Diversification of British farming – it’s more than just ditching sheep for alpacas

Peter Cooper
vole 4 300x216 Diversification of British farming   its more than just ditching sheep for alpacas

(c) Pete Cooper

When people think of “diversification” of farming, it tends to be along the lines of ditching sheep for alpacas, or setting up farm shops and public orchards. But all this is fairly pedestrian compared to Devon farmer Derek Gow’s unique specialisation.

Arriving at his farm, first appearances are typical. But look behind the tractors and livestock barns and a very different farm comes into view: dozens of large hutches, each one filled with breeding groups of  one of Britain’s rarest mammals – water voles.

Derek is not only a keen pastoral farmer, but he is among the front-line of conservationists fighting to tackle the decline of these charismatic rodents. Once a common sight along British waterways, water vole numbers have plunged by more than 90 per cent since the 1990s. Loss of bank-side vegetation and predation from the American mink – an invasive species that arrived in Britain in 1920s – have taken a heavy toll.

Derek releases the offspring of his captive water voles – about 1,000 of them a year – back into the wild. Unfortunately, the mink are still out there – making efforts to improve the water vole population very difficult.

“The factors that caused the decline are still in place, so voles will continue to dissipate,” he explains. “What we need”, he says, “are achievable objectives to start off with”. “What we need to do now is look at parts of the landscape that are good for water voles – valley systems where you’ve still got wetlands, ditches and pool complexes for example.”

“But it’s an ambition that will only be sustainable if we’re prepared to make the effort. In parts of the countryside where water voles previously or currently exist, their presence just isn’t tenable. We don’t have the technology or full resources needed to maintain their presence, so they’re going to go.”

“It’s not nice to hear, but we’ve got to be hard-headed about it. We’ve got to start looking at it in the way endangered species are often conserved on small islands, like the kakapo in New Zealand.”

One solution, of course, would be to completely eradicate mink from Britain, giving the water vole the opportunity to once again become widespread. It sounds radical but we have already culled another invasive mammal, the coypu, to complete UK extinction in the Eighties. But Derek is sceptical.

“Mink need to be eradicated strategically, and where natural re-colonisation will be slow,” he says.

“No government in its right mind will ever commit the resources for national mink eradication. Different people will give you different answers at different times to that question, with plenty of ministerial hand-wringing at press conferences, but the answer is no.”

vole 3 300x199 Diversification of British farming   its more than just ditching sheep for alpacas

(c) Pete Cooper

Derek has 18 years of experience in water vole conservation and set up the first breeding programme in the New Forest. Rutland Water, the Trossachs and the River Meon in Hampshire are among the many successful release projects in recent years.

“Captive breeding is one of those things that you have to be very careful to get right,” he says. “The best way to start out is when the species is still relatively abundant, so you can ensure you get lots of individuals with lots of genetic variation early on – so by the time things start getting serious, you already have a head start with a healthy founder population. Otherwise you end up with a situation like the Mauritius Kestrel, where by the time they got round to setting up a breeding programme there were only four birds left in the world, and the health of any future descendants was effectively compromised.”

But water voles aren’t the only aquatic rodent he is working hard on restoring across Britain. A wander down one of Derek’s fields brings you to a lake surrounded by gnawed rushes, streams blocked with extremely solidly built dams of vegetation, and a large mound of cut logs and branches. It’s a landscape constructed entirely by a family of beavers.

A natural member of our British fauna, we wiped out the beaver sometime around the 15th century largely through hunting for its fur. In so doing we lost a key ecosystem engineer that can shape entire wetlands – with serious consequences for the natural communities that live there.

The local extinction of beavers continued throughout much of Europe, but since the 1920s they have been reintroduced to over 13 European countries – and Derek is passionate for Britain to join the list.

“Beavers are an animal that will adapt to what we’ve got without any problem at all,” explains Derek. “They can live anywhere – public parks, sewage farms, amenity landscapes you thought wouldn’t have been habitable for a mouse. As long as you have water and a bank with vegetation, beavers can live there.”

“We know from studies all over Europe that beavers have a huge effect on hydrological systems. This impact extends not just to the ecological effects, providing habitat for essentially every aquatic organism you can think of, but it plays a role in carbon lockage, in flood prevention, in water retention, and it has an effect in developed landscapes trapping and storing chemicals. So there are profound economical benefits to having beavers back.”

water vole 300x209 Diversification of British farming   its more than just ditching sheep for alpacas

(c) Peter Cooper

So environmentally speaking, the case to have beavers back in Britain seems sound. Yet as often befalls wildlife reintroduction projects, bureaucracy remains the biggest barrier to seeing beaver dams in the Thames.

“As soon as you move away from an environment where people read articles or books, and you walk into a room to discuss this with the people affected, it’s just farmers, or people who maybe have a stream at the bottom of their garden. And you say: ‘tell you what, we want to let this animal go and here’s why’. Some may think it’s reasonable, but some will be completely appalled and agitated against it, and the answer in their head is ‘no’ before there’s even an explanation given.”

“Once they’ve accepted that they’re answer is no, they’ll move hell and earth to find whatever stupid material there is to justify that position and stick to it like a limpet. Most of these people will be those aspiring to an 18th/19th Century landscape of shooting estates-and they are powerful, well-connected people who will do anything they possibly can to stop you.”

“So at the end of it all, that’s the answer to whether we’re going to have beavers again or not. There’s an overwhelmingly good case from an environmental and economic viewpoint to have these animals back, and beavers would absolutely be able to adapt to living in Britain today. It’s whether we as a society are ready to adapt to them.”

Wildlife conservation is an intriguing world. Individuals or small organisations working to preserve an integral part of our planet, huge in scale yet insignificant in the eyes of many governments and businesses who continue to exploit the natural world’s resources – all too often it can seem like trying to stop a lorry with a matchstick.

Yet the passion and drive of conservationists like Derek Gow does offer hope for the future. Many of Britain’s water vole colonies owe their survival due to his efforts to preserve them against the odds, while the likelihood of beavers restoring our wetlands may not be too far off thanks to his campaigning. If just a few more could contribute just as much as Derek has for wildlife, nature would likely be in a far less perilous state.

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  • anonymoose.

    A real diversification would be allowing the growing of hemp.Profitable, easy, chemical free and carbon neutral, It is the wonder crop of the future, from the past.

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