

Such was the first day of the meeting.

The following day, Thursday, 3rd February, Glynnis Hood gave a talk entitled 'Not too dry for beavers: Unexpected outcomes during unprecedented drought'. Glynnis's presentation included some fascinating aerial photographs that showed the increase in wetlands in an area of Alberta between 1940s and 2000, despite severe drought thanks to the return of beavers to the area.

Sherri Tippie, of Wildlife 2000, doyenne of the live trapper, translocators of the US gave a powerful and emotional account of her career as a humane relocator of beavers. 

 She had built some beautiful models of various devices that can keep culverts unblocked by beavers and so make it unnecessary to trap and move the animals.

The photo below shows a beaver deceiver of the kind that has been developed by Skip Lyle.

And these photographs show something like the Clemson Leveller.

Next to speak was Heidi Perryman. She described her highly successful campaign in Martinez, California (home of John Muir), to prevent the trapping and removal of a family of beavers that had moved into the river....that runs through the town.

The rest of the photographs are illustrations of the river restoration project that I visited at Tiller on Saturday 5th February, but I am going to write about this in my next post.

Stanley and Alexandra Petrowski

Doug Roberts and Leonard Houston