Summer series grobstadtrevier (4): brandenburg is pissed off

Conservationists and farmers argue about the right way to deal with beavers – for example, about when the rodent can be shot.

Builds fewer castles than thought: beaver in Brandenburg. Photo: dpa

Suddenly, Burghard Sell stops. Carefully, he bends a bramble vine aside and points to the bank sloping steeply down to the Nuthe. "Now don’t take another wrong step, or you’ll be up to your belly in Beaver’s living room." Startled, the untrained eye scans the ground and sees nothing but nettles, thorns and a withered elder bush – nothing.

Burghard Sell, a volunteer beaver caretaker at the Naturschutzbund (Nabu) Brandenburg, smiles in amusement. "You thought beavers built castles, right?" says Sell, who has been looking after the beaver territories on the Nuthe River in Potsdam since 2006. Sure, that’s what it says even in every children’s picture book! "Unfortunately, that’s not true," says Sell. As long as the animals find a high enough bank to burrow into, they don’t unnecessarily spend time in the water with complicated building activities: "They much prefer burrows.

Such a burrow can be up to one meter in diameter, and usually several are connected by a tunnel system. "The burrow we are standing on now, however, was recently abandoned by the beavers," Sell explains. He is out and about every day in "his" territory, directly opposite the prefabricated buildings of the Schlaatz slab construction area, where he also lives. Sell paws with the tip of his foot in the sand on the banks of the river: The ground, "this old sandbox," has subsided above the tunnels – hence the danger of collapse.

The rodents, which can be up to one meter long and weigh around 30 kilograms, are now working with considerable zeal on the Nuthe. Expert Sell has counted three pairs of beavers. Six kilometers of water, from the mouth of the Nuthe into the Havel in the center of Potsdam upstream, have been reclaimed for their purposes by the monogamous herbivores: tunnels have been dug, living dens have been created, paths to feeding places in the undergrowth have been smoothed.

"The beavers like the city," Sell says. "In the countryside, they find a lot of monoculture, corn or canola fields. Here, the plant diversity is greater."

What’s more, it’s not just on the Nuthe River that beavers are back. Almost wiped out except for a few hundred animals shortly after the fall of communism in 1989, the population in Brandenburg is now estimated by the State Office for the Environment, Health and Consumer Protection (LUGV) at about 3,300 animals. The beaver is on the list of strictly protected species: trapping, stalking and killing is prohibited under the Federal Nature Conservation Act.

Not everyone likes that. Farmers complain about the signs of feeding in the fields and wet fields because the beavers dam up the drainage ditches and the water can no longer flow away. Residents in flood areas worry that the beavers will break the dikes with their tunnels. They pierce road and railroad embankments like Swiss cheese. In the spring, the Barnim-Oderbruch office reported that some roads and paths had become impassable.

However, due to its strict protection status, the beaver may not be scared away or even killed, as has been the case in Brandenburg since May, only in exceptional cases (see interview below). This creates many conflicts between humans and the environment that need to be resolved. One could also say: The beaver is developing into a real job creation measure in Brandenburg. For example, the rodent employs volunteers like Sell, who statistically record the beaver population for the LUGV in exchange for a small expense allowance.

In the district associations of Nabu, on the other hand, the employees appease angry citizens and try to convince farmers of the usefulness of preventive measures against the beaver. "A ten-meter wide strip of green between the field and the riverbank is enough, and the beaver will hardly bother to wander into the cornfield," says Christiane Schroder, managing director at Nabu Brandenburg. In dikes and dams, grids and riprap could prevent a beaver from establishing itself there.

After all, the skirmishes between the various interest groups are now even creating two paid full-time jobs: The LUGV of Minister Jorg Vogelsanger (SPD) is looking for two full-time beaver managers as of September 1. Job description: mediate, smooth the waters between conservationists and those who need to make money from nature as managed cultivated land in the first place.

They are everywhere. Some we see every day, some hardly ever. Others will cross our paths even more frequently in the future. Berlin is not only home to three and a half million people, but also to countless animals: foxes and hawks, rats and pigs, cats and sparrows. For you, we lie in wait, read tracks and peer into nests: this summer series will be animalistic.

Already published: Reflections on the fox (July 21), research on the migration background of Berlin’s fauna (July 28) and an essay on the question of whether cats are also predatory cats (August 5).

Around half of Brandenburg’s beavers live in the Markisch-Oderland district. In fact, the traces left by the stately rodent are less discreet here than on the Nuthe in Potsdam. Anyone who is out and about in the Oderbruch can see: Hardly a willow on the river banks that has not had to leave bark. The Gewasser- und Deichverband Oderbruch (Gedo) put the cost of removing beaver damage for 2013 at around 100,000 euros. In 2007, it was still 17,000 euros.

While the nature conservation associations are pleased about the recovered population, the state hunting association is now calling for the beaver to be included in the hunting law. Prevention is all well and good – but the population has long been stable enough for hunting, according to a recently published position paper.

For beaver warden Sell, that would be "by far the stupidest way" to keep the beaver population artificially small. In any case, he doesn’t like the word "overpopulation" that farmers like to use: if the beaver finds a natural food supply, nature regulates the population all by itself through the simple principle of supply and demand.

The only difference is that where the beaver makes itself at home, there is usually also a human being – a community in which the inhabitants have very different ideas about the design of their front garden.

At the points where the Nuthe meanders closer to the residential silos of Schlaatz, the riparian strip is more accessible: almost no more undergrowth, but two wide lanes. Last November, the Water and Soil Authority created facts here. The reason for the cleanup was that the many branches hanging down into the water meant that the water could no longer flow away – a problem in the event of a flood.

In principle, this is correct, says Nabu managing director Schroder. "But the beaver is now missing a lot of the food base here." Cutting back individual branches that are hanging into the water, "that absolutely would have done it."

New fuel

So the action has brought one thing above all: New fuel in the beaver debate and more work for the conservationists. Because the hungry beaver family is now making a mess of the oak trees on the bank. It’s quite simple to understand, says Sell: "We take away the beaver’s habitat, so it uses ours. He’s not stupid."

In other words, the beaver makes work, a lot of work in fact, because it does not fit into an extensively used cultural landscape as created by man. But how much work he does is, in turn, in man’s hands.

And he could even use the beaver’s labor instead of working against him. Schroder says that beavers are experts in the renaturation of artificially straightened rivers. Structures and branches pulled into the water provide a meandering course of flow all by themselves. "Targeted use of the beaver is difficult, however," Schroder qualifies. And Burghard Sell emphasizes that the beaver is a different landscape gardener than man.

In any case, the beaver has good taste: the way it has draped the branches around its former living room under the elder bush is pretty. When in November the machines of the water and soil office moved in, uprooted the elder bush and thus also almost brought down the ceiling of his earthwork, he preferred to build a new one a few kilometers further up the Nuthe. After all, he is not stupid.