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Hippos, beavers and humans: friends reunited in modern Britain

  • Written by  James Wallace
  • Published in Wildlife
Hippos, beavers and humans: friends reunited in modern Britain Rob Needham
20 Oct
2021
James Wallace, chief executive of Beaver Trust, shares an unlikely tale of acquaintance between three familiar species

This is a tale of three discoveries spanning half a million years, three species - two quadrupeds, one biped - and mud.

The summer of 1994 was a scorcher for everyone. For those of us working outside and exposed to the aerosol-thinned ozone it was almost unbearable. Unless you happened to be on an archaeological excavation at Dorney prior to the extraction of £33 million of gravel and creation of the Eton College Rowing Lake.

I was one of those sun-burned undergrads armed with a trowel, wide-brimmed hat, boots, beard and watering can on a between-term dig while studying at Bournemouth University. We worked under the tutelage of Tim Allen on the site of what was to become the Olympic Rowing Lake in 2012. Just west of Windsor, we and other diggers from far afield undertook the largest open-space excavation in British history.

We discovered Mesolithic lakeside camps, Neolithic crouched inhumation burials, Bronze Age villages, Roman votive offerings, even the first bridge to cross a section of the once-braided River Thames. I happened to spot the footings of the oldest bridge in the world while half-asleep on JCB ‘digger watch’.

It was an amazing experience tracking human occupation over 10,000 years, topped for a lucky few of us by another discovery of something that was at once exotic and familiar.

I was having a particularly brain-boiled afternoon spraying water on the baked soil, working back the softened mud along a section crossing a paleochannel - an old channel of the Thames. When, out of the haze, a dark stain and sticks emerged in front of me and my colleagues spanning the whole channel from bank to bank.

We guessed it must have been fallen trees but checked with the boss. Imagine our amazement when we learned we had uncovered the remains of a 4,000-year-old beaver dam, a species we had no idea even existed in Britain, despite our studies. It blew our minds and was liberally celebrated. Later, as the buzz dissipated, the bones of a resident Eurasian beaver appeared too, along with beaver-gnawed timbers sharpened to typical ‘pencil tip’ points.

Castor fiber, the Eurasian beaver, evolved over a period of seven million years with our resident fauna and flora. Their landscape engineering abilities and tools - iron-clad teeth, dextrous hands and powerful paddle-like tail - were honed, alongside the work of  aurochs (ancient ox), tarpan (early horse), giant elk, hyenas, saber-toothed cats, white-tailed eagles, willow tits, black storks, brown trout, Atlantic salmon, willow, aspen, oak and many amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, wildflowers and leafy plants. Much of our wildlife and our ancestral hominids - early humans - emerged from and made their home in this type of wetland habitat, sadly degraded across much of modern Britain.

A year before our digging shenanigans at Dorney, in 1993 another spectacular discovery was made by Mark Roberts and his team at Earthen Pit, Boxgrove in Sussex: parts of Britain’s oldest (at the time) human, weighing in at 80kg and reaching 1.8m tall, a member of the Homo heidelbergensis family dating back to 500,000 years ago.

Handaxe in hand James WallaceAcheulean handaxe, found by Juliet Wackrill at St John’s Wood, London. Image: James Wallace

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This Lower Paleolithic assemblage comprised the remains of our oldest ancestor found in Britain and a huge array of his or her tools. As effective on trees as beaver teeth, such tools were made from flint, chipped and shaped into blades, scrapers and the infamous Acheulean handaxe - just like the one my mother’s landlady found in her rose bed in St John’s Wood, 20 miles away from Dorney, which now sits proudly in my collection.

Boxgrove was a seasonal nomadic hunting and butchery site, presenting an almost unique opportunity to explore the large mammals that once lived on our island or continent, depending on whether we were immersed in sparse icelands or basking in interglacial warmth and plenty. The list of bone donors was long and awe-inspiring, highlighted by rhinoceros, megaloceros (giant deer), horse, elephant, bison, birds… and… wait for it... beavers and hippos.

Yes, Eurasian beavers and European hippopotamus (Hippopotamus antiquus) once lived together in Britain. Imagine the combined impact of their teeth and feet on our ancient river valleys. Using their dams, canals and wallows, they co-created a mosaic of huge wetlands, meandering rivers, interconnecting streams, ponds, reedbeds, gravel-bottomed riffles and mud-oozing swamps surrounded by coppiced scrub, woodlands and meadows bursting with life. The sights, smells and sounds would have been almost overwhelming to us today.

European hippos lived in Europe, including Britain, for millennia during the interglacial periods. They became extinct around 135-114,000 BP (before present) during or at the end of the Ipswichian interglacial (or Eemian if you live in continental Europe). The most recent hippo bones were found on the River Severn estuary dating to that period. They were possibly the last of our native hippos due to the seeping cold of the last glaciation - the Tarantian (in the Late Pleistocene) - which ended with the Holocene, our present geological epoch. Our familiar balmy British climate started in 11,700 BP when we became an island nation of tribes, powered by the Gulf Stream and eventually settled as farmers and tamers of the land. By then, hippos were a distant memory, but beavers lived alongside us in their millions.

Hippos Longleat Safari Park resizedSpot and Sonia, the hippos at Longleat. Image: Longleat Safari Park

And now for the third discovery. While driving home last October through Longleat in Wiltshire, Mark Tye startled a beaver in his headlights. The beaver was heading home too, back to the hippo pond. Much to Mark and colleague’s amazement, native beavers have rocked up on the safari park estate and settled in with their ancient mud-slinging-and-digging buddies.

Beavers were hunted to extinction for their tasty meat, thick fur and odoriferous oils 400 years ago and are now known to be living wild in the Frome and Avon catchment. Their colonies have bred from individuals who probably escaped from enclosures quite some time ago. As adults bond and breed, their kits are sent packing upstream or downstream to make their own territory and find a mate. Who can blame them for seeking out the free meals of lush willow scrub proffered along the stream banks and lakes at Longleat?

Spot and Sonia, the hippos at Longleat, are from sub-Saharan Africa (Hippopotamus amphibius), so a little bit different to their European cousins, but as close as we can get for an analogue. Having spent millenia roaming our wetlands together, it should be no surprise that they live perfectly well with beavers now, chowing down cheek by jowl at Longleat, and thrilling the staff of one of Britain’s most visited wildlife attractions.

This is a historic moment and one to be cherished: hippos, beavers and humans are living together at the same time and place, and you can come and see them.

Eva Bishop, our communications director at Beaver Trust and a Commonwealth Championship gold medallist sculler (unlike rowing, scullers can manage more than one thing at once, and scull with two oars) said in the press recently, 'Beavers are a gift in these changeable times, for their potential water and wildlife benefits, so to follow them establishing within the Longleat surroundings will be fascinating'. I couldn’t agree more. Beaver Trust has started to help create a record of beaver activities to monitor changes and inform the park’s visitor experience. It will be interesting to see the impact beavers make on the local landscape and how they interact with their new four- and two-legged neighbours.

As a mud-and-bone loving digger tracking the journey of all three wondrous species over eons, I am thrilled to see we three mammalian friends reunited after 120,000 years. My greatest hope is that others welcome back the beaver to Britain with the same magnanimity as the hippos and humans of Longleat. Magnanimity is from the Latin magna meaning ‘big’ and animus meaning ‘soul’. Soul is the origin of the word ‘animal’.

James Wallace is Chief Executive of Beaver Trust and supports the team with policy, partnerships and programme development. He is an archaeologist and ecologist, and has spent the past 20 years setting up environmental organisations from renewable energy and ecotourism to climate communications and conservation. James’ mission is to reconnect and align people with each other and the rest of nature.

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