Beaver is the rewilding specialist

June 16, 2011

At the end of May I was on a short break in the Belgian Ardennes – a huge forested area where tourism flourishes but where nature is not in its best condition. And it’s an area that has undergone huge transformations over the last few centuries. The Ardennes were the starting point of the Industrial Revolution on the European mainland. It’s hard to believe nowadays.

When we walked the paths of the Ardennes with beautiful sunny weather, it was low season, so not a lot of activity going on. But every village had B&B’s, hotels, campsites; each forest had innumerable hiking trails and every hill had its own ATB-route. Tourists mainly from the Netherlands, Flanders and France come here for active leisure on the numerous small rivers, to visit the famous caves and for hiking through nature.

But things were very different before. Hundreds of years ago there were water mills from the river Meuse, up into the tiniest valleys. Mills were working on the running water producing paper and processing timber. Later followed by the first plants working on coal found in the neighborhood.  And the landscape was, besides some huge forested areas, used for grazing by thousands of peasants with their cows and sheep.

Many old water mills are now converted into hotels or simply abandoned and hard to find. The once grazed and open valleys  are now mainly covered with natural riverine forest as a result of the almost complete disappearance of grazing animals.  But a lot of valleys are also planted with exotic fir trees.

A decade ago the beaver was reintroduced into the Ardennes. A few dozen animals were released and they liked the area. They reproduced well and started spreading and now they have colonized almost all side branches off the Meuse and smaller rivers. When they started living in tiny mountain streams they began building dams, huge dams. With great results!

Valley forests with fir were drowned by the beavers and instead of closed forest, an open landscape developed within a few years. The beaver ponds support healthy fish populations, and a huge abundance of newts, salamander, toad and frogs attracting black stork and kingfishers. Wet grassy areas surround the ponds with many rare wild flowers and are magnets for hundreds of butterflies and other insects.

The powerful gnawing abilities of the beaver also helps to create and maintain these open spaces in the forests. And what can also be seen are abandoned beaver territories. The wet meadows become more dry and are an ideal place for wild boar, red deer and roe deer to feed. And these areas in turn are preferred hunting grounds for the occasional wild cat or lynx.

Another good thing about having the beaver back is that they are natural water managers. With the creation of natural dams, ponds and marshes the water retention capacity is greatly increased and so beavers help us to reduce flood risk in downstream areas.

The beaver recreated open spaces which have proved to be great for the local wildlife and for water management. But even tourism benefits from their work. The open landscapes are much appreciated and the beaver with its impressive building structures attracts many visitors who even pay to see them.

Thanks to the beaver the Ardennesare becoming a bit wilder. But it could be better with less forestry and higher numbers of wild grazing animals. And some important grazers are missing like European bison or wild horse. But maybe the Belgians recognize this and are willing to make it an even wilder place.

When planning to visit the Ardennes, please consider hiring a professional guide to make sure you’ll find beaver and other wildlife. Good for local economy and ecology! And it makes all the difference to the quality of your experience!

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