Million beavers conquer Eurasia: for good or for worse?

(ORDO NEWS) — New data show: the number of beavers in Russia and Eurasia was sharply underestimated. There are a million of them, and soon there will be many times more. Then beavers will completely change our landscape – and for the better. Oddly enough, these creatures are able to populate not only forests, but also the tundra, steppe and even sea coasts.

Along the way, they completely change the ecosystem – as well as the chances of people surviving in it. Begin the beaver reconquista process a little earlier – and thousands of Muscovites would be saved. Let’s try to figure out why.

An article was published in Global Ecology and Conservation, stating: for the first time in recent history, the number of beavers in Eurasia has reached 1.2 million, exceeding the millionth mark. Moreover, in Russia there are half a million of them, and this number is growing rapidly. Is it a lot or a little? It is believed that several centuries ago, up to 400 million people lived in Eurasia – three hundred times more.

Unlike past centuries, beaver hats and fur coats are unfashionable. Of course, there are a certain number of fans of the “beaver stream”, the contents of the animal’s anal glands. Some part of the population – of course, mistakenly – believes that this water-repellent composition increases potency. But in our time, there are more effective and cheaper means of this kind, so the mass extermination of beavers for this reason should not be expected.

All this means that they have the opportunity in the very near future to increase their Eurasian population hundreds of times. These animals radically change landscapes where they appear. So, from the conquest of Eurasia by them, the nature around us cannot but change. Is this good or bad?

Mix beaver with evil

Many are inclined to the second option. Very often, people’s attitudes toward the largest rodents in the northern hemisphere are quite wary. Any summer resident knows: beavers have appeared in the district – soon groundwater will rise, in the spring it can fill the cottage. And even without flooding, these animals are not easy neighbors.

Take a look at the news: the beaver quarreled with a lady who wanted to pet him at three in the morning in the center of Kaliningrad (2009); he interrupted the femoral artery of a fisherman who tried to take a picture with him (he died, Belarus, 2013). Some of these attackers set records in terms of size: in the Ryazan region, a migrating beaver, who bit the teacher in the middle of the village (she mistook it for a kitten), was measured after death and turned out to weigh 30 kilograms and a length of 1.2 meters.

All this creates a feeling for many approaching beaverpocalypse. A typical headline of the press on this issue: “In the Kaliningrad region, they decided to shoot 614 beavers due to damage to nature.” The governor of this region even tried at the federal level to “break through” the status of beavers as harmful animals. The idea of ​​a local official is simple: “There is an opinion that beavers are harmful animals for the Kaliningrad region (because, in fact, they did not exist before fifty some years).”

It would seem that it can be understood: there are already cases when investors refused to build production in this region because of the “beaver threat”.

It should be understood that the problem now is only in its initial phase: it is estimated that while these animals in the Kaliningrad Region are only a few thousand, these animals are potentially able to breed here much stronger.

But a closer look at the situation with beavers shows that those who assess them negatively simply know too little about this beast and its real impact on nature.

What do we not know about beavers?

Of course, they did not always build dams and change the landscape. Up to several million years ago, the climate on the planet was much warmer than today. And, as in all warm eras, much more stable – he did not know the alternations of ice ages and interglacials. In such a world, a water rodent does not need much refuge from cold winters and hot summers. After all, the warmer, the more rainfall and the lower the threat of weather instability – a sharp fluctuation in the levels of water bodies.

A few million years ago it began to cool (in fact, the climate is still colder than that era). Three million years ago, beavers of the Dipoides species (slightly smaller than current ones) built the first dams. As far as we know, this was the first time in the history of the Earth when living creatures began to build complex hydraulic structures. People repeated this feat much later.

The beaver dam only seems to be a simple mess of branches and soil: in fact, it is an extremely multifunctional structure, related not only to creating a convenient home, but … to growing food for this rodent.

The dam creates a “window” – an area where the flow of water pouring through the dam prevents it from freezing, and from where the beast can always come to the surface. In addition, by raising the water level, the minidamba gives the beaver the opportunity to make the entrance to its hut underwater – so that the predator does not see the moment of exit and cannot watch it there. The top of the hut protrudes above the water. Snow will fall there, which insulates the “house” in winter and makes it difficult to freeze.

In summer, the reservoir created by animals has a more stable area – and aquatic plants grow more intensively in it, such that they require clean water and are attached to the bottom of the reservoir. Small rivers and streams usually do not give them a stable place to survive, because in the summer they become very shallow – but not where there are beaver dams.

In other words, animal hydrotechnics not only protects the beaver from the cold, and the entrance to his house from predators, but also creates a “plot” where his favorite summer food grows – aquatic plants that require calm and clean waters.

In addition, the beaver, actively eating trees (including those that dump in its pond for the winter), defecates in the water, sharply enriching the bottom of the pond with nitrogen and phosphorus, which are usually short of water. Due to this, he is increasing the total biomass of aquatic plants and ecosystems as a whole: thanks to the “introduction of fertilizers” it becomes easier for them to grow.

After a few years there are still enough trees around – a beaver cannot consume too many of them. Moreover, on the shores of the reservoir created by him, they grow more actively, since its feces bring more nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil, and a stable level of groundwater simplifies the growth of trees. But the dam builder himself doesn’t really like this place anymore: you have to go further for each new tree. Then he migrates to a new place and builds himself a new dam and a hut there.

As a result, one beaver family (their pairs are stable until the death of one of the two) accounts for up to 5-6 dams during their life. As we have already noted, in total up to 400 million beavers lived in Eurasia. That is, the number of their dams could, in the literal sense of these words, exceed a billion. There is nothing incredible in this figure: on Tierra del Fuego, 206 thousand dams per 73 thousand square kilometers are visible on satellite photos. Moreover, in forests this density is much higher, sometimes exceeding 15 pieces per square kilometer. There are 70-110 thousand beavers here (counting them is much more difficult than dams distinguishable from outer space).

Dams turn into “beaver meadows” not only woodlands. These animals can build dams and huts from shrubs. On the same Tierra del Fuego, due to this, they settled not only the steppes, but also the tundra, flooding with their reservoirs 315 square kilometers, almost 1% of the territory that was colonized.

The invisible side of the dark pool

In addition to dams that are easily discerned by the eye, this animal introduces one more important type of modifications to the landscape, which we notice less often. Beavers dig two types of channels. The first of them is “freight”: if fodder species of trees of interest to it are marginalized from the reservoir, to simplify harvesting for the winter, it paves a channel 0.5-0.8 meters wide to them, along which it “fuses” large fragments of trees.

The second type of channels is “passenger”: it digs them at the bottom, deepening the channels of small streams and rivers connecting water bodies to each other. This, in forest conditions, is necessary for him to move without risk from one place to another, which is very important during migrations.

And this species arranges migration every few years. In a sense, it was beavers, not people, who invented the first “nomadic farming.” Only if in humans one is called slash-fire, then in beaver it is more precisely called flood-meadow. When he builds a dam, he uses trees growing along the banks of the reservoir. Some of the trees can be flooded, and then they also go to the winter supply of food. If there are no flooded trees, the beaver will begin to tumble and haul trees into the water from the shore of its “reservoir”.

By the way, about “agriculture”. When an animal enters a dry habitat – for example, in the Orenburg steppe – it begins to engage in irrigation. Having built a dam on a stream, the beast first provides itself with a supply of water. In the Orenburg steppe, the average channel width after the arrival of the beaver increases from 0.65 to 13.5 meters, the depth grows from 0.25 to 0.9 meters. And then he begins to lead away from his “reservoir” canals.

Researchers from the Orenburg Nature Reserve describe them as follows: “Canals perform the function of irrigation, thereby increasing the wetting area of ​​the coastal zone.” What this gives the beast is understandable. The higher the moisture around his habitat, the faster the trees that he eats will grow there.

Candidate of Biological Sciences Vladimir Lavrov develops the idea: “By changing the landscape, a beaver creates biotopes for a whole complex of living organisms. This contributes to biological diversity. Zooplankton, benthos contribute to the development of living organisms in the water, and therefore, with the advent of beaver in the dams, more fish become.

Mink, otter, weasel, ermine appear almost immediately after the beaver. After all, in nature, how? The beaver fell down a tree, nibbled the bark and left it, and then the roe deer came, the elk – and they also found food … The same birds, amphibians, reptiles. A beaver conserves surface water, which is very important in times of drought. When the summers are dry, firefighters often take water from beaver dams. ”

Lavrov also criticizes the idea that beavers lead to waterlogging of the area. This animal does not live in the swamp: it is vitally important for him to deepen the reservoirs and have a regular flowing stream in them, otherwise the surface of his “reservoir” will freeze in winter.

Over time, the scientist emphasizes, the beaver does not create swamps at all, but rather their opposite: “Again, such a process accelerates the formation of silt, and it is the basis for the formation of floodplain meadows. There is already unconditionally great benefit for agriculture. ”

The overall impact of beaver on species diversity is certain: it increases it. Due to wandering, he never destroys the woody vegetation completely, especially since he does not like many of its species at all – for example, spruce, pine, oak.

And due to the increase in the depth and size of water bodies in its habitat zone, waterfowl appear in a few years, which have never been before – mallards, teal, water insects (the same dragonflies) and much more. Abandoned beaver huts willingly colonize otters (if the dam has grown and has not collapsed) and even foxes (if it was once destroyed by spring water, and the hut is above water level).

Rodent activity makes life easier for other animals. As the hunters state: “the feeding load of ungulates in the territory of the beaver colonies was 4-8 times higher than in the surrounding lands. The bark and shoots of trees and shrubs dumped by beavers, but not yet fully cultivated by them or “hovering” above the ground, were fully used by elk, deer, roe deer and hare.”

Beaver and sea

Often people consider a beaver a purely freshwater animal. But he himself does not know anything about this: it is known that these animals crossed the difficult sea straits between Tierra del Fuego and South America on their own.

As American scientists discovered several years ago, this beast can live and carry out hydraulic construction in the coastal zone. To provide himself with housing, he is able to break through the ditches and deepen the existing channels running from the seashore into the land. At high tide, seawater penetrates these ditches far to land and stays in depressions that beavers use as reservoirs in which they build a hut.

This sounds rather strange, but it seems that they are able to feed on part of the aquatic plants that exist in seawater. At the same time, the beast does not actually drink salt water, and even, if not used to it, can drown it and die. However, beavers, long adjacent to the sea, are well aware that it is dangerous, and live quietly in the coastal “reservoirs” filled with canals.

Thus, the Americans discovered the marine inclinations of beavers in North America, where the Canadian beaver lives. The question arises: what is the matter with us, is the Eurasian beaver able to cope with the sea? A possible answer can be seen in the video below (carefully, loud music):

As we see on the Curonian Spit (Kaliningrad Region), they quite easily tolerate salt water and behave on the sea beach in much the same way as a tourist person. However, those parts of our country where there is a high tide are relatively poorly studied by zoologists. Therefore, it is difficult to reliably say whether these rodents use “tidal reservoirs” in our country. But, most likely, they can do this – if not now, then in the future.

Eurasian beaver is an invasive species worth rejoicing

We have already quoted the Kaliningrad governor, claiming that the beaver was not found here until the 1950s, and now it has come and is ragingly raising the level of groundwater, which is why investors who planned to bring local trees to fuel pellets decided not to go into the region. Part of the truth here is: with a high level of groundwater, the wood has higher humidity, which means that the costs of drying it are higher.

But there is a lie: a beaver in Eurasia – both in the Kaliningrad region and in Volgograd – is not a recent alien at all and is not an invasive species. He was here a very long time and always actively transforming the nature in which he lived. Much of what we perceive as a natural landscape, in fact, is the result of their activities.

In 1706, the Prussian king Frederick I imposed a fine of 20 thalers (0.45 kilograms of silver) for causing any damage to the beaver dam or to the animals themselves. The main territory where the fine was relevant was East Prussia. As we see, the current governor of one of the parts of East Prussian lands could be more interested in the history of his region.

However, the fines did not help. Prices for beaver fur were high in that era, and no German ordnung saved East Prussian beavers from extinction by the 19th century. The dams they left along the banks were overgrown with trees and were considered lakes or swamps of “natural” origin. After the NSDAP came to power in the 1930s, it was in East Prussia that it launched a large-scale reclamation project that drained vast areas and left canals scattered throughout the Kaliningrad Region today.

However, after several decades, these arable lands turned out to be moderately productive (there is by no means black soil), and cattle breeding in Russia, to which these lands were transferred, frankly, is not overdeveloped, which is why the lands drained under the Nazis and the Soviet government frankly fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, a beaver reappeared on them, which began to restore the order once arranged by his ancestors: damming the area, including a number of old reclamation canals.

Therefore, the words of the local modern governor: “There is an opinion that beavers are harmful animals for the Kaliningrad region (because, in fact, they didn’t exist before the age of fifty),” one should evaluate it as “there is an opinion”. And nothing more. A beaver cannot be a harmful animal here, because it is an ancient sculptor of local ecosystems.

Yes, undoubtedly, this animal knocked out by poachers almost all over Russia for a long time (two or three centuries) was absent in most of our ecosystems. During this time, they have significantly changed in appearance. Rivers that used to be full-flowing were shallow. Leo Tolstoy once bathed in the Yasenke river on his estate, and today the very existence of this river in some years raises questions (water disappears in it). There is simply no question of swimming there. It is clear that the ecosystem has adapted to low water: aquatic species of birds and plants are heavily crowded, there are those who are ready to live with a deficiency of phosphorus and nitrogen.

But, as researchers from the Orenburg Nature Reserve note, although the beaver is now a formally and invasive species, atypical of orphaned ecosystems, its return is still difficult to assess as an environmental problem.

Inhuman hydraulic engineering against flooding

The other side of the problem: beavers in practice help many regions adapt to serious environmental threats. Recall: there is global warming on the planet, which is why the amount of precipitation will inevitably increase and will continue to grow. Europe from Great Britain to Poland is periodically flooded with rains causing human casualties and destruction. In the same Kaliningrad press you can find a whole section for news under the general name “Flood in Kaliningrad.”

The question arises: why in the historical chronicles of this region is it extremely difficult to find references to such events in the past? The answer is quite banal: before the desolation and descent of numerous beaver dams, they served as a large buffer-drive for water. Yes, its level did not fall in the summer, but even with heavy prolonged rains, water accumulated in many reservoirs and very rarely seriously overflowed their shores.

Now this factor is much weaker, but if the beavers are not killed here, sooner or later everything will return to normal. And dangerous floods will become far less dangerous.

Will a man defeat beaver and common sense?

So, we are observing a rather strange situation. On the one hand, the amount of precipitation is growing in the world, which leads to periodic floods in Europe (and in the west of Russia). On the other hand, in the Moscow region in summer the level of groundwater drops, which causes peat bogs to burn, which is why seven to eight thousand people die in other years.

In theory, a Eurasian beaver is the simplest and most free way to alleviate both problems. Damped rivers dramatically reduce flood force. In Russia, there can live not several hundreds of thousands, as it is now, but millions of beavers that are able to maintain a network of tens of millions of active dams, keeping groundwater high year round and preventing rivers from leaving the banks much during prolonged rains.

But in practice, they are trying to fight this animal: in the Moscow Region, where more people died from its deficit in 2010 than in the local war, they even want to give money for shooting. In periodically flooded Kaliningrad it is required to recognize it as a harmful animal. In Belarus, which suffered from the hot summer in 2015, there are places where every sixth beaver is killed by hunters.

The reason for this strange behavior is understandable: people do not think that it was they who started the war with the beaver, almost destroying it; that the dachas they built are located without taking into account hydrological safety, often where it is impossible to build by all standards; that the floods around the former Koenigsberg also began not just like that, but only after this rodent was harassed there.

Despite the slight absurdity of the situation, it is unlikely to cause pessimism. Do not worry that the Russian authorities will be able to defeat the beaver. And not only because at the same time they also have to deal with floods or peat fires. More importantly, the behavior of people in our country has changed a lot. As the proponents of the beaver themselves say:

“… it’s not easy to hunt a beaver. “We have to climb swamps, lakes, forest rivers, among trash, rot and rubble.”

Nowadays, people love comfort too much, and changeable fashion has long ignored rodent fur. In the same Novgorod region, the quota for shooting beavers is 27 thousand, and only 61 per year are interested in it. It is clear that in the Moscow region the concentration of people is high, and here, most likely, these animals will continue to be tightly controlled.

But outside its borders, there are fewer people in Russia, and their ability to move outside a comfortable urban environment is ever lower. And the end of both of these trends is not visible. Most likely, the beaver reconquest of Eurasia will end in full success – whether we want it or not.

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