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Beavers live here! Rewilding on the River Otter in East Devon

Four years ago, a family of wild beavers were spotted on the river Otter in East Devon.  This was the first report of the animal breeding successfully in the wild in England since the species had been hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago.  No one knows how the animals came to be on the river but their prospering population is now the subject of a scientific trial providing a unique opportunity to monitor the re-introduction of a native species, or “rewilding” as it is sometimes called. 

Otterton Bridge with Himalyan Balsam
The old stone bridge over the River Otter at Otterton, with Himalyan Balsam

 

I wanted to find out more, so one evening in mid-September, I met Kate Ponting, Countryside Learning Officer for Clinton Devon Estates, at the village green in Otterton.  Kate has been closely involved with the beaver re-introduction trial, taking place as it does on land largely owned by her employer.  We headed to the river, crossed the old stone bridge and walked upstream along the muddy riverside path.  Banks of Himalayan balsam and nettles dominated the river bank while, on the landward side, clover leys spread as far as the low embankment that once carried the railway.  Prominent official signs warned that “Beavers live here” and Kate explained that there had been some local problems with dogs.

The river was full after recent heavy rain but the scene was tranquil in the low evening sunshine.  We paused on the wooden bridge where Kate pointed out one beaver lodge, a semi-organised jumble of mud, sticks and branches protruding nearly a metre from the river bank and covering the entrance to a burrow where the beavers live.   Further up the river we stopped to watch a second lodge on the far bank.  Kate had warned me that the beavers had become less “reliable” as the autumn progressed and, although a wren flittered about the sticks making up the lodge and a grey wagtail passed through, we saw no beavers. Kate did, however, show me some signs of beaver activity including severed branches and one felled tree.

The beaver is Europe’s largest rodent and until the 16th century was found widely on UK rivers.  They are impressively large animals covered in brown fur, measuring up to 100cm (head and body) and with scaly black tails.  Beavers are strict herbivores with strong teeth allowing feeding on many species of river and bank plant as well as woody vegetation from trees.  They are strong swimmers adapted for life underwater, and skilful aquatic engineers able to regulate water levels by building dams.  When they build dams by felling trees they remodel the wetland landscape creating habitat for many other plants and animals and, for this reason, they are referred to as “keystone” species.

In the past, they were hunted to extinction for their fur, meat and castoreum, a secretion from their scent gland used for medicinal purposes.  Early in the 21st century, however, free-living populations of beavers were re-established in Scotland and there were anecdotal sightings of wild beavers on the river Otter in East Devon.  These reports were confirmed early in 2014 when two adults and one juvenile beaver (kit) were filmed near Ottery St Mary.  This was the first confirmed report of wild beavers breeding in England for 400 years.

At first, DEFRA were concerned that the animals might harbour disease and wanted to remove them but their plan was opposed by wildlife experts and local people.  So, towards the end of 2014, Devon Wildlife Trust applied to Natural England for a licence allowing the beavers to remain on the river as part of a five-year trial to monitor their effects.  The licence was granted on the condition that the beavers were shown to be the native UK species and disease free and in March 2015, nine beavers living in two family groups were returned to the river Otter.  The licence included a management plan for monitoring the health of the beaver population and its effects on the local landscape and ecology; also for making good any damage.  The River Otter Beaver Trial is led by Devon Wildlife Trust working in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Derek Gow Consultancy and Clinton Devon Estates.

Since the trial began, beavers have been seen along almost the entire length of the river Otter.  Breeding has been successful each year but there were concerns that the population might be becoming inbred so in 2016, two additional beavers, unrelated to the existing animals, were released on to the river. By 2017 the population had grown to more than 20 and watching the adult beavers and their kits on a summer’s evening became a popular pastime attracting many visitors to the area.  So far, the presence of these large aquatic animals has caused few difficulties.  Feeding signs have been detected all along the river in terms of severed shoots and felled trees but this was mainly confined to small diameter willow shoots.  Earlier this year, fields near Otterton were flooded when beavers dammed one of the streams feeding the Otter but mitigation measures were put in place.

Female beaver with kits, on the River Otter. Photo by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust

 

These are, however, early days and, as the number of beavers continues to rise, their presence in this managed East Devon landscape may cause tensions.  There is good evidence from Bavaria, where the animals were re-introduced 50 years ago, that beavers can have a beneficial influence on rivers.   They support wildlife by opening up the landscape, creating coppice and diversifying the wetland habitat.  Their dams regulate river flows and remove sediment and pollutants. Sometimes, however, they can be a nuisance to those who live and work by rivers, causing flooding, blocking ditches, undermining river banks and felling important trees.   There are now as many as 20,000 beavers on Bavaria’s rivers and their beneficial effects are clearly recognised alongside the need to manage the animals when their activity has a negative impact.   Hopefully, a similar resolution can be reached for the East Devon beavers as their population grows.  Whatever the outcome, the River Otter Beaver Trial will be closely watched by those interested in “rewilding” the landscape.

The featured image at the top of this post is of a female beaver on the River Otter, by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust.

I should like to thank Kate Ponting of Clinton Devon Estates for giving up her time to show me the beaver lodges and Steve Hussey and Mark Elliott of Devon Wildlife Trust for providing information and photographs.

This article appeared in the November 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Beaver Lodge on river Otter
Beaver lodge on River Otter

 

 

Tree felled by beavers near river Otter
Tree felled by beavers along River Otter

 

Himalayan Balsam by River Otter
Himalayan Balsam by River Otter – the bee was too quick for me and all I photographed was the leg!

 

 

Cormorant on river Otter
Cormorant on River Otter

 

 

river Otter view
A tranquil scene on the River Otter

 

Still ticking after all these years – the Ottery St Mary Astronomical Clock

Ottery St Mary is a small town in East Devon in the south west of the UK. The town has several claims to fame: not only is it the birthplace of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge but Harry Potter fans will know it as the inspiration for Ottery St Catchpole, home of the Weasleys. Then there is St Mary’s Church, a magnficent building, a mini-cathedral. There is much to see within the church but one of its more unusual features is the ancient astronomical clock. As well as telling the time, it also shows the age and phase of the moon, and it has done so for more than five centuries. This beautiful clock is a rare example of medieval craftsmanship and gives us a unique insight into life many centuries ago.

St Mary's Church Ottery St Mary 3
St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

 

Perhaps there is a chiming clock in the town where you live that insists on telling you the hour. You probably also wear a wristwatch and, failing that, your computer or phone provides minute by minute updates of the time. But it hasn’t always been like this, so how were clocks developed and how did time come to rule us?

The earliest clocks

In Western Europe, the first rudimentary clocks began to appear only during the medieval era. They were the preserve of monasteries and their purpose was to provide a signal to the sacristan who then rang the cloister bell, calling the monks to prayer at regular intervals. These simple timepieces were probably water clocks, where time was measured via the flow of water in to or out of a vessel. Although they were not very accurate, they were a great improvement on sundials in a cloud-prone country.

Then, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a major breakthrough in clock development occurred. Reports of new mechanical clocks began to appear from various places in Europe including Exeter (1284) and Salisbury (1306) and, most likely, this coincided with the invention of the escapement. These new clocks would probably have been driven by a weight attached to a rope wound round a drive shaft. The escapement was a device that enabled the weight to descend in a stepwise manner, each step representing the passing of time which could be displayed on the clock face. The familiar “tick, tock” of these clocks is the sound of the escapement. So began a new era of mechanical clocks composed solely of metal wheels and gears. These clocks were enthusiastically installed in church towers and other public buildings allowing a bell to be rung at intervals throughout the day, broadcasting time to the inhabitants of the town and, for example, signalling the opening of trading at the market.

As these mechanical clocks became more sophisticated they were elaborated to show not only time but also the age and phase of the moon. The south west of England has four well preserved examples of these ancient astronomical clocks that have survived for at least five centuries, perhaps because of their novelty or their beauty. They are to be found in Exeter Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, Wimborne Minster and in Ottery St Mary Church.

The Astronomical Clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

The clock hangs high above the south transept and below the bell tower. Its bright blue face, about a metre and a half square, is liberally decorated with gold and red and topped with a gold angel blowing a trumpet. Unashamedly beautiful and garish at the same time, it dominates the scene.

Astronomical Clock in Ottery St Mary Church
The astronomical clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

 

The clock has two circular dials. The outer dial shows the hour with two sets of twelve Roman numerals. A golden sphere, representing the sun, moves to show the time. The inner dial contains thirty Arabic numerals with a gold star moving between them to show the age of the moon. Within the inner dial is a sphere painted half white, half black which rotates on its axis once every 29.5 days depicting the moon and its phases; the moon sphere also moves around the dial once every 24 hours. A black sphere at the centre of the clock shows the earth as the centre of the universe. The clock mechanism is visible behind the face.

Clock Mechanism Ottery St Mary
The clock mechanism

 

The exact age of the clock is not known but we may get a hint from the strong similarity between the Ottery St Mary clock and the astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral, which dates from the 15th century. Also, both timepieces depict a medieval view of the structure of the universe where the sun rotates about the earth. This model was only superseded in 1543 when Copernicus proposed that the earth actually rotates about the sun, so we can be fairly sure that both are older than this date.

Astronomical Clock in Exeter Cathedral
The astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral. The Latin inscription translates as “The hours pass and are reckoned to our account”.

 

Why astronomical clocks?

It is easy to understand the purpose of a clock that broadcasts the time of day to a busy town but why would the medieval clockmaker go to the trouble to include information about the age and phase of the moon and the apparent movement of the sun about the earth? One possibility may have been a desire of the contemporary Church to create a model of God’s celestial universe but perhaps there were secular reasons as well. For example, knowledge of the phases of the moon would have been useful in planning a long journey at night or a meeting in winter. Also, because of the influence of the moon on tides, knowledge of the state of the moon would have been useful for seafarers.

When they first appeared, these clocks must have seemed miraculous: man had constructed a machine that would predict the motion of the sun and moon and show the hours of the day. Possession of such a clock would have been a source of civic and ecclesiastical pride and conferred distinction on a town. For Ottery St Mary, perhaps it was considered fitting to install such a clock in its “mini-cathedral” of St Mary’s church.

The 21st century observer, surrounded by technology and gadgets, might, however, simply view the Ottery St Mary clock as an ancient curiosity. This would be a mistake: the clock is a rare example of advanced medieval craftsmanship as well as offering considerable insight into how life was lived so many years ago. It is a true medieval marvel.

 

This article appeared in the November edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.