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Chains

When I first arrived in Huay Pakoot and was given an introduction to the elephants they have here, one of the first things I was told was that the elephants are chained. This came as a shock and my first thoughts were whether I had come to a place where they treat the elephants in a way that I wanted to be involved in.

Common views of chains are as restraints: big, heavy, metal links that restrict movement, chafe the skin, cause sores and act as a burden. I quickly learned that here in Huay Pakoot this is not the case whatsoever.

Chains here are life savers.

All the elephants here have one chain around one foot. These chains do not rub their legs and are made to be a length and thickness corresponding to the elephant’s size and age, so they are not given anything they can’t cope with.

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The chain can be seen around Gureepo’s right front foot, but does not restrict her movements

The mahouts are with the elephants all day, from around 8:30 until it starts getting dark. During the day, the chains, whilst still attached to the elephants, are not attached to anything else and drag harmlessly behind them as they walk. They do not restrict movement, gliding smoothly through the undergrowth. If on the off-chance a chain does snag on a branch or a rock, the elephant’s mahout will always be nearby to release it. If the mahout cannot unsnag the chain, the chains break easily at the point where they attach to the foot. The chains are used to track the elephants during the day as they leave grooves in the ground easily recognisable to the mahouts. They’re also used for volunteer safety, to help the mahout control the elephant and avoid harm coming to any humans.

At night the elephants are chained for their own protection in areas where the mahouts have ensured there is enough food and water to see them through the night comfortably. The chains are long enough to allow movement and natural foraging even when attached to a tree. Elephants can be easily startled and the ease of the chain breaking allows them to get away from situations where they are uncomfortable is necessary. In some instances, for example during thunderstorms, the mahouts will stay with the elephants throughout the night to ensure their safety in a scary scenario.14433010_10154042651859141_2088782770712202398_n.jpg

The dangers facing elephants left alone, unchained, at night, in a human dominated world one day became a terrifying reality when the youngest elephant, Lulu, got into a crop field and ate pesticide. Thankfully, due to the care and love the mahouts give to their elephants, the problem was spotted early, before it was digested and caused internal damage. She was left with damage to her tusk, which fell out, but has since started to grow back.

While initially the word chain conjures up terrible images of elephants being mistreated it must be understood that in a world dominated by humans, sometimes chains are a necessity and when used correctly do not prevent the elephants from living long and fulfilling lives.

 

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My First Hike

I’ve learnt a new meaning to the phrase “being thrown in at the deep end.”14368866_10154038468859141_6069508554566436668_n.jpg

Hikes leave at 7:30, so you have to get up early every day in order to go. Breakfast is brought to base and usually (always) consists of rice. After eating and filling up my water bottles we set off on my first hike.

We went to find Khum Suk, 64, Kha Moon, 34, and Lulu, 5. This group of elephants are a family unit consisting of grandma, mother and grandchild.

We hiked for 2 hours, over a river, up steep sided, slippy slopes and through the undergrowth until we suddenly stumbled upon them. While the mahouts knew they would be there it was a shock for me to see the elephants right in front of me just standing in the same forest I had been trudging through for the past 2 hours.

Because it was our first time meeting the elephants we got to feed them pumpkin (lukay bow). I fed Khum Suk, but Kha Moon got a little bit because the people feeding her had run out and she pestere

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Feeding Khum Suk. Left is her Mahout, Root, who also makes fantastic coffee for those early mornings.

d me for more. I’m not complaining! Elephant trunks do not feel anything like you would expect. Their skin is rough, but smooth and firm all at the same time. The strength within their trunks is just incomprehensible. They were only taking pumpkin from my hand but I still felt like they could break my arm in two if they wanted to. From a distance they didn’t look that big, I just took it in my stride, like seeing elephants you see regularly in photos, but getting up close is a whole other story. I’m used to being around horses, but elephants are so much bigger in every single way and they’re a lot more intimidating and awe-inspiring. You get an impulse to reach out and touch them whilst simultaneously wanting to get out of their way.

In order to observe the elephants naturally and take data we moved away a little distance. We remained like this for a little over an hour, just observing the elephants’ natural behaviour (which consists mainly of eating). During this time we had to constantly move out of Lulu’s way, as she’s quite inquisitive but doesn’t seem to know her own size yet!

It was while we were watching the elephants that I realised I had been bitten by a leech. I was wearing wellies, long socks and tight leggings yet somehow the little bloodsucker still managed to worm it’s way onto my skin and steal my blood. I didn’t notice until after it had drunk its full, fallen off and left me bleeding. I wasn’t really bothered by it, but from then on everyone else was super conscious of leeches being Screen Shot 2016-09-27 at 09.43.21.pngaround. The only annoying thing was the blood on my clothes, but I got that off with a scrubbing brush when we got back.

We hiked back a different way,
this route taking us up on to the ridge of the mountains. It provided incredible views but my legs and lungs complained relentlessly. The sun had come out, and while it was a manageable temperature for sunbathing, for hiking it proved challenging. I thought the hills in Exeter would prepare me for hiking in hilly terrain over here, boy was I wrong. It’s like comparing mountains with molehills.

 

Thailand

I MADE IT

Flying to Thailand is not fun. I took 3 planes, Heathrow to Mumbai (9 hours), (Mumbai to Bangkok (4 hours) and Bangkok to Chiang Mai (1 hour), with a 2 hour stop in Mumbai and a 6 hour stop in Bangkok.

The only upside? They feed you loads on the plane. They gave us this packet of what I thought was peanuts, but realise they weren’t when I opened them. It was called “Murukku,’ which was a bit like Bombay mix flavoured but looked like tiny churros.

On the flight from London I was sat next to a British woman called Bryony, who had a PhD and was marking her masters student’s work. She was really nice and we spent our stop over in Mumbai together.

Passport control is now probably one of my least favourite things. I was terrified I wouldn’t be allowed in even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong! Got through safely though.When I finally made it to Chiang Mai I was so relieved. 14446193_10154049016859141_9022901181063878521_n.jpgThe view from the tunnel from the plane nearly made me cry, a combination of exhaustion, relief and pure awe at the beauty. The picture doesn’t do it justice, especially as it was through a window and there’s a plane in the way, but everything is so green and mountainous here.

I got picked up by a member of staff with a Sung Tao, which is like a truck with benches in the back (probably wouldn’t meet any health a14355703_10154049016959141_3821192079270220929_n.jpgnd safety standards in the UK…) and got dropped off at the Eco Resort Hotel which was my stay for the night. It was during this journey that I realised Thailand is pretty hot. The Sung Tao had no air con, just the breeze through the window when we were moving, and that itself was still just warm air. People drive like maniacs too, scooters and motorbikes weaving in and out of traffic all the time.

I had a roommate called Krystal who is staying on project for one week. We had a meeting where we met a couple of members of staff and the rest of the interns/volunteers who were starting. Krystal and I then had dinner together in a little restaurant just by the hotel and then went to bed as we had both arrived that day and were equally shattered.

We left at 9am on Sunday morning for the 5 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Huay Pakoot, the village I am staying in. We first stopped at a Tesco, where I grabbed some snack food, flip flops and a sim card for my phone. It then started raining, and when I say raining I mean pouring. GOPR0118.jpgIt was like someone had left a tap on up there and it was just flowing out of the clouds. We stopped at Wachirathan waterfall,  where the thunder and lightning started. Please excuse the water on the lens of my GoPro, as I said, it was raining. A lot.

We continued on our journey after being read a few risk assessments for the project and later stopped at Mae Chaem for some lunch and to buy some wellies. I now own some lovely blue wellies/gum boots/rain boots (to accommodate for all the different nationalities we have here).

On the bus journey I was sat next to David, who is also an intern, but had been on the project last year for 3 months, so already knew a lot about it. He got really excited when we got close and the excitement spread like wildfire through the volunteers in the bus. We rounded a corner and a small wall with a mural painted by previous volunteers came into view, signalling our arrival. After a short drive down a bumpy lane (even more holes than my drive at home) we reached “Base” (which after a few days of being here I realised would be where I would spend my life from now on).

I then got introduced to my homestay, Daw, and shown to my room. It’s a cute little bamboo box room with a mattress on the floor and a couple of shelves. There are a whole load of nails in the walls and a bamboo pole across one wall which I use to hang some clothes on, especially when they’re wet.

Dinner was what they call “Pot Luck.” To put it simply, we all sit on the floor around some wooden planks (the table) and our homestay bring our dinner to Base and we all share and pass the food around. It was a great way to spend the first night. Before we could eat we had a Geeju, where a few of the women from the village tied white string around our wrists and said prayers to keep our 37 spirits from straying to keep us healthy.

 

The next day I met my first elephant.

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Leaving the EU: The Environment

Firstly I must apologise for the considerable length of time it has been since my last blog post. March, April and May were extremely busy months, with me completing my dissertation and revising for and sitting my final exams at university. It is now June and there are just 3 months until I leave for Thailand!

But now, on to a topic that has rocked the UK today: the European Referendum.

Most people will know by now that the UK voted to leave the European Union yesterday, with millions of Britons waking up to the news this morning. There are both pros and cons resulting from this decision. 150302-Impact-Brexit-Barometer.jpgFactors such as the economy, trade and immigration were most widely focussed on in the media and political discussions. One of my main concerns, however, was the environment, and with many of our environmental targets set by the EU I am worried about the consequences for the environment with this referendum result.

Indications are that environmental protection will now become weaker. The most immediate impact of leaving the EU was clear this morning, with the financial markets crashing. Becoming “green” does not come for free, money is required to develop technology and investments are needed to put methods into practise.

One of the European Union’s greatest, yet somewhat understated, achievements have been the environmental issues it has tackled. These include controlling air and water pollution and protecting endangered species. warning-suspected-pollution-incident-sea.pngThe EU also sets targets for renewable energy, not only allowing this industry to grow, but helping reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Other initiatives include cleaning up sewage on beaches; the water of many was deemed too dirty to swim in, in the 1980s. After legal action from the EU, 99% of the UK’s beaches are now deemed safe for swimming.

The EU Renewable Energy Directive set a target for 20% of the EU’s energy to be renewable by 2020. The UK already showed signs of being reluctant to commit to this, resulting in an individual target for the UK of 15% of energy being renewable. Additionally, the UK consistently falls short of other targets set by the EU. For example, 40,000 people die prematurely in the UK from air pollution and dozens of cities in Britain are failing to meet air pollution targets. The government admitted that London, Leeds and Birmingham will not meet the set targets by at least 2030, which is 20 years later than the original target set by the EU.

The EU places quotas on fishing catch and bycatch. Without these quotas, the seas around the UK could be fished in an uncontrolled manner until there is nothing left. The short term vision is that a lift of these quotas will allow fishermen to sell a higher quantity of fish, and more valuable fish such as tuna, therefore increasing their income and boosting the industry. In the long run, however, fish stocks will collapse, so the benefit will be short lived. Take a look at my blog “Overfished and Underloved” for more information on overfishing.

The laws passed through the EU will still apply to the UK once we leave, however our parliament now has the power to change them. It would also depend on whether we remain in the Europe
an Economic Area (EEA). If we remain within the EEA, most environmental laws, other than the Bathing Water Directive, would still apply. Whether laws will be changed is yet to be seen, however cutting funding for environmental protection may be seen as an easy way for the future govetractor.jpgrnment to save money.

On the other hand, leaving the EU gives us more control over the environmental protection laws passed. This may mean that we can fine-tune them to be more specific for the UK’s individual requirements and could allow us to spend allocated money more effectively. The EU has also passed a moratorium on the use of genetically modified crops. This is a whole debate in itself, however the restriction of use may be leaving us vulnerable to crop diseases which may otherwise be prevented.

I have my doubts over whether effective laws will be passed to protect the environment and whether the UK will continue its efforts to reach current targets in the wake of this decision.

 

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Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Throughout my time at university, I have been told by lecturers to look at the way the media portrays new scientific studies and advances. I’ve always understood why, but until now none of the news stories have hit me as hard as these:

Headlines from Pakistan Today, Fox News and the LAD Bible

As my previous blog states, tigers are my favourite animal, so I’m probably biased as to why this story in particular caught my eye. Nonetheless, it highlights the struggle scientists face when trying to get important advancements across to the wider public without the message being misunderstood.

As a university student, I am very lucky to have access to almost any scientific paper I could ask for. So I downloaded this one to have a better read and judge the results for myself. The paper is titled “Tracking changes and preventing loss in critical tiger habitat,” by Joshi et al (2016).

The doubling of the tiger population by 2022, mentioned by the news articles, is a target set in 2010 in Russia, called the Tx2 in response to the rapidly diminishing tiger population and habitat. This agreement aimed to set up Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCLs) to help reach the target. Figure 1 shows the distribution of these TCLs.

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Figure 1. Tx2 TCLs have the potential to double tiger populations by 2022.

Data provided in the paper is not initially encouraging. It highlights a total loss of 7.7% of total tiger habitat from 2001-2014 and a loss of protected (TCL) habitat of 5.7%, resulting in a loss of around 400 tigers.

The authors note that this loss of habitat is much less than expected, which may be due to increasing conservation efforts. On the flip side, the impact of the habitat loss that has occurred has been devastating. For example, the habitat lost in the Cambodian Northern Plains landscape was enough to support 174 tigers. Conflicting data such as this continues to be provided. The study explains that while a forest corridor connecting Nepal’s Bardia National Park with India’s Katarniaghat Tiger Reserve is now being used by tigers, another survey indicates that tigers are now absent from the Basanta corridor, where they were previously frequently spotted.

The second sentence in the abstract reads “Habitat loss, along with poaching, can undermine the international target recovery of doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022.” Whilst the results from this study do suggest that currently there is enough habitat to support a doubling of the tiger population, habitat loss is expected to continue. This paper should provide encouragement that current conservation efforts are having an impact, and that increasing efforts could have an even greater impact. This does not mean to say that tiger populations are out of the woods. The threat of extinction is still very real.

When taken out of context, the headlines reported seem fantastic. But what is a doubling of the tiger population in reality?  7000 tigers. That is less than a third of the current polar bear population (IUCN Red List).

Before taking what is written in the news as a given, take the time to look into their news stories. Is everything really as it seems?

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I prefer this headline, from Headlines and Global News.

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Happy World Wildlife Day!

Today is World Wildlife Day, celebrated every March 3rd since its creation in 2013. This year it is centred aroundwwd_logo_english elephants, with the theme “The future of elephants is in our hands.”

Elephants are fantastic creatures, who have made sacrifices for our sake. Throughout history they played important roles in shaping the human race, but now the tables have turned and they need our help. Find out
about 4 iconic individuals who played huge roles in human history here.

World Wildlife Day is a day to celebrate wildlife and raise awareness for the world’s flora and fauna. My favourite animal is the Tiger, Panthera tigris, so here are a few facts to help you celebrate this majestic big cat with me.flying-tiger-wallpapers

Variety
There were once 9 subspecies of tiger: Bengal, Siberian, Indochinese, South Chinese, Sumatran, Malayan, Caspian, Javan and Bali. The last 3 are now extinct and the South Chinese has not been seen in the wild for 25 years. Tigers currently range South and Southeast Asia, China and the Russian Far East, but they have lost 93% of their historic range.tiger-wallpaper-predator-wild-cat

Size
Tigers are the largest members of the cat (felid) family. The Bengal and Siberian subspecies are the largest, growing up to 120 cm in height and 3.5m long, weighing anything from 65-300kg.

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Sociality

Tigers are solitary animals, except during the mating season (November to April in tropical climates, winter months in temperate regions). Cubs becomes independent at around 18 months, but will stay with their mothers for up
to 2 1/2 years. Tigers maintain strict territories, within larger home ranges which may overlap. A male’s range is larger and usually overlaps with several females’.

Population
Estimates suggest there are less than 2500 tigers left in the wild, a huge decrease from the 100,000 estimated at the beginning of the 20th century. The Bengal tiger has the largest population size of the remaining subspecies. Poaching for fur and body parts for trade and medicine alongside habitat loss have led to the depletion of the tiger’s population.

big_cat_tiger_face_teeth_anger_66431_3840x2160.jpgConservation
Tx2: With so few tigers remaining, efforts are aiming at bringing tigers back from the brink. An ambitious goal has been set: double the tiger population by 2022 (the next year of the tiger). Combating poaching and reducing habitat loss are vital components in the fight for the tiger’s survival. Protecting one tiger protects around 25,000 acres of forest and all wildlife within it
Tiger Reserves: The Satpuda forests of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in India contain a network of 7 tiger reserves, connected by forest corridors. The Satpuda Landscape Tiger Programme (SLTP) was set up by the Born Free Foundation, and WildCRU at the University of Oxford. They aim to protectIMG_0650-Russian-Tigers.jpg tiger habitat, reduce human-tiger conflict, monitor tiger populations, raise awareness and improve the livelihoods of people living alongside tigers.

IUCN: Launched in 2014, the Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme was set up as a result of funding from KfW and the German Government. With aims similar to the tiger reserves in India, the programme offers grants of  €700.000 to €2 million for individual projects run by NGOs, governments and local communities.

Celebrate and raise awareness for your favourite animal too.

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Acceptance

A report by World Animal Protection came out recently highlighting the Top 10 Cruellest Animal Attractions. The research was in partnership with the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and came up with these Top 10: 10-cruellest-attractions

Riding elephants and walking with lions is something I have already blogged about, with riding elephants especially, as something I am passionately against, catching people’s attention. It is great to see a report like this labelling elephant riding as the number one cruellest animal attraction.

What surprised me most though, as I read further into the report, was the findings about reviews from tourists on Trip Advisor. People would comment on the poor conditions they saw animals in, yet it would not affect the rating they gave the attraction. Have we really become so self indulged that our satisfaction is placed so highly above animal welfare?

As a race, as a species, have we lost compassion? We are the most intelligent species on the planet, but have we lost the most basic instincts? Are we so numb to, so accepting of, the cruelty that happens that we consider it normal, daily life?

We were not the first animals to roam this planet, and neither will we be the last.

Find the full report here.

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Flights, Camera, Action!

This blog is a little different (and shorter) from the ones I’ve been writing recently, mainly due to the fact that today was the day I bought my plane tickets for my trip to Thailand in September! I will be leaving on Friday 16th September and arriving in Chiang Mai on the 17th.

It has really struck me how real this is now, and with only 9 months to go I am getting extremely excited (and nervous). I can’t wait to be able to get my hands stuck into conservation, and to throw myself into a brand new culture.

On a side note, GVI have asked me to blog for them. My first blog went live last week, you can find it here: 4 Reasons Why The Environment Needs Elephants.

I will continue to write this blog; now I’ve bought my tickets I can’t wait to start blogging about my experiences in Thailand!

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Are Zoos Good?

Zoos and aquariums bring about a lot of controversy. They’re good for education and research purposes, but bad as they take animals away from their natural habitat and put them in enclosures. (Zoos and aquariums will be referred to collectively as zoos).

Of course, there are ‘good’ zoos and ‘bad’ zoos, but how good are the good ones, and how bad are the bad ones? Do the pros outweigh the cons, or should we be leaving these animals in their natural habitats?

Recently, National Geographic posted an article about 18 elephants that are planned to be moved from Swaziland into 3 US zoos.

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The reason why is that they are believed to be crowding out rhino and other animals, and would be shot anyway. The zoos say that the addition of new elephants will “improve the sustainability of elephants in North America” through breeding programmes, along with improving zoo attendance.

Problems arose when a Seattle Times reporter looked into US zoo elephant statistics, finding that 50% of all the US’s zoo elephants die at half the age of wild elephants. These elephants typically die from injuries or diseases related to captivity. African elephants are classified as endangered, and under CITES, import of animals should not be detrimental to their survival or be used primarily for commercial purposes. The decision on whether to import these animals will be made between the US and Swaziland.

This particular example pulls up a couple of problems linked with zoos. Are they detrimental to each individual’s health and wellbeing? It is very clear that the space available to zoo animals is only a fraction of the amount they would have in the wild, affecting their sense of freedom and stimulation. seaworld orcasSize also impacts on the amount of individuals that can realistically be kept in an enclosure, which then impacts on individuals’ social bonds. This was something that was brought up by PETA when investigating SeaWorld’s orcas. Problems facing captive orcas have recently been brought up in the documentary film ‘Blackfish,’ which could be suggested to have started the snowball effect looking into the alleged abuse these animals undergo.

However, zoos can have positive impacts. Most notable among these has to be reintroduction programmes. Paignton Zoo in Devon has been working on a reintroduction programme into Cornwall for the Cirl Bunting. This little bird had become increasingly rare in the UK, becoming restricted to Plycirl-bunting-alamy-439969mouth and Exeter. in 2006 the programme began, with the first breeding pairs being reared in Paignton and released. There are now over 50 breeding pairs in Cornwall and they have spread into parts of Devon.

Some zoos are the last place of refuge for some animals. Species that have been pushed to extinction in the wild can be kept alive in captivity. The Scimitar-Horned Oryx has been extinct in the wild since 1999, primarily due to hunting for its horns, but are still breeding successfully in Chester Zoo (UK), Werribee Open Range Zoo (Australia), Attica Zoo (Greece) antelope.jpgand another 214 institutions around the world. In 2008, there were 1703 registered individuals. Reintroduction programmes have been planned and put in place, but their success is yet to be seen.

Zoos are also a place of education. They inspire children to have an interest in wildlife, educate the public on current conservation issues and provide a learning experience for schools and universities.LincolnParkzoo 30 In recent years, zoos have been making their conservation efforts very clear, with species’ conservation statuses being visible on signs, emphasis on breeding programmes and possibilities to ‘adopt’ an animal so that the public can contribute.

It would seem that for some animals, zoos are not good. Some species are simply not suited to be kept in zoo environments, and may thrive better from in situ conservation. But for other species, they provide safety from extinction, and even chances of reintroduction. They are places that can educate people so that more species can be saved. The question ‘are zoos good’ is not a simple on to answer.

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Bringing Back Beavers

Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers- they alter their environment and manage the biodiversity and biomass found within it.
bEAVER-DAMAGE-100420965This can have many positive impacts: creation of fertile soils- perfect for a range of riverbank plants, fish stock recovery, reduced water flow- useful particularly during heavy rain and flood periods, and creation of new, complex underwater habitat between the river and the bank. Dams also help purify water and trap silt, reducing turbidity and sedimentation of water courses.

Concerns about reintroducing beavers into the UK range from disease introduction, such as beaver fluke and beaver beetle, reduction in agricultural land due to wetland creation and the impact to fish. The beaver beetle is a parasite to beavers alone, and with proper screening, disease introductions can be managed.Scottish Beaver at Knapdale Forest, Argyll, Scotland Beaver dams only flood small amounts of land, and compared to the large scale flooding they can control, the economic impact is minimal. Fish migrations have been studied in Scotland to understand the barrier effect of dams. Initial studies suggest that dams do impede movement upstream in salmon and trout, but due to increased habitat diversity, the impact on abundance and productivity is positive. These are only preliminary results and the issue needs further research.

Eurasian beavers are native to the UK, but have been extinct here since the 16th century, when they were hunted for their pelts, meat and scent glands. Schemes are now starting to bring this native animal back. Beavers have been reintroduced into Scotland- the Scottish Beaver Trail started in 2009, introducing 4 beaver families into Knapdale Forest. These beavers have been thriving, with 2 new beaver kits spotted this year. web-beaver-pa

In Devon, the Wildlife Trusts have set up an enclosed 3 hectare area containing 2 beavers, with the aim of researching the effects that beavers have on wetlands and to help inform future reintroductions. The original small stream has been transformed into an amazing network of waterways.

Now there is another project in Devon. In 2014, beavers were found on the river Otter, their origin unknown, but suspected to be the result of an escape or unauthorised release. Initially, Defra planned to place them into captivity after fears of disease (E. multilocularis forms liver cysts, it cannot be transferred between beavers, but it can be transferred to other mammals). After the animals were found to be disease free, the Devon Wildlife Trust were granted pDevon_beaver_by_David_Plummerermission to start the River Otter Beaver Trial. You can follow their story here.
There are now an estimated 12 individuals in 4 parts of the river. Recently there have been concerns that the beavers have disappeared, but the Wildlife Trusts have assured us that there is no need to worry. In fact, you can head down to the river to spot them for yourself.

Devon Wildlife Trust – Beavers from seenit on Vimeo.