BEAVERS JOIN THE PLOT

~ Posted by Alexander Ewing, January 16th 2013

The morning temperature is well below freezing. I trudge along a forest path in Downeast Maine on snowshoes, pulling along a plastic sled loaded with chainsaws, petrol, bar and chain oil and a fire rake. My friend drags a flame-thrower fixed to a propane tank. The snow is four feet deep in places and the going is tough. But winter is the best time to do "a burn", and I take the look of these woods personally.

My grandparents used to own this plot, now preserved under conservation. The woods are over 150 years old, and my family are the stewards, in charge of keeping the forest tidy. My friend and I cut up downed spruce into manageable pieces and make a large pile. The flame-thrower belches orange and blue. The wet logs hiss at first, then crackle. Turning off the gas, we throw anything on—green or dry—especially the fir saplings which are beginning to overtake the place. But the fir saplings are the least of our problems.

Beavers moved in to the woods five years ago. They build dams and lodges with mud and logs, flooding more than five acres under three feet of water, submerging my well-kept footpaths. The beavers eat wood—tree bark and cambium—and like alders, birch and cherry. They block streams to create ponds, in the middle of which, somewhere, they have a house with access to the water.

I applaud their industriousness and ingenuity. They alter the woods with precision, creating a new wetland ecosystem, which in wintertime becomes a frozen openness. Efforts to contain them, even slightly, have failed. A man from Vermont came in to install a "beaver deceiver", a plastic pipe running through their dam, the ends of which are covered by wire cages to prevent the beavers from blocking them up. If the pipe runs far enough into their pond—the theory goes—the beavers won't figure out where the water is leaking. But it didn't work. They just built another dam—and then another—beyond the pipe.

The beavers and I are at a ceasefire this winter. Their expansions seem to be on hold, and I'm accepting nature's way. Despite their impact on the woods, I'd miss them if they upped and left. I recently found evidence of trappers, so I contacted the game warden to see how we could stop them. The beavers deserve protection; these woods are now as much theirs as they are mine. Or had been my grandparents'. Perhaps we can find a way to work together.

Alexander Ewing is a writer based in Oxford