Episode #88 Beaver ReWilding: Gateway to Transformation – with Eva Bishop of the Beaver Trust
How can we begin to reverse the destruction of our countryside, the pollution of our rivers – and our disconnection from the Natural World? Beavers, of course.
The Beaver Trust is a small group of committed individuals who understand the deep interconnectedness of life. By bringing beavers back to the UK where once they flourished, they are seeing whole ecosystems grow back to life. In their work with farmers and landowners, they are able to open gateways to radical restoration of our landscapes and biodiversity, reversing the catastrophic species loss of the past five decades.
Eva Bishop is their Communications Director. In this week’s episode, we explore the work of the Trust and it’s place in the wider systemic change we need if we’re going to make it through the current bottleneck.
FOLLOW THE BEAVER TRUST ON TWITTER
Manda: My guest this week definitely straddles many of those points. Eva Bishop is a passionate environmentalist and climate activist. She’s worked on large scale renewable energy programmes, run carbon offset schemes, funded a major wetland conservation and catchment restoration initiative, and developed a climate action app and materials for schools on eco initiatives. But we’re talking to her today because Eva is the communications director for the Beaver Trust.
I found the Beaver Trust on Twitter. Scrolling through my feed was this picture of a small furry mammal, in Britain, having been reintroduced. And I had this idea that cute furry mammals, apex parts of some kind of ecosystem, would be an interesting and inspiring podcast, because bringing them back is making major changes, as you’ll hear, to the UK landscape and other landscapes around the world. But actually what I discovered, to my absolute delight, is that the Beaver Trust is about reintroducing beavers, but it is so much more than that. Everybody there understands the need for systemic change, and has ideas and practical applications of how we can do this. The beavers are an integral part of this, but they are a gateway into the much, much larger change that we need. So this has been one of the most inspiring podcasts we’ve ever done because it has answers. Here are people who are actually making a difference. So people of the podcast, please do welcome Eva Bishop of the Beaver Trust.
Manda: So Eva Bishop of the Beavers Trust, and we just said Eva, like beaver, and I couldn’t not have that in. Welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast, and thank you for calling in from wherever you are, because the Beavers |Trust, I noticed last night, is registered in Hereford, just down the road from us. Within spitting distance. But I think you’re way down south.
Eva: I’m in Bristol myself, and thank you very much for having me on. It’s an absolute honour to be here.
Manda: So you are from the Beaver’s Trust, which I found on Twitter, bizarrely enough. But you’re very good at communicating. You are the communications director and you communicate very well on on my social media of choice. Tell us a little bit about how Emma Bishop came to be the person who is the communications director of the BBC Trust. What’s your history and what brought you to this place in this time?
Eva: Yeah, well, it took me a long time to discover who I was and what I’m about, and I’m still doing that. Aren’t we all? I think that’s the beauty of careers and life. And I’m ashamed to say I started on a catalyst treadmill, consulting, and very quickly realised that that wasn’t for me. And I turned to sport for a year, which gave me the space to think how do I want to make a difference in the world, and what’s motivated me so far in life? And there was this one subject in my business degree called Ecological Thinking and Action. And that’s the only place I got a first. And I really lit up by it. And I thought to myself, you know, I discovered this passion and motivation for tackling climate change. And then I moved via a very circuitous route through carbon offsetting to solar PV installations, to a large marine project in the UK more recently, where I set up this massive hundred billion pound ecosystem restoration programme that sadly didn’t then move to fruition. But it really opened my eyes to the need, and the dire state of nature in this country. And then I had a brief run at climate action start up myself, wanting to get more parents involved, and through individual action for climate. And that led me to a wonderful voluntary team working on climate action, including Peter Kalmus, the inspirational total hero climate scientist over in the States.
And then I came across this group of friends and acquaintances wanting to do more active conservation in Britain. And I learnt about beavers through them. And I thought, yes, here I can make a difference in resilience building, because we aren’t going to solve the climate crisis, but we can step up and address it. And I think basically the climate emergency has been the foundation for my own pathway for about 15 years. And being a creative person, I’ve ideas shooting off in all directions that I want to be doing, everything at once. And I started a circle under the guidance of that book, All We Can Save, which I would recommend to anyone. Oh God, it’s just so inspiring. And it touches all the ideas that I can’t quite elaborate myself, but it sums up in its first pages: you don’t have to know the details of the science to be part of the solution. So for me, this work is about responding to the emergency, so that anything I put my energy towards has to be making a difference. And in all we can say for this poem called To Be of Use, which ends the pitcher cries for water to carry, and a person for work that is real. And it sums up my outlook on work. You know, I need to recognise there’s also privilege at play here, because to be able to choose what work you do is really privileged in this day and age.
And that’s a common point of discussion and reflection in our work. But crucially, these guys are coming together around what is now the Beavor Trust, looked like they were trying to approach life differently, approach work differently. And I’m a mother as well to two really bubbly young kids. And I discovered through fairly tough experience that that does a few things to you. It changes your outlook on life, on work and on the future. And it wasn’t going to fit with my current working life. And so, you know, if I didn’t put my time and energy something worth the effort, I was sacrificing too much by not being with them. And what I’ve discovered is working on climate action has resolved that work-parenting-life balance for me, because everything I do at work is for my children, as well as fulfilling the need in me to take action. So, yes. And then we were, we sort of built this Beaver Trust entity, and I became a director. And one of the things I really love doing is telling people about beavers, and why they’re exciting, and what we can, and climate change, and taking more action. So there was a natural leaning towards the communications role for me.
Manda: So that’s so inspiring, utterly inspiring. There’s so many avenues I would like to go down. The young mother with kids, and how that changed your life and work, I definitely want to come back to that. The fact that we’re not going to solve it, but we can step up and address it, and all the other associated issues: definitely let’s come back to that. But before we do that, tell us about why beavers are so important and what we’re doing, because that’s what the Beavers Trust is all about.
Eva: How long have you got?
Manda: Do you want we can make this a multi episode podcast if we need to. So head off into Beaver World, and we’ll see where we get to.
Eva: I think beavers are amazing. I think they are this bonkers evolutionary masterpiece of a keystone species that shapes its environment to the most magnificent effect. But the more I learn about them, they the more I think they’re one of Mother Nature’s finest creations, and a total gift to us at this point in time. How do we solve flood and drought? And how do we solve biodiversity decline? How do we solve carbon sequestration, water quality? Beavers do it all. I mean, obviously, they don’t do it all, they’re not a silver bullet, but they do have these benefits, and they will do it for free once they’re in a river system. And that’s something very special. So in their dam building efforts, they bring life. And there’s been loads of great science, not just in this country, but all across the northern hemisphere, to show how their dam building activities restore wetlands, and create this beautiful, messy, wild wet habitat that used to be really commonplace before the agricultural revolution. And what this habitat supports is the most incredible, almost unbelievable, return of species and diversity and abundance, which we’ve forgotten, that used to exist in our landscape. And to stand in a beaver wetland, which they will create in very short order, nothing else has ever brought me as much hope for the futures as doing that.
And so that was part of my decision to move to this role. But then the dams also help prevent flooding and drought. So down in the Cornwall beaver project, Chris Jones is a farmer there who has seen a 50 percent reduction in flood peaks, which is massive for the village living downstream that for six years was flooded annually, and isn’t so much anymore. And it’s again, it’s not going to resolve it completely, but it’s improving it. And then last year, he had a visit from a councillor who said, oh, Chris, I think you’ve got the drought last year. He said, Chris, I think you’ve got the last drop of water in Cornwall here in Beaver homes. You know, that kind of the anecdotal stuff as well as the science just shows how important they are. And then they are firebreaks and they filter water. They reduce agricultural pollutants.
Manda: How do they do that?
Eva: Whether the dam systems basically are filtration systems and the sediment sinks in the beaver ponds and it filters out, again, not 100 percent, but improves the water quality downstream. And what they do, what they tend to do, certainly in Headwaters this is this these benefits are realised most often in Headwaters, where the beavers have to build a dam in order to create a depth of about a metre of water so that they feel safe from predators. Ironically, predators that often don’t exist anymore and they’re hiding from wolves. Yeah. So that’s why they do it. And so downstream, when rivers are deeper anyway, they wouldn’t do the damage, they might burrow into banks and things like that. So it’s important to recognise that. But nonetheless, those benefits and the potential is there. And then there’s also the potential for the wonder in the wilderness that could benefit people as well. And we’ve had people down at Cornwall Beaver Project Wellbeing practitioners bringing clients down because of the incredible calming and uplifting response people have to being amongst beaver ponds, which is really cool. Yes.
Manda: So let’s unpick this little, because there is so much in this, it feels like it could be an entire podcast all on its own. You could start the Beaver Trust Podcast. I think that would be great. You don’t have one, do you?
Eva: We do!
Manda: You do, and I missed it. Oh, God, I’m so sorry. Right. I need to go and find it, and I will link it in the show notes. I’ll make myself a note.
Eva: It’s called the Lodgecast, and you’ll love it. It’s a really fun.
Manda: Excellent. I was about to say we’ll edit this bit out, but we won’t. The Lodgecast. And I will put a link, so people can go listen to that if they want the data. But let’s just see, what are we talking about in terms of biodiversity loss? Because even in my own lifespan, I’ve noticed a massive reduction in the things that I took for granted when I was a child. Our grandchildren are not meeting hedgehogs every night. My mother did run a wildlife sanctuary, so I probably had a slightly different world to other people. But even so, there were things, I don’t see as many kestrels in the sky as I used to, things that were so ubiquitous. So we’re talking explicitly here about what wetlands. Do you have numbers for what we have lost, so that we can get an idea of what we might regain?
Eva: Yes, I have. I mean, there are some interesting figures like we’ve seen since the 70s I think we’ve seen 95 to 97 percent of our freshwater wetlands have been lost because we have, yeah, staggering numbers. And when you think of the importance of these wetlands, just ponds and lakes and wider rivers and meandering streams, and things like that, because we’ve drained our rivers to try and get rid of the water as quickly as possible off our landscape, because that was the view of sort of the agricultural movement and water companies, and all that kind of thing, and draining the Somerset Levels, and things like that. And we are, you know, there was a very recent report that showed that, I think, 40 percent of mammals are at risk of extinction in this country. I mean, I would say 100 percent of mammals, frankly, given the climate emergency! But from the pure scientific perspective of right now, that’s that’s a big figure.
Manda: Yes. And that’s that’s because of ecosystem destruction separate to the climate emergency, I’m guessing.
Eva: I think it’s all of it, actually. I mean, there’s, because I don’t think you can unpick that right now. Maybe you could have done 20 years ago. But it’s habitat loss for various reasons. A lot of it will be farming and change of land use, housebuilding and that kind of stuff. But, you know, hedgerows are a classic example. My poor children get they cry when they see the hedges being stripped on the fields around us. You know, I have a five year old last year saying, can we write to the farmer and tell him to maybe leave them like?
Manda: Yes, and it also works. We have a group around here called R.S.V.P. Restore Shropshire Verges Project. And the wonderful woman who runs that actually does go up them and go, you have to stop doing this, and explains why. And because verges and hedgerows kind of go together, as pretty much our last unsprayed, untended wildlife corridors. And yes, they go along the sides of roads, but they don’t only go along sides of roads. And pretty much single handedly and I’m gaining a lot of hate mail and death threats and the like, they have managed to really make a change to the hedgerows and the verges around here. So it does work. You just have to have somebody very brave who doesn’t mind the death threats, which is, I hadn’t realised about that until I read a paper on it recently. So, yes, we are undergoing, particularly in the UK, it seems that we have a particular skill in taking all of our most advanced militarised technology and applying it to the natural world in an effort to destroy it.
Eva: Yes, it’s quite impressive, isn’t it?
Manda: It is kind of impressive. I read somebody the other day about the seas, exactly that. We’ve taken all of our naval military capacity, and decided to wipe out life in the oceans. And I had a dream the other night, we will go back to the beavers shortly, but this is relevant. I was explaining to Laura Kuenssnerg about the sperm whales, that dive straight down many, many, many, many hundreds, if not thousands of metres, scoop up stuff from the sea floor, come straight back up, don’t get the bends – I described this in the dream, I don’t know why it mattered – and then release all the stuff at the top. And this is an integral part of the ocean currents that keep the climate moving. And in my dream, I told her there was only thirty three left: you have access to the government. You have to tell them that if we lose this, then basically our entire climatic system is toast. And in the dream she listened, and she went off and did it. I don’t think there are just thirty three sperm whales left, but there are very much to think that things now are at the stage where if the people in power don’t get it, we haven’t got time to replace them with people who do, because by the time the chance to do that comes around, it’s too late. So you guys are actually doing what needs to be done. How difficult or easy was it? How much opposition did you run into from the people who think that the current system is fine?
Eva: That’s a great question. And I think that there’s been a huge welcoming sense from many corners. There are always going to be, there will always be opposition to change to a degree, and fear of change, particularly on this small, overpopulated island, or heavily populated island, I should say. So I think, you know, there’s concern for change because they are a keystone species, they will have disruptive effects on the landscape. You know, there’s no two ways about that, and some of that is very positive and some of it can cause conflict with current land use. So I think there’s, you know, there’s pushback from land managers. There’s pushback from politicians and government agencies who think they’ve got their way of doing things. And that’s all very well. And one of the things that we have to bring to lots of conversations is, but this is a climate emergency. We need to make our decisions through the climate lens now and things are going to change anyway. So maybe we should do that with all these positive, amazingly positive outcomes that are scientifically proven. And there’s a lot of education using the generic version of the work to be done, and information provision. And it’s a really, it can feel like swimming through treacle sometimes. But at the same time, the human beings that we speak to are all so receptive to this. And the way we like to work is through collaboration and urgency of message. And we want to help support communities rather than, you know, enforce this stuff on them. And I think if you do things through collaboration, genuine collaboration where everyone’s equal, then it has the best chance of success, doesn’t it?
Manda: Definitely. OK, so I want to come back to the beavers in a moment. But part of what we do on this podcast is look at the social technologies that are available to us for making change happen in a way, exactly as you said, that’s collaborative and equitable, and gives everybody an equal voice. What strategies do you use that work that you think would be useful to share, if any?
Eva: That’s a really hard question; I like it. So there’s a really obvious one and a practical one. We’re trying to promote and establish a national policy for beavers in England, a strategy and a management framework, so that everyone can treat them the same and they can be accepted back into the landscape. And in order to do that, the only way to successfully do that is to invite absolutely everyone to the table, so that you are discussing the pros and cons of beavers in an unbiased way and just saying, let’s at least get to a common ground that we can use to create this policy. And I think that we have done that fairly effectively. We’re now sadly waiting for the government to produce the policy so that we can consult on it. But last year we held a workshop, and we formed a working group with all parties. So anglers, farmers, scientists, conservationists, local community, you know, everyone represented. And that was really successful. And we had really lovely positive feedback on the approach there. And we invited speakers who were pro beaver, anti beaver, you know, and it was it was a really interesting discussion. So that’s a nice example of true collaboration and openness.
Manda: Yes. And did it evolve into something emotionally literate? My projection is you get people in the room who are open about their own biases: I think beavers are amazing and wonderful, or I hate beavers and I want to shoot them all. As long as they are open about that and then enter into a discussion in good heart, where we credit the other side with at least having decent motives, then we can begin to find a space where we can investigate our common values, find out what those common values are and begin to share them. Does that actually happen?
Eva: I think to a degree it does. But I think we need to also recognise that people are only human and they will always bring their own emotional issues and concerns and baggage, for want of a better word, to any meeting. And that’s hard to overcome that. And so you have to sort of need to recognise it in the moment. And yet another thing that we’re doing, we’re just starting out on, is trying to create these community led beaver management groups where we meet as a forum, and we’ll facilitate and help support with the knowledge, but let people speak up for what their, you know, their concerns might be or what their interest is, and how they can help support beavers’ return on a wild catchment, a wild population on a catchment near them. And you’re always going to get some people who come and just rant, like they would at a planning forum. You know, you have to let them speak, and give them room and decipher what the real issues. Yes. Is, if it is real within that, and then help address that. And if not, you know, let it go. And so I think there’s a skill to that. And we’re learning together with a number of different organisations around that. So it’s a fascinating process. But I think it’s, you know, it’s like anything associated with climate, it has to be done together, otherwise it’ll fail.
Manda: Yes, I know. I’m talking to an increasingly articulate a number of people on the podcast. We spoke to a group called Braver Angels in the US, and then Trust the People in the UK. And it seems to me that training the facilitators to be able to help people to find emotional literacy in the moment, because a lot of, particularly the kinds of people who turn up to meetings to rant, it’s a scary place to go. They’re used to ‘I rant at you, you rant at me, and whoever rants loudest wins, and that’s it. And we can’t afford to have that anymore. I’m interested in the fact that you said you wanted to create a national policy for beavers in England. My understanding is that in Scotland there’s already a national policy? Can you tell us a little bit about that and how it goes?
Eva: Yes, I can. So what they’ve done there is they’ve legally recognised beavers as a native species. So that’s a start.
Manda: Because they were native. It’s saying we need to tell people that beavers were indigenous to here.
Eva: They were, they were. They were part of everywhere in the northern hemisphere. There were hundreds of millions of them. And they were hunted to extinction 400 hundred years ago when life was very different. And their meat, their fur and their castoreum was incredibly valuable to life and to humans. And of course, we had the upper hand with hunting equipment. So they stood no chance, really.
Manda: Was it four hundred years ago? Because that’s when we had guns. I’m wondering why beavers. Because we could have hunted badgers to extinction, but we haven’t.
Eva: I think it’s because of the sort of triple whammy. They’re such valuable creatures, because they serve this triple purpose. So their castoreum is both a flavouring, it’s a medicine, it’s a, you know, so I think probably the rest would be conjecture, my answer.
Manda: You’re allowed to conjecture! Come on then, conjecture. What is it about beavers?
Eva: I’m just going to say maybe it’s predictable, because they live in a lodge, you know exactly where they’re going to be and we can access it. It might be as simple as that.
Manda: And their fur, beaver fur, has been for a long time and in many continents been a luxury item.
Eva: Yeah, highly prized, because they create this extremely soft, waterproof, you know, valuable material. Looking in the history of beavers is fascinating, actually, and how we’re working with a team of researchers at the moment to look a little bit, potentially look at the impact, the historical impact of the fur trade, for example, how it shaped society in the landscape. And some of that is absolutely astonishing, how pivotal beavers were to our history and our past, and how that’s all been forgotten.
Manda: And not just us, obviously. In North America, a lot of the interaction between the white invaders and the First Peoples was as fur traders. And a lot of that will have been beavers.
Manda: So, yeah. Interesting that when that historical group has met and done all its stuff, we might do another podcast coming up. In the meantime, I would like to come back, because I got a little bit sidetracked in the kind of sociology and the politics, to the actual practicalities of bringing beavers back. So they build their dams, which they do by cutting down trees. And do they move trees around? Are they clever enough to cut down a tree that happens to be at the edge of the water, and cut it down so it falls across the water? Let’s just go into a little bit of beaver ecology.
Eva: Yeah, I’ll tell you what I know. And there are others that are greater experts than I. But they do have the ability to do that. They do move whole trees, they move twigs. You know, they’re such strong creatures. It’s incredible to see some of the footage. There’s a wonderful video of a beaver carrying, you know, huge lumps of stone and mud. And it looks really almost human, with these little paws at the front carrying a huge load. And it’s just working its way up laboriously and then pressing it into the dam. And it’s amazing to see. And these constructions are so robust. On occasion, some of the management of beavers is to remove the dam. And it’s really hard work. You know, they built something that can withstand all sorts of…
Manda: No! Why are we removing it? That sounds criminal!
Eva: Because it’s one of – if the flooding that it creates behind is unwanted, it’s one of the possible actions. You can also watch it so that the water level is managed. You can put a sort of a device, flow device through it, or you can remove it.
Manda: Poor beavers! It seems really hard that we bring them back, and then we take their dam away! So in the process of reintroduction, let’s start with down in Cornwall, where it’s been primarily in England, do you bring in a pair and then leave them to breed? Or do you bring in a whole bunch? Where do you bring them from? And what happens in the early years of reintroduction?
Eva: It depends on the site and what beavers are available at that time. So I guess the ideal is that you can bring in a pair because then they will breed, and that pair’s very carefully matched.
Manda: My understanding, reading the website, is that they mate for life, they’re monogamous. So I’m guessing part of the careful matching is you’ve got to get a pair that like each other. It must be like humans, you can’t just put them together and go, OK, get married, guys, you’re going to be fine. You must have a pair that’s actually bonded. So we’re also talking about understanding the emotional and social lives of beavers, which must be a skill in itself.
Eva: You could argue it should be part of the animal welfare considerations and translocating them. So often these beavers are coming from Scotland, where part of the management up there is to try and locate them and move them out of an area where they’re not wanted and ideally… so Róisín Campbell Palmer is one of the leading experts in translocation and beaver management, and she will go and seek to trap them in a humane way, and move the whole family or the pair. And obviously, you can’t necessarily trap them together. So it’s a process of trying to get the animals, you know, and then safely transition to the site. And similarly, if they are younger then you might try and match a pair. And sometimes these new introductions don’t work, because they don’t like each other, and they can go their separate ways. So it’s really interesting to watch. But yeah, Chris got a pair at the Cornwall beaver project, and it’s been amazing to watch them expand. And, you know, ideally we end up with the, genetic diversity is one of the core long term issues. And it’s, genetically at the moment, there’s a research paper that shows that they’re not terribly different. So it’s something we’re going to have to think about in the future.
Eva: And there are various solutions to that. But it’s certainly, and it also adds weight to the controversy around lethal control, which is, you know, it’s an important feature of beaver management because we need the ability to address it if it is really difficult. So we, certainly Beaver Trust wouldn’t advocate to remove that as an option. But at the moment, numbers aren’t high enough that we can afford to kill too many beavers. So it’s really fascinating. And the other thing I was going to mention is the sort of, we did a film last year called Beavers Without Borders. Because beavers don’t recognise political boundaries. You know, we’re one island. We need to think in that mindset. It’s very hard at a policy and political level to treat them with that mindset. So you’ve got people in Scotland who want to keep beavers in Scotland, and they’re right to do that, too. But at the moment, there aren’t necessarily even sites that you can translocate those beavers to. So we might need to bring them down to England and that’ll benefit the genetic diversity and things like that. So it’s a really interesting complex picture.
Manda: Yes. And if it goes the way you dream in your best dreams, is it going to be the case that they are as ubiquitous and diverse as any other wildlife form and that there are no restrictions at all? Nobody’s trying to lethally remove a beaver; we’re just letting them do their thing.
Eva: I think if everything went right, beavers would be commonplace, a feature of British wildlife like rabbits and deer, and that we have the management structure and resourced, adequately resourced response in place to deal with beaver conflict, because it’s not going to go away. You know, the ideal is that there are thousands of beavers in the country, and at that point, or hundreds and thousands, and at that point, they will cause issues, so they will need to be managed. But that’s a lovely place to get to. I mean, you know what? If we can eat beaver again, because there are so many them? Great! We’re so far off that right now that we need to be really cautious.
Manda: I looked on the website last night and there’s something like one hundred twenty five thousand beavers in Poland. And we’ve got 450 in the whole of the UK. In places like Poland, where there are many hundreds of thousands, are they eating beaver? Or are they still trying to encourage them to do their thing?
Eva: No, they’re definitely not. But what they are doing is letting them be and encouraging them to do their own thing. And I think there’s something, and again, this is just my own opinion, actually, but I think there is something unique about Britain that we’re just not very good at letting go. And I think that back to your previous question, I think if everything goes right for Beaver Trust’s work, we will start to influence the way decision makers think, and land managers and people view our relationship with nature, and start to give space to natural processes and wildlife. And there’s, you know, one of the things that beavers do is necessitate this thinking about rivers, and our misuse of those, and the water cycle, and giving space to nature. And one of the campaigns that we’re, or pieces of work and policies that we’re looking at at the moment as Beaver Trust is river buffers, to try and reduce that conflict over, basically trying to rewiggle our rivers, and let beavers do their thing, because they need to make them more wild spaces if we’re going to reap the benefits of having these creatures back, in which case we need to move back a little bit and let them do that.
Manda: So a river buffer is a space on either side of the river where people just stop trying to farm right up to the river’s edge?
Eva: That’s exactly it. And it’s not so much sort of two metre strips. It could be as much as whole flood plains. And so we’re starting to look at through through a partnership working again. We’re starting to look at what the policy and the financial incentive to farmers could be that supports that. And it’s, again, massively complex. But it’s the sort of thing that you think it needs to happen, it’s going to solve a lot of the problems that we face. For me, this is one of the really exciting areas, I think, that we have taken our water cycle for granted in such a big way because we’re never under any stress in this country. And I think the climate change is going to undermine that. And, you know, the science is showing the stress in the water cycle and fresh water, and we need to do something about it because our rivers are in such a dire state.
Manda: Yes, I read a George Monbiot article at the weekend, which if I remember I’ll put in the show notes, of the extent to which it’s not just the water companies chucking their sewage into the sea. It’s agriculture; intensive agriculture, particularly chicken farms, just totally polluting the rivers. So if we have, like the local river, relatively local to here is the Wye, in Hereford, which I gather has most chicken farms of the whole of the UK and is basically a toxic mess. If somebody wanted to reintroduce beavers to the Wye, would they even survive? Wouild they swim in it when it’s that toxic?
Eva: Yeah, I mean, there are there are beavers living in all sorts of surprising situations. And what they need is adequate, you know, space and food and and water. And they would probably be fine in the Wye. In fact, I think there are some in the Wye.
Manda: Right. And they can help to detoxify it.
Eva: They can. Again, you’re going to see those benefits right up in the headwaters. So some of the challenges and the pollution happens further down than that. So it’s not as straightforward as saying, hey, they’re going to solve it. And I don’t know the detail, and I wouldn’t want to guess at that. But yes, in principle, that’s the sort of direction we should be going. But the other thing about river buffers is that proper ecological function on a river will dramatically improve the landscape for everyone, including farming in an unstable future. And I think that’s what’s so fascinating. We’re looking at the Beavers Without Borders film that we made last year. It was directed by Nina Constable Media, who is an absolute legend, and she is helping us again produce film this year around the river buffers in which we look at some of the challenges and the opportunities, and the community voice and the farming voice. And the research that we’ve done for that has been really eye opening. The overall aim of that is to demonstrate the relevance of it to everyone. It’s one of the challenges, isn’t it, that we face: this policy in agriculture and all this kind of stuff can seem really remote to the community or to an individual, but it really matters. And it is everyone’s business. And people need more agency in creating change and addressing climate.
Manda: Yes, brilliant. And particularly, again, another real obsession on the podcast is systemic change. And it sounds to me as if that’s where you’re heading, that what we have everywhere is a systemic problem rather than a specific problem. And I had come to the Beavers Trust thinking, OK, this is going to be really interesting, we can talk about beavers as a very specific and beautiful and wonderful thing to be doing. But what I’m hearing is that you are using the vehicle of the beaver as a way of addressing a much, much bigger systemic issue and getting people to think systemically.
Eva: That’s exactly it. Exactly. So it leads into one of my favourite areas of conversation, which is that education. Systemic thinking. And it’s somewhere I’m leaning more and more to. Still, within the Beaver Trust is education in the original youth sense and the curriculum. You know, at last lockdown down last year for me on a very embarrassing spotlight on our education system and the curriculum, and what we had to teach at home. It’s absolutely not fit for the future they’re going to face.
Eva: And I’m just so I’m wondering how Beaver Trust can help influence and colour the national curriculum through this really cool, engaging, hardworking and relevant animal and through experience of beaver influenced wetlands and streams. Can we get more children out there? Can we write some curriculum materials around that much of which has been done before by other conservation organisations? But, you know, again, the beaver is this systemic thing and it makes you think that way. And I think that we’ve, you know, this concept of the generational downgrade of expectation of our countryside that we’ve talked a little bit about earlier is something that we can help address. So what should the countryside look like? We walk through it, you know, beautiful countryside, accepting this bland green field as great scenery. No, it’s not! It should be way more diverse and enriched. And there’s a really brilliant example going on in Sussex University at the moment called Wild Futures, where they are giving sixteen 25 year olds the opportunity to create their own vision of a future landscape that brings them hope. And, you know, I think that beaver wetlands could probably stretch people’s expectations. And I think children, you how children are, they get so excited about the beauty and wonder of the world. And we need to tap into that a bit more, gently.
Manda: Yes. We’ve got a five year old grandson who just is an entomologist. First of all, he knows he’s an entomologist. He’s spent his entire life building bug hotels for specific bugs, and he knows what they are. And it’s amazing watching that sponge of a brain just being systemic. And somehow along the way, as we grow older, we lose that capacity to think of a systemic level. And bringing it back, I want to talk to some of the 16 to 21 year olds who are building a better future, because my understanding as a creator, as a novelist, as a screenwriter, if we don’t give people a vision of how the future could be, they will continue to accept a degradation of today as the only possible future.
Eva: Yeah, that’s ultimately what climate leadership is about, isn’t it? Is building a vision for what could be better and how we can come through this with something worth living for.
Manda: Yes. How do we get from A to B, where B is somewhere we actually want to go? And we’re very, very good at creating The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Max, you know, where we’re being kebabed on piles of burning tyres by our bigger, nastier neighbours, but not good at how the future could be if we got it right.
Eva: No, exactly.
Manda: And we need that. I’ll stop ranting in a moment.
Eva: No, it’s good, but I think you say somewhere along the way, just because I think it’s really important, you say somewhere along the way we lose that. It’s school that kills all see at the moment. And that is absolutely tragic because that’s you know, I was trying to set us up that for the future that we can’t predict. But it’s for a completely wrong future. And we’ve got this extraordinary capacity and children and talent and creativity and we squash it. And so there’s something about rewilding children’s childhood, and letting them be free and find what excites and engages them. And one of my colleagues, Nikki Saunders, is heavily involved in the arts. And she and I often sort of have these sessions thinking about how we can creatively engage people through beavers. And it’s often hard for other people to see how an art session on beavers is going to help make a difference. You know, connect that up with, you know, the holistic thinking and practical application of beaver restoration. But it’s so important and again, speaks to this, you know, ‘I want to do everything at once’. And it’s so hard!
Manda: You’re doing such a lot! And you said earlier, everyone in the room is one person, which speaks then to the bigger problem is the problem of our political structures, and our economic structures, because part of what school is doing is its best effort to turn out people who are fit for an economic structure that is no longer fit for purpose. We don’t need to go down that line too much. But I think if you did have a vision of a beaver economy that is a different economy, then please do share. Do we stretch that far? Because it seems to me the farmers, everyone who’s doing what they’re doing, nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, I want to destroy the ecosystem. Very few people, but a lot of the farmers that I know, so they wake up in the morning and they worry about how to pay the bank. And the only way to pay the bank is to maximise land use, spray everything, fertilise everything, create empty food that looks good, so people eat it. And the fact that it has a nutrient value, I learnt a long time ago that the spinach we eat today has three percent of the iron that Popeye was eating back in our childhood when he was scarfing cans of spinach.
Eva: You should see his muscles these days, they’re pathetic!
Manda: Yeah, yeah. How do we, if we don’t change the economic system, we will not be able to get people to engage because the imperative of not going bankrupt is bigger than the imperative of ‘I feel good when I see the beavers’. But are you finding, in your experience, that once the beavers are there, that people are able to find creative ways to help them stay? The landowners, the farmers, the people who might previously have not wanted them, do they shift?
Eva: I think more than that, we’re almost the stage before that. Because there aren’t that many projects yet, but what we definitely see is that people, the first thing we will do is invite people to visit the Cornwall Beaver project and walk around the beaver site with Chris Jones, who is a farmer, an organic farmer, and see firsthand for themselves. And the number of times people have completely u-turned their opinion on beavers and farming speaks volumes – from all walks of life, whether farmers or agencies or, you know, he would tell an anecdote or 20 about people who now are massive beaver fans. And again, it’s the right animal in the right place. They’re not necessarily suitable everywhere, right now, because they do disrupt. But you have to almost see it to believe it, I think. And then you’ve got, again and then then privilege then comes into it. Because as you say, there is this, our economy is set up so that it’s very hard for people to do good by the environment, sadly. And that’s one of the things that we are promoting and challenging and working really hard to reverse through potential new policies under our sort of buffers and riparian improvements partnership. Towards this river buffer film that I talked about, we interviewed some farmers and spoke to some of the National Farmers Union who sort of opened my eyes to the mental health issues behind all us environmentalists saying, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, you’ve got do that. And then the price is, yes, they want to do environmental good. But it’s so hard, because of the complexity and the systems and the number of options they’ve got. Somebody, somewhere, needs to make that easy for farmers to do the right thing, and simplify it. And therein lies the big challenge. But we can’t shy away from it because we have to create a better system.
Manda: And so what we get to is we need the politicians either to come and see the Cornwall Beaver project, or at least to understand the urgency, and the need to create a system which, to be fair to them, has to then also address all the other issues that they are being bombarded with. So we have a systemic need for change, or a need for systemic change.
Eva: And we need the individual people to stand up for what they believe in as well.
Manda: Yeah, but it seems to me, can we explore a little bit, taking a step back? What we need to do is find the common value system. Because you’re speaking for beavers, somebody else is probably speaking for red kites, someone else is speaking for, I don’t know, great crested newts. Somebody else is speaking, saying we want the river to be an autonomous being, as they are in Canada. One river in Canada, a river in New Zealand, have been given human rights, which would be utterly amazing. But then at the same time, we have a government paper that came out last week which came down quite heavily on intensive agriculture, but did say, in some cases, and I quote directly, “Intensive agriculture, particularly chicken rearing, is the most carbon effective way of producing protein.” And I am sure that the people who wrote that, who had been given a remit only to look at how to become carbon neutral, believed what they were saying. But you and I both know that the chicken farms are utterly catastrophic in terms of the environmental impact, and the ecosystem degradation. So somehow, somewhere, in a system that seems explicitly designed not to look systemically, except in an extractivist sense, we have to find a way of reaching people. And creating systemic thinking amongst those who are not trained to think systemically. Have you thought that one through? And have you got an answer? Because I’d be really keen!
Eva: Yeah, I think if I had an answer, I’d be changing the world.
Manda: You wouldn’t be here talking to me, that’s probably true.
Eva: No, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It comes down to capitalism, doesn’t it, every time? because everything seems constructed around an individual person or an entity or an organisations need to meet their financial needs. And so they become a specialist in something, and therefore they can’t look systemically. And again, Beaver Trust was actually not set up to be a single species charity. We became this, as you’ve identified, because beaver as a totem for the change we want to see, the systemic change. And we’d actually like to reach out to all sorts of different walks of life and invite them into this conversation. And often we get pushback on that: “Well, you’re Beaver Trust. What are you doing here? What’s your relevance?” And that speaks volumes as well, doesn’t it? Yes, people already, they’ve they’ve got their little part and they don’t look beyond that. And there’s huge work to be done to break down those silos.
Manda: You also need to change your name to Beavers and Rivers Trust or something, so people can get that it’s bigger. So we don’t have an answer. We’re heading down towards the end of our time. I could ask you lots about beavers, but I also would definitely, I’ll put a link to that beautiful film that’s on your website so that people can watch. Because you’re right: just watching beavers being beavers is just such a heartwarming way to spend half an hour of your evening. But because we have the capacity to think systemically, because you so clearly do, and have done for pretty much all of your professional life, how about we riff on opening up the possibility: if the world went the way you and I would like it to, what is the route from here to a place where your kids, our grandkids, all the future generations, are in a world where they wake up in the morning and feel enchanted by the day that’s coming? They have that sense of confidence that the world is an okay place, that they know who they are in their place in it, and they share that confidence with everybody, because we have to have systemic change such that there aren’t those who have the confidence, and those who don’t, in the way that now we have those who have the money, and those who don’t. Have you ever thought your way through that?
Eva: What a profound question. I mean, if I could move to that world today, I would give anything. I think I haven’t thought through the question. I mean, bits of it and things that would relate to it, something that springs straight to mind is this untapped potential of mothers, actually, and parents and society and the youth of today. I think that there’s, for starters, there’s more potential to influence and open the minds of the young while they’re still, you know, malleable, or still creative and forming, and I think that’s really important to address, which I think is why I keep coming back to it personally, and for Beaver Trust. I think our society can be quite crushing on occasion. And even to name that and to reflect on it is really important. It doesn’t happen enough. The expectations, you know, you could get through your whole life without really living. You can certainly, I think, certainly get through a couple of weeks without realising I haven’t paused and taken time to reflect. And lockdown was widely acclaimed to do that for people, wasn’t it, because they couldn’t go into the office and they had to stay at home. And making space for hope and change is what we need to help people with. Coming back to All We Can Save: that book, for me, really helped create space, and create a circle. This concept of connecting with people to create a circle of supportive love and curiosity about which direction life goes in. And we need to just be less afraid of doing that. I think it’s got to start with people rolling up their sleeves to find some good energy in all this stuff, you know, this being willing to make a stand for what they believe in. But how we get people to think of what they believe in in the first place is a real challenge. And I think, again, it starts in the youth, it starts at school and by brilliant role models. And there are some people who are forming amazing role models these days for young people.
Manda: How did you do it? Because you clearly do it. You started off in business, and then it wasn’t cutting it. And you got to a place where you are, it sounds to me, you’re living in a world that feels as if it has meaning to you.
Eva: Yes, it’s really nice to hear that. How did I get here? I do not know. I mean, as I say, it took me a long time to unpick the social constructs around, restrictions around living; a long time. I mean, I’ve actually got an amazing psychotherapist now,who I’ve been speaking to for about a year, who specialises in climate anxiety. And I mean, I think if we could find a way,and you can do this, syou can really challenge yourself through a conversation with a friend as well. You don’t need a specialist. I think people need to talk more. And I’ve been, you know, exploring this feeling of stuckness, which I actually think might be this idea of Pre-TSD over climate fear. I’m so afraid of the future. I’m almost paralysed by it on occasion. The place that I can overcome that is when I’m out in nature, or when I’m with my kids, something that overpowers that fear because it’s worth it. And I don’t know how we reach a lot of people, because there are a lot of people, aren’t there. And the dominant culture is mobile phones, and games, and yeah, I mean, this is such a huge question, Manda!
Manda: It is, but it’s what the podcast about, and you seem someone who actually could address it. So I was really, really interested in – because that idea that young people are the answer, and I wonder, there’s lots of reasons for ‘the young people are the answer’, and partly their brains are still flexible. But partly, I spoke to Rob Hopkins, whose book From What Is to What If is all about creativity. And he quoted somebody, I can’t remember who, saying neoliberalism is an imagination annihilator. And there’s something about the stress, the just general chronic stress of having to earn a living, that shuts down our ability to be creative. You can’t be, if we’re going to look at things in neurophysiological terms, our sympathetic branch, that is where our creativity happens, if your sympathetic system is just on constant high alert. And the need to earn money or you don’t survive is part of that. And the need also, I think I hadn’t really taken on board until I read a blog post just at the weekend by Aaron Bustani of Novar Media saying, I was walking in Brighton with my partner and my dad. And I had this strange feeling inside, and I realised I felt happy. And he’d been suicidal. He’d certainly been depressed, and then put on antidepressants.
Eva: And he said part of it was that, for 15 years he moved house twenty four times, because he was in rented accommodation, and a complete stranger had the ability to tell him to leave pretty much overnight. And then he and his partner moved out of London and moved to Southampton, and were able to buy a house, because house prices are better there, and now nobody has the capacity to tell them to leave. It’s so fundamental to our human existence. 64 million years of planetary Evolution since the last mass extinction has got us to here. And then all of that time we had autonomy and agency, until the last ten thousand years of human what we call civilisation, and what anybody looking from the outside would call spiritual, cultural, annihilation that basically has always been built around the shovelling of value from the bottom to the top. And so the systemic way to give people back their agency and autonomy, while balancing the rights and responsibilities of living in the modern culture, we can’t give everybody agency and autonomy, if everybody then wants to have 100 acres and a mansion and a private yacht, and fly to the moon with a weird hat in their head. Now, only Jeff Bezos can do that,
But there are beautiful movements coming through, like the Right to Roam and trespass campaign by the very brilliant Nick Hayes and Guy Shrubsole at the moment. And it’s supporting things like that, and coming out and being a number, being another person amongst that, that’s so important. And that’s what we can all do to help people, and try and redress the balance that has gone wrong. Because, as you say, you can’t suddenly give everybody 100 acres, but you can manage the access, and manage the outputs, and the financial side of things blows my mind when I try and contemplate how you undo the mess of that. And I suspect that’s why it hasn’t changed yet, because no one knows how to unpick all that.
Manda: Some very bright people are trying. I listened to a podcast just today called The Death of Neoliberalism. But I also listen to a much more interesting one recently with Daniel Schmatchtenberger, who pointed out that very soon, very soon, we’re going to have technology to do the mundane jobs. Because you may have a couple of weeks where you don’t really get a chance to slow down and think, but you and I are not packing shelves in Amazon, where we have to pee in a nappy because there isn’t a break, when people are giving birth on their work duties, because they don’t dare ask for time off so that a guy can get to the moon with a ten gallon hat on. But if those jobs don’t need people because technology can do them, then the question arises of can we create an economy where the people don’t need the jobs? Because why do we? It’s not being part of our inheritance, we didn’t, indigenous hunter-gatherer societies don’t have jobs, they have life. So we are heading towards a close. You’ve produced one film, which is beautiful. You’re producing another. It does seem to me that particularly in the current era, film is the way that people understand things. Have you got others planned? And if not, let’s plan a few!
Eva: I would love to plan a few, particularly with Nina, she’s absolutely awesome, and a very talented film producer. But we haven’t got any others in the pipeline right now. But it’s clearly an enjoyable way of communicating what we want to. And I think that, as you say, it’s always very well received. We do also have this podcast, and we’ve had some we’ve had some fascinating guests on that. We talked to Amir Khan recently on green prescribing, and some of the nature benefits of, you know, getting into wetlands and things. And that was absolutely brilliant. He’s an inspiration. And Gillian Burke, in which we looked at a little bit at the cultural soup, and the conversation around diversity, and how we think systemically and how we might make change. And it’s not about inviting the right people to the table to have that conversation, it’s about completely redesigning the table itself, or removing it and having it, you know, just these really thought provoking, brilliant, wonderful threads of ideas that we all need to pursue. And then we’ve got all sorts of other social media things online, and short videos. I’ve got ideas to do short videos on educational components, and how we can explain why beavers are wonderful, and share them with children, and.. lots of ideas!
Manda: Yep, that’s OK,we just need to get more people to give money to the Beavers Trust so you can employ more people to make it happen. I can’t think of a better way. Anyone has any spare money up there, give it to the Beavers Trust. Because you’re obviously working at such a deep systemic level. I’m so inspired, and I had no idea when I kind of tripped over you on Twitter that that would be the case, I just thought it would be a fun and fun podcast on small furry mammals. And actually, it’s been a really inspiring podcast on the entire systemic change that we need to make. And the more people that can hear about this, and the more children that can be inspired. I listen to a podcast again recently. Ellen MacArthur decided to sail around the world, from landlocked Derbyshire where nobody she knew was a sailor, at the age of four. And then became the youngest and fastest person to sail single handed around the world. So if the younger generation can be inspired, and if we of the older generations can just manage not to tip ourselves off the edge of the catastrophe in time for them to grow up and let that inspiration go, then that would be amazing. Is there anything that we haven’t said that you would like to say in closing?
Eva: I mean, I think we’ve covered a lot there. Nothing springs out other than I’m thrilled that you can see the motivation and the agenda behind the Beaver Trust, because I think it’s often really hard to communicate actually, in a single sentence. So I’m really looking forward to sharing this with people.
Manda: Brilliant. And we’ll get it out and link to all of your social media connexions in the show notes. And at some point I’d love to, let’s come back and see where we’ve got to in maybe a year’s time, and see how the world has changed, and what new things you’re doing, and how much you’ve managed to reach the upper echelons of the power structure in ways that inspires them.
Eva: Thank you. Let’s do that.
Manda: So, Eva Bishop, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Eva: A great pleasure. Thank you, Manda.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Eva, and all of the people at the Beaver Trust, for being such an inspiration, for understanding the need for systemic change, and for spending the days of their lives making it happen. It is so inspiring, and we do need some inspiration because this is coming out in the week where it looks like Afghanistan has just moved back several centuries into the mediaeval period, where the Prime Minister of the UK has said that we’re going to solve climate change by sorting carbon, trees, and coal, as if systemic change were not necessary or useful, or they even understand how it might happen. And also in the last week since we recorded with Eva, there has been a Channel Four documentary on the restoration of beavers in which farmers were proudly displaying how many beavers they had shot. So clearly, we’re at the start of this systemic change, not its end, and what I think all of us need to do is figure out how we can be part of the solution. And a lot of that, I am realising, is in our day to day activities. We are part of the problem, we are part of the system. But we can change it. And so, for instance, changing where we buy our food makes a huge difference. If we can be part of the small, non intensive regenerative farming system in whatever is our local area, that will make a significant difference. Where we put our money for our food does matter. And way back a century ago, a third of people’s incomes went into feeding themselves.
And the more I read about this, the more I realise that part of predatory capitalism is cutting food prices and cutting and cutting and cutting so that people pay their money for other things, for the stuff that keeps the system going, for the rents that are harvested by the people who already have huge amounts of money. So it is definitely not cheaper to buy our money from the local Community Supported Agriculture scheme, but it is what’s going to make a difference. So if you only do one thing this week, make it that.
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