Since International Beaver Day is this month, I’ll tip a nod to the beavers who had made themselves at home on my land.
As I child I only knew the beaver as a mythical creature of the fur trade with a modeling job as our national symbol. Of course I read Grey Owl’s absorbing books about the two beaver kits who turned him from trapper to conservationist after he killed their mother. I knew that beavers had been hunted close to extinction, first in Europe and then in North America, mostly for the beaver hat which no gentleman of the 18th or 19th century could be seen without. The Russians, scoring the processing contracts, fiercely guarded the secret of combing away the guard hairs to get at the desirable woolly fur underneath.
With the changing fur trade, or perhaps the demise of the beaver hat craze, beavers began to rebound, not that I had any idea. So imagine my surprise to find my own farm pond on day adorned with a great heap of mud and sticks and a strange dark creature swimming up and down, coming ever closer, trying to check me out. I stared back and suddenly stood up when it got alarmingly close. With a sharp slap on the water, the visitor dove out of sight.
Slowly it dawned. Oh my goodness! That was a BEAVER!
Knowing little about beavers, I thought no more about my new residents until the pond itself disappeared under rising water that slowly engulfed the area and began reaching back into the woods. This was not uncommon is spring or fall, but in a summer drought? When cattle were lucky to have water to their ankles in the bottom of the waterhole?
I slogged back to investigate and, hidden by the trees, I happened upon a massive beaver dam stretching the length of two fields at least. An astonishing construction of mud and sticks stretching at least the length of two fields. The sheer labour involved was exhausting to contemplate. How hard the furry engineers must have worked to construct with two paws would would have taken a backhoe considerable time to accomplish. The legends about beaver industriousness certainly proved true. Good thing some of them weigh up to 60 pounds. Behind the dam what amounted to a small private lake was lapping, an extension of the broad sheet of water creeping into the pasture.
Splashing into the woods, I found the beavers taking them for their own. Beside freshly gnawed stumps, the beavers had actually dug canals to float their felled trees home. This after cutting them into four foot lengths exactly the way loggers do. Did they also have hard hats and posted work schedules? My lovely band of poplar trees was gone, clearly a beaver favorite. Some huge old oaks were dying from wet. Yet the beavers refused to even nibble the plague of eastern cedars moving in on the land. I didn’t yet realize how many cedars would conveniently drown when their roots got submerged.
Not knowing where the water would stop, I had a brief go at beaver warfare, a hopeless enterprise. First, I just dug holes in their dam but the beavers, who can sense running water from fields away, had the holes fixed probably before I got back home. My next bright idea was to bury a length of drainage pipe under the dam with an end far out under the water so they wouldn’t notice. Ha! Next time I came back, the beavers had the end of the pipe hauled up onto land and bitten full of holes. A big thumb of the rodent nose to me. I waited until winter when the beavers were frozen into their lodge and could not swim beyond the larder of twigs with which they had stuffed the erstwhile farm pond. The hole chopped in the dam drained and drained until the vast ice sheet all through the trees cracked and sank. I went home smug.
Until spring. The moment the ice thawed, the beavers plugged the holes and, in a jiffy, had the water up to former levels. Beavers one, me zero.
So what do I do next? Well, nothing. I was advised that once beavers arrive in a spot they like, removing them is futile. Other beavers simply move into the place already set up and comfy. As their flood spread, the sheet of water visible from the road began attracting attention from passersby. Birders. The beavers had done what beavers do–they created a wetland. In an era where wetlands get scarcer and scarcer, this new one suddenly started drawing all kinds of wetland species looking for a home.
Frogs, snakes, turtles moved in. Geese and ducks by the flock. Herons and cormorants began to fish. A pair of swans nested and produced a brood of cygnets that glided about for weeks until they could fly. Sandhill cranes started hanging around. One day, I was stopped in my tracks by tall white birds reflected in the water. My first great white egrets, newcomers to the county, took to standing about in the day and
roosting in the trees at night, eerily pale in the dusk. One evening, I saw a flock of over fifty flying, flashing white and gold in the setting sun, a sight not to be forgotten. I even had a big white pelican drop in for a day, looking quite lost and confused as it swam about with the ducks. Now birders hang over the fence in chilly dawns, peering through their spotting scopes, for they are not allowed in to disturb either the birds or the cattle. I also refuse all the good ole boys who pull in with their pickups and beg to hunt, tormented as they are by the sight all the fat waterfowl sitting in plain sight, preparing to migrate.
So that, I learned, is why beavers are called a keystone species. Monarchs of biodiversity, they create environments which allow dozens of other species, many threatened or endangered, to live and survive. Before Europeans arrived here, there were said to be up to 400 million beavers living from the Arctic tundra to the Mexican deserts. Tough, hardy little beggars, I’d say. Thousands of years of beaver dams catching silt gives us some of our best soils today. Beaver ponds decrease flooding, recharge our drinking water aquifers and remove pollutants from our surface and ground water. Now beavers are being reintroduced to drought lands all over the continent to bring back the water and the wildlife.
So beavers, you weren’t invited but I guess a thank you is in order. You’ve brought a whole troop of new friends with you. The cattle will never be short of a drink again. And there’s still half a field to go before the flood reaches my house.