“As they labour and burrow; create woody dams; scent mark their leaf piles with their camphor-rich juice; build, browse, and bicker; and fell trees with ease, the beavers wrapped up in their works for a day, don’t know, care or wonder that all that surrounds them is made by their actions…That it needs them and without them would fade swiftly away.” (Derek Gow, Bringing back the Beaver, Page170.)
Rewilding, restoring, relocating, reimagining, or simply ‘wilding’ (as Isabella Tree prefers it) is going to be one of the buzz concepts of this decade – and so it bloody well should be: we are living in a country that has been emptied of most its fauna and flora and is one of the most nature-depleted in the world (we’re in 189th place out of 218 countries), with crashing populations of once common insects and insectivorous birds (the two are inextricably linked of course), and vast areas of the land held hostage by the powerful lobbies that control the sheep, cattle, shooting, and grain industries.
Once you get your eye in and realise that much of what remains of our wildlife is just about clinging to survival in slivers of isolated habitat, learn how quickly the situation could be turned around, and get to grips with the wonders that would be released if we can only (to quote Paul Morton of Birds of Poole Harbour) “get our arses into gear“, you’ll be shouting about the need to ‘rewild/restore/relocate’ etc as well…
It’s not likely, however, you’ll be shouting quite as loudly as the remarkable Derek Gow, a roaring bull of a man, who is variously described in his superb book “Bringing back the Beaver” as a ‘one man wrecking ball’, a ‘cowboy operating outside the law‘, and a ‘complete pain in the arse‘. Yep, he’s upset a lot of people (who richly deserved to be upset, truth to be told) in his astonishing efforts to do twenty years ago what every serious conservationist with an iota of imagination now sees as an absolute no-brainer: bring back Nature’s most efficient landscape engineer, an animal described as ‘Humanity’s natural ally in combating climate change‘, the European Beaver Caster fiber, once abundant throughout Europe until it was trapped, bludgeoned, and shot into near-extinction.
Derek’s doggedness and resilience is a theme picked up by the numerous quotations that front-load the book in a section called ‘Praise for Bringing Back the Beaver’ (that it’s a section three and a half pages long, crammed with apercus from the likes of George Monbiot, Dame Judi Dench, Prof Dave Goulson, Brigit Strawbridge, Hugh Warwick, and Sir John Lister-Kaye should be enough of a recommendation to get this book immediately/at once/now/straight away).
And has Derek ‘bloody’ Gow ever needed superhuman levels of determination in the face of dumb as bricks landowners with booming voices, florid faces, and the confidence that comes with being born with money and a doting nanny; bureaucrats that would have made John Major’s grey Spitting Image puppet appear rainbow-coloured in comparison; Defra officials whose only loyalty was to the minority-interest lobbyists that still infest the so-called ‘corridors of obstruction’; and so much timidity, sullenness, procrastination, intransigence, and plodding resolve to never, ever do anything that might just be different to what went before that normal human beings like you and me would have done just what we were supposed to do – roll over and give up.
Not Derek Gow though. ‘Bringing back the Beaver‘ is an astonishing tale of seeing the end result, fixing on it with a laser-like focus, and just climbing over (or through) any obstruction that gets in the way. Don’t think for a moment this is a ‘eulogy to Derek Gow written by Derek Gow’ though. If anything, what makes his Herculean efforts so impressive is that he makes so little of them. There were road blocks along the way that had to be navigated but navigated they bloody well would be.
No, ‘the beaver’ is the star of this book, and Derek ‘softy’ Gow is clearly besotted by the toothy, furry, family-loving, herb-scented escapologists. Yes, Chaucer’s more boisterous audience members would have loved some of the more direct phrases scattered through ‘Bringing back the Beaver‘, but Derek is also a poet and very gifted storyteller, with a beguiling openness that – having once seen him give a barnstorming, no-holds-barred speech where he flayed officialdom to hell and back – I’d not expected. There is a most beautiful description of looking into a beaver’s face on Page 70 that will stay with you forever, for example. It turns out that Derek Gow is nothing if not multi-faceted, and if I ever get the chance to meet this bluff, towering giant of conservation I’ll temper my own nervousness with memories of his writing a line like “She was love and warmth. She was mother and maternity. She was kind“. About a beaver. Who knew…
‘Bringing back the Beaver‘ is, of course, more than just a love letter to the beaver. It’s also a history book. It details the greedy, selfish, stupid eradication of a species that is still remembered in names of villages and towns all over England. It’s part-travelogue, too, with raucous accounts of vodka-fuelled evenings that make you wonder why some of the people featured in this book aren’t on the endangered list themselves. It’ll even give you explicit details about how to achieve the apparently near-impossible task of sexing beavers, and what it feels like to have a beaver’s chisel-like incisors slice through your chest.
Reading ‘Bringing back the Beaver‘ will undoubtedly fill you with rage that officials are still screwing up our wildlife with ludicrously ill-informed decisions around reintroductions (and, personally speaking, idiotic schemes that allow moorland estates to dictate how many nesting Hen Harriers there should be in England), but above all else it is wonderfully, marvellously inspiring. If you don’t want to bring back beavers to heal large areas of our battered, denuded, barren countryside there is no hope for you: you’re just going to have to let the sands shift beneath you and the movement to ‘make things better’ roll on without you. The rest of us will read this book in one day, raise our open palms to the skies to praise Derek Gow, and be fighting back the urge to nip outside and start flooding our nearest river valley.
There are exciting times coming, and thank god that visionaries like Derek Gow exist to make them happen…
- ‘Bringing back the Beaver – The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways‘ is published by Chelsea Green and is available from all good booksellers.
- Follow Derek on Twitter at gow_derek
- Learn more about Dereks’ work at Derek Gow Consultancy