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The key role that beavers play as ecosystem engineers in landscape restoration

The key role that beavers play as ecosystem engineers in landscape restoration

Beavers are natural rewilders, their dams creating nature-rich wetlands that support many other species and act as a carbon sink, whilst also reducing flooding risk by holding back storm water flows.

Yet, while these habitat-creating, flood-preventing animals are the beating heart of healthy river and wetland environments across Europe, in Britain we’ve been slow to welcome them back to our countryside after 400 years of extinction.

Landscape Designers Urquhart & Hunt have chosen to make beaver activity the core of their garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year, revealing how this keystone species is pivotal to ecosystem restoration, and showcasing how rewilding can benefit nature, climate and people.

Designed for and in collaboration with the charity Rewilding Britain, the garden shows a rewilding landscape in the south west of England, following the reintroduction of the beaver. A brook flows beneath a glade of hawthorn, hazel and field maple and under a winding old West Country stone wall. Below is a pool dammed by beavers with a beaver’s lodge built around a large crack willow. Evidence of their food and dam supplies – wood-

sticks, woodchip and tree debris – are scattered around. Rivulets of water trickle through the dam and spread out across a riparian meadow through rejuvenating alder trees.

The garden’s dry-stone wall is built in a West Country traditional style using stone from a previously dis-used but now carefully managed dormant iron-ore quarry in Exmoor. The beaver hide and dam are constructed from debris that has been removed from beaver sites as part of the beaver management process.

An old timber walkway, made from reclaimed oak planks and chestnut poles, is inspired by the Neolithic Sweet Track from the Somerset levels. It leads across the wetland meadow to a viewing hide at the side of the pool. Native wildflowers mingle with grasses in the garden’s varied planting zones, while marginal plants throng the edges of the pool and stream.

Urquhart & Hunt specialise in contemporary restorations of gardens within their wider landscapes, incorporating ecological rehabilitation and naturalised planting schemes. The inspiration for the Show Garden comes from their seeing, at first hand, the incredible abundance, diversity and beauty that arise from beaver activity. Described as “some of the world’s most skilled ecosystem engineers”, beavers offer a natural solution to water management and allow biodiversity to thrive through their ingenious manipulation of the landscape.

Rebecca Wrigley, Rewilding Britain’s Chief Executive, said: “For the first time at Chelsea, visitors will be shown the amazing rewilding impact that eco-engineers such as beavers can have on reversing the loss of nature in Britain and in boosting the beauty and biodiversity of our landscapes. We’re thrilled that Urquhart & Hunt’s inspiring garden will be spotlighting rewilding’s message of hope.”

Approximately 3600 plants are being grown for the garden, with five statement trees, ten shrubby trees and a rough, naturally grown out, hedge. The plants include: Crack Willow (Salix alba), vital in preventing riverside soil erosion and supporting over 200 species of invertebrate; Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – the bright red haw berries are a favourite food for many birds in winter, while Brimstone moth and Oak Eggar moth feed on the leaves and it is a habitat for 149 insect species; Alder (Alnus glutinosa) – supports at least 90 insect species, while its fruit is an important food source for goldfinches, siskin and redpoll; and Devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) – a vital food source for the caterpillars of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly.

In order to present as authentic a picture of a rewilding landscape as possible, native grasses will be shown as one would see them in the wild, with their previous year’s growth and their pre-season seed-head remnants left on, together with the brown, former season’s dead foliage.

Speaking about the opportunity of creating this garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt say, ‘Our garden for Rewilding Britain celebrates something we really feel passionate about which is nature in balance. It is more pressing than ever for us as humans to re-connect with our own habitat, the earth, and work within the systems that hold us and give us clean air, waters, nourishment and our home. This is our moment to bring this, in all its beauty, to visitors of the show.“