Almost twenty years ago I spent a couple of years in the village of Białowieża. It’s a place that’s hard to forget because it’s so rich in wildlife, nature feels really powerful and majestic and the human landscape is rich and fascinating. After that I went back home to the South Pacific for over ten years, of course in that part of the world, nature is a totally different ball game. Since coming back to the UK and living in Wales, I’ve often been reminded of the intensity of life and experiences I had in Białowieża. Not least because of the current rewilding discussions that are taking place in the UK.
I first came to Białowieża on the 5th or 6th of January 1997. It’s not that I have a very good memory for dates but I remember clearly that one as it coincided with the Orthodox new year: a lot of the shops were closed and it took a couple of days before we could buy any food. I was there with my flatmate, we were in the same year in wildlife management studies and had to do a month of practical placement. She wanted to work with wolves and had asked me if I wanted to join her in a crazy trip to Poland in the middle of winter. I said yes.
We were welcomed by the institute then known as Zakład Badania Ssaków a part of the Polish Academy of Sciences and accompanied the researchers involved in their wolf project. For the length of our stay, we either snow- or radio-tracked wolves. We learned so much in that month and spent so much time outside. In particular I was lucky and amazed to come across some fresh signs of beaver activity along the river Narew.
That was all I’d see of beavers on that first trip, but it certainly opened a whole new world of possibilities (along the lines of “what if beavers were reintroduced to the UK?”).
Beavers are rather discrete and their crepuscular and nocturnal habits don’t help with detection. On that first trip, I didn’t trust myself enough to wait around at night in the frozen forest to see beavers. However between 1997 and 1999 I was lucky enough to spend more time in Białowieża and to take part in some of the Zakład Badania Ssaków’s mammal projects.
The Białowieża forest covers a lowland area, with lots of rivers that have never been drained so a lot of its area is swampy and criss-crossed by streams and large rivers. This is ideal territory for beavers.
My second encounter with beaver signs was a corpse and a skull, found at a wolf prey site. One of the students had a skull collection and I remember that skull boiling for hours in our little shared kitchen to rid it of all flesh. That day I learnt that beavers are tasty morsels for hungry wolves. I also saw first hand that their teeth, stained a reddish orange by the iron contained in their enamel are just as sharp and tough as you can imagine.
Then in summer I spent quite a lot of time on transects through the forest, which was a great opportunity to discover and see things. The odd beaver dam, such as this one below, cropped up from time to time. Imagine seeing first hand the impact that beavers have on their environment, turning a small stream into a large reservoir. I can only marvel at how much water and pressure even a small dam can hold.
It was months later that I realised that there was a beaver den right in the village, by the youth hostel. There, beavers would come out every evening and could easily be seen. Of course I have no photo of the animals, they appeared, as beavers do, when it was almost dark and we could just see them swimming in the river and quietly leading their lives. Their den was on the other bank of the river and quite difficult to access so they must have felt safe. I remember that they seemed to spend a lot of time floating on their backs, grooming and scratching their bellies. Seems like a trivial activity for forest and river engineers but it’s as important to them as cutting down trees since they constantly need to waterproof their coat by spreading all over their fur the oil secreted by special gland.
Now I’m very excited that there are wild beavers in the UK and would love to come across signs of them in my area. I find if very satisfying to know that beavers are not so far now and I wish them good luck and prosperous breeding.