Eco-Stories: Chris Jones – Regenerative Agriculture and Reintroducing Beavers to Cornwall
By : Admin -
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. See the full interview below.
Chris Jones was born in Cornwall UK in 1959 and moved to his current farm in 1960. He is the middle child of seven, and had a great childhood growing up outdoors. He worked in Southern Central Africa 1978 to 1981, then returned to the UK and studied Forestry at Bangor. After working for a forestry contracting company from 1987 to 1990, he went back to farm in 1990 when his father died. Chris has been running the farm ever since. The farm went organic in 2003, and then to pasture only farming in 2009. The farm has evolved to include carbon auditing, building soil carbon stocks, and practicing regenerative agriculture. Chris started the Cornwall Beaver Project in 2014, and helped set up Beaver Trust in 2019. He has 4 children and one grandchild.
This interview was recorded on January 10, 2020.
Fiona Martin (FM): Okay, well, hi Chris. Welcome to the Eco-interviews. I'm excited to have you with us today.
Chris Jones (CJ): Well, thanks for asking me on the air Fiona.
FM: So, Chris is a farmer who started the Cornwall Beaver Project in 2014. And he was born in Cornwall and he moved to his current farm in the 60s. He is the middle child of seven and he had a great childhood growing up outdoors.
He worked in central Africa from 1978 to 1981 and then returned to the UK and studied Forestry at Bangor. After working for a forestry contracting company from 1987 to 1990, he went back to farm in 1990 when his father died and he's been running the farm ever since.
His farm went organic in 2003, and then to pasture-only farming in 2009. The farm has evolved to include carbon auditing, building soil carbon stocks, and practicing regenerative agriculture. And then from there he's also been involved in the Beaver Project, and he has four children and one grandchild.
So Chris, I'm really excited to speak to you. You sound like you've been on the farm, outdoors, for much of your life. And this has evolved into organic farming, regenerative agriculture, rebuilding the Beaver stock in the UK. So, give us a little bit of an idea. Were you always interested in nature? Did you always consider yourself an environmentalist or is this something that happened later in life?
CJ: No, I think the whole family has always been very interested in nature and wildlife and living in the outdoors. My father was also very interested always in everything that's going on with nature here. And he'd been a farmer most of his life. And his father before that and so on. So, I think historically, as a family, we've had a great appreciation of living in the countryside and what else is in there besides us.
FM: Fantastic. And you've been, you're a little bit older than say myself and Mel Smith, who put us in touch. I feel like we're maybe the newer generation that are starting to get into this, maybe the city slickers that have awoken to nature. And as someone who has always been aware of environmental impacts and the flow of nature, I guess, what was it like before these climate crisis chats that we're having now in the public?
CJ: Well, I first became aware of global warming, if you like, in 1982. And I guess, I can't clearly remember before that time. And I suppose in many respects, I considered our impact on the environment, on the wildlife that surrounds us. I guess I thought the impacts were very much related to human population pressure and industrial practice and that kind of thing. I hadn't really, until 1982, I had no idea that climate change per se was out there indeed, what a big impact that was going to have and how quickly.
So, I guess in a way, I was always thinking, "We're not doing things very well, and things are becoming extinct around us and so on and we should be seeking to change that."
FM: Okay, interesting.
CJ: Silent Spring was published in 1962 I think, something like that. And my older brothers, they were aware of that release just about the time of publication, and this is the things we about at home. Sometimes it's how things that might have seemed very distant were actually really important and that we should begin to take notice of them.
FM: Excellent. And so, this mindset and being aware as you were in all the way back to the 80s and before, is this what led you to transition your farm to organic and then regenerative agriculture or was there some other catalyst?
CJ: It's a roundabout route really. I was working in forestry up until 1990 when my father died, and I went into the farm and I changed a few things that he was doing maybe. And, had more cattle rather than fewer, and also maybe we farmed a little bit more intensively. And without too much money, I took an outside job as well. And then that gave me the head space to increase our cattle numbers quite quickly until we had... We were fully stocked by 1994 I guess and the farm was actually more or less profitable by then.
And then in 1996, there was an announcement about mad cow disease, which is a degenerative disease of the brain that we've managed to get a lot of it in the cattle herd, not in our own herd, but across the nation. And we wondered if this was going to be good for us or not, but very quickly it became obvious it would not be good for us, and that basically, all cattle farming became very unprofitable very, very quickly, almost overnight.
And so I had to get a real job, and I managed to find a job working in the oil field. Which meant I was away from home for three weeks or four weeks and then back home for three or four weeks. So my wife and young family were at home and we needed to reduce the amount of workload she had because of young children. And we sold a lot of the cattle and we began to be a lot less intensive and tried to find out ways we could do things both more cheaply if you like, but also requiring less inputs.
So, we started adding a lot more clover and this kind of thing to our grassland. And after three or four years of this, it became obvious that actually we were just about farming organically, so why don't we do the whole thing and become registered? And we just did. So we almost fell into organic farming I suppose. But I've been totally convinced since then, that it's the way we should go. And I don't mean just me, I mean globally, because we have seen some quite interesting changes in terms of wildlife and how clean the environment is.
FM: That's very interesting. It's exciting.
CJ: It is exciting. Yeah.
FM: So going organic in 2003 and then that seems to have transitioned to some other aspects on the farm that you've mentioned like the carbon auditing and the soil building soil carbon stocks.
CJ: Yeah, absolutely. It became apparent to me very, very quickly that there was being organic and then there was a stage further beyond organic. Which really... It involved understanding a lot more about our animals. It was important to understand at that time in the say, 2008, that climate change was a much, much bigger and closer danger than we had perhaps say that we thought.
There was also the question of peak oil around then, which has faded somewhat, but it's still out there. And I had to really try and work out in my head what direction we should be going in. And it just so happened that we had a carbon audit in 2008. And our little farm, we found that we had a carbon emission, a net carbon emission of about 300 tons annually from what we were doing. And I had to question that, because we're just a little farm, we just had a few cows, we just grew a little bit of cereals, we weren't doing anything heavy duty at all, but how could we have this terrible carbon footprint?
And as I read into it, it became obvious that cultivation is, or was the major cause of our emissions. We cultivated every year about 20% of our land to grow cereal for our cattle to eat in the winter and for straw to bed them on in the winter. And once we realized that there was this carbon cost of doing that, and we stopped doing it, and just grew entirely pasture, the whole equation changed. And instead of emitting 300 tons, we were now having a net change of 650 tons, because we were now having a net gain of 350 tons of carbon in our soil and other vegetation.
So, it struck me that in our place, where we have quite high rainfall, where we can't harvest reliably, and if it is wet and you have to harvest, then you got to dry your grain and all those kind of things, and this is all taking more energy, more carbon emissions to do.
And the other thing we discovered was that ruminants are not designed to consume and digest starch, carbs. They don't want it. It's not good for them. And it's not good for the produce that you get from them either. And so changing, just stopping to growing any cereals at all, was actually, it was like stopping hitting my head on the wall. Everything suddenly became a lot clearer and life became a lot better.
There's a lot to it, but it really opened my eyes I think, to how we could do things better both for ourselves and for our animals and indeed for the produce that we eventually sold.
So, I was very lucky because about the same time there was a group of farmers from all sides of the country, a very small group. Initially only about 20 or so, were getting together and reaching more or less the same conclusion. And we said we should have an association. And we started up an association in 2010 and it's now got about 500 members and it's growing steadily, and hopefully we will eventually all have people growing their cattle and sheep like this. Because there's no requirement for the animals to eat cereals at all. And if you can do, if you can grow meat and save carbon at the same time, then this is surely something that we should be really celebrating.
FM: Yes, it sounds very interesting. I know that regenerative agriculture is something that I'm personally interested in. I'm learning more. I'm going to start a regenerative gardening class this month because I don't have a farm. We have our back garden. But I'm excited about that. But, can you help talk to us about regenerative agriculture and if I'm using the wrong term for your farm then please correct me. It sounds like your main product is beef, is that correct? And then do you follow-
CJ: Currently it's milk. We have a little xxx here, which my nephew looks after. And I think regenerative is a really good term. I don't know what the, or if there is a dictionary definition of regenerative, but the way I see it is that, essentially, if you take your land, whether it be your back garden, or your farm or whatever it is, if you take that land, and at the end of the year there's more on it than when you started, then that sounds like regenerative farming to me.
And it's farming that isn't using, it's using natural processes to provide everything you need in terms of fertility and food for your animals and those kind of things. I sometimes question whether you can be regenerative and actually doing much in the way of cultivatable crops.
There are people in, well, all the continents I guess, but I think significantly in North America, who are doing some amazing work with no-till crop growing. So they have the ability to produce, let's say, commercial combinable crops like soy and wheat and this kind of thing without cultivation. And so, the crops themselves are not contributing to atmospheric carbon. They're not providing any emissions. So, that is really exciting.
We tinkering a little bit on the edges of that here, but we feel that with our very high rainfall we seem to get on average, that may change. That with climate change, that may well change. That we think we need to farm in a way that gives us the best possible use of the ecology that we've got. And I think this high rainfall harvest time is nature's way of saying, "You know guys, growing corn is perhaps not the best thing you could be doing with that land."
FM: There you go. Exactly. So, in terms of your dairy farm, regenerative agriculture or livestock raising for you looks like, tell me what the cows' up to, what do they, they wander around and eat what's in the pasture and they help the soil with whatever. You're the expert on this. I'm not sure.
CJ: Okay. Well, if we think about a plant, a stalk of grass growing out of the ground there, the cow comes along and eats that piece of grass. And the roots that support that grass, there's now too much root compared to the amount of shoot there is above ground. So the root in itself, is now struggling to survive.
And some of that root will die off and be consumed by bacteria and fungi and this kind of stuff, because they're always in the soil. Living in symbiosis, almost with the plants in the soil as well. Then the shoot begins to recover and starts to grow. And as it grows, a lot of the photosynthates that it's producing is coming down to the roots to support more root growth and so on. Now, each time, each step that you go through of the root growing, sorry the plant growing and then being eaten, is essentially a little pump of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.
If you do it for long enough, you will actually begin to grow the volume of the soil. Because not only does the relative amount of organic matter in the soil increase, eventually the whole depth of the soil, the actual volume of soil you get will also increase. And there are various tricks you can do to increase that along the way.
Certainly in this country, it's not the same in the US with your prairie grasses, but in the UK, a lot of our grassland species are quite shallow rooting. And if you start to add plants which are quite deep rooting, what happens is, they're going right down into the soil profile and they are taking organic matter straight from the top, straight down deep into the soil. And what we've noticed with our soil is that, not only is our soil organic matter increasing, and I can tell you it's doubled in the last 10 or 12 years or so. Doubled.
FM: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
CJ: It's not just in the top, let's say four inches. It's down to 12 inches and beyond that's happening. So it's a significant three-dimensional effect that we're having. So, there are certain ways that you can boost that kind of activity.
Now, I said to you that we are wanting, in regenerative farming, to leave our farm at the end of every year, with a little bit more stuff in it. A bit more soil carbon, maybe a bit more vegetation, whatever. You're looking for net gains in your eco system. Increase in biodiversity as well as actual bulk organic matter.
And one of the ways we can do this really well I think, is to start to incorporate trees in the pasture as well. And you could do this even with cropping fields as well. And there are some successful examples I've seen in the East of the country where they've done it very well.
But if you think rather than just planting trees randomly, we would probably put them in straight lines. So it looks a little bit mechanistic. But what it's doing is, it's creating an extra dimension, in that it's growing up into the air. It's beginning to stack a product if you like, on top of your grass land. And if the trees are farther apart so you don't get a continuous canopy forming, then there'll be sufficient light coming through for the grass to grow.
If you have the rows wide enough apart, you can still drive up and down with a tractor and cut hay or whatever you want to do with it. And you're giving the cows a better dietary offer. Because cattle in prehistory were woodland animals, so they're really adapted to reaching up and pulling down leaves and twigs. So it's giving them a better offer with maybe a wider range of minerals and so on. Because the trees, they root very deeply and they can bring up all sorts of interesting things from way down in the soil profile.
And you have the option in terms of your business, if you like, to start creating other cash flows. So, you could plant trees which produce nuts, for example, or trees which produce fruits, or trees which produce a high value timber. So it's a way of, because you're stacking things on top of each other, you're getting more out of the same acre of land. Does that make sense?
FM: It does. It sounds super interesting. I want to get my wellies on and go out in the farm right now, if I'm honest with you.
CJ: I think you need to. I don't know about South Carolina particularly, but I'm sure if we did some investigating you'll find somewhere within a hundred miles of you, there will be someone who is really thinking about regenerative farming. I think largely, the USA are slightly ahead of us on this.
CJ: Much as it pains when they say that. But there are some really good things going on, but they're really good things going here too.
CJ: Anyway, I've just been at this, what they call The Oxford Real Farming Conference, which is bigger than the corporate farming conference. And you can be in a room with a thousand people who are all doing things, experimenting with doing things differently. With different kinds of machinery, with different kinds of plants and animals, different crops, different techniques for growing things and processing things. And it's a hothouse of innovation at the moment. And I think, very largely, this is down to the pressure that's being felt about climate change.
I don't know how farming is in the States, but also particularly small farmers, it is increasingly difficult to make a living. Because people want to have really cheap food, and to get the real value of what you're producing is very, very tough.
So, you better be finding ways where you can cut costs and make things a bit better all the time in terms of letting nature do the work for you. Some people say it's lazy farming because you're letting the nature work for you. And I think that's what we need to do, is to understand how things like the carbon cycle work and how plants and animals interact together. And once you get a grasp of it you can then begin to adopt new techniques, which means that you're not fighting nature all the time.
And because in the last, goodness knows how many decades, we have changed farming. A hundred years ago we didn't have all the easy things that we could do now with chemicals, that kind of thing, and fertilizer and genetic modification and so on. We didn't have that. And so farming, if you go a way back, was if you like, an exercise in applied ecology. But certainly since the second war it's become an exercise in applied chemistry.
CJ: And we as farmers are actually the last people to have benefited from that. The people who have really benefited are the big corporations like Monsanto, like Cargill, the big chemical companies, the trading companies, the big corporates. They've made plenty, plenty money out of this. And if you graph everything out, farm incomes have actually been increasing as we've had high yields, but farm profit has been going down. And the only way that farmers have managed to stay in existence is either by taking other jobs alongside what they do on the farm or by getting bigger.
CJ: And I'm sure if you look into... Do you know any American farmers, any local farmers to you?
FM: So, personally I don't. My familiarization with the regenerative agriculture movement in the US is through organizations like Farmer's Footprint. I'm not sure if you've heard of them.
CJ: Yeah. Okay. Well, what I'm going to tell you is, find some farmers, do whatever it takes. Find some farmers and begin to know them. And because you will begin to find out stuff about why they are what they are and how it's come to this. And we are in, I think humanity is in very, very big trouble because we are getting, you are a good example right there. You are very separated from where your food comes from.
CJ: And this is not a recipe for success in the world we're moving into. So get to know a farmer, and if you get to know one that's regenerative as well, that's a real bonus. But also, once you begin to get to know some people in the business, there are things you can begin to talk about. It's culturally, we've got a culture of this applied chemistry world, which is now three or four generations in.
CJ: And it's really hard to change a culture. We know that farmers are hurting because they're going out of the business all the time.
CJ: I don't know if you've got an Ag department in your local university, in your state university perhaps, but I'm sure that you will not be very far away for some really good information about what's happened to farming in your state in the last century and half century and even the last 25 years, and just see how things have gone. I will bet you, there are many, many fewer people living off the land than there were 50 years ago.
FM: Yeah. 100%. Yeah. Our state is a very agricultural, the largest industry in South Carolina is agriculture. So I do have plans. I do know some local, well I have connections to local farmers I'd like to interview, but something that you're talking about that I think gets to the heart of it is, this idea, the shift from living off the land and understanding that the land provides for us naturally, in a natural way. And then moving to that chemical agriculture.
I think that's an important mind shift to note for our entire society even outside of agriculture that, our planet, we survived for millions of years for a reason and it was before the chemicals. And this idea of dominating our nature, natural lands, dominating our natural landscape instead of living and working in harmony with it, has so many impacts on so many different things.
CJ: That's right.
FM: One of the other projects you're involved with is the Cornwall Beaver Project, which I'd love to ask you about. I did a little research regarding beavers in South Carolina. We do have wild beavers. I see them unfortunately on the side of our roads run over all the time. And remarkably you're allowed to hunt them and kill them all year round, which makes me very sad. But I know it's different where you are because you're reintroducing beavers to the landscape. Can you talk about the Cornwall Beaver Project and what sparked your interest and motivated you to get that started?
CJ: Okay. Well, although there's a bunch of things that as always, very little in this life happens just because one thing happens. It's usually lots of things start to come together. And I was aware, I guess, in the early 2000s, that the beavers were beginning to come back to this country.
And I was very, very interested in the fact that, in Scotland there was a place where beavers had escaped from captivity and actually began to recolonize a whole river system. And there have been, and indeed probably are right now several hundred beavers living in this one river system.
So that's really exciting. And they have some great champions. They have some great enemies too. They some great champions and I guess today, with social media and all the rest of it, it's much easier to find wacky things going on and who's doing them. So I was aware that we were getting more beavers around. And I became aware that we had beavers in the next county to us, on a couple of sites.
And I thought, well, wouldn't it be good if we got some beavers back in Cornwall. And, in 2012 we had flooding in our local village. Our land drains into that area. And I thought, "Okay, we should find out from the government what we should do to hold more water on our land." So we call this man from the environment agency. And he came and he had a lot of prescriptions for us. Things we could do to our stream to make it hold more water. And I said, "Do you guys have any budget for this? If we do this, can you pay us to do it?" And there was no budget. Okay.
"If we do it, will you pay us to maintain it because we might hold more water?" But anything we do will eventually fail. "So, will you pay us to maintain it." No. No budget. So then I said, "Could we get beavers to do it for nothing?" And he said, well, he couldn't really comment because he works for the government. But, yes that would work.
So from that point we began to find out how we can get beavers back on the land and, we naively thought we could just let some go or get two or three and let them go in our valley. But we rapidly found out that would be breaking the law. So, we had to build an enclosure and put a pair into an enclosure, which we did eventually in 2017 and it has been an education. A real education.
FM: Yeah. The videos look amazing. How do the beavers play in terms of the flooding? I keep seeing that the UK is suffering from floods. We have flooding issues actually where we are as well. We had the flood of the millennia in 2015. So, how do beavers play into the natural ecosystem to help with flood management and wetland management?
CJ: Well, this little animal, it is highly adapted to an aquatic environment. It has to have water. And it has to have water that's let's say, two to three feet deep as a minimum. For it to do the stuff it needs to do, especially to build a lodge with an underwater entrance. Which is its main defense, with lodge against predators.
CJ: So, if you've got a nice big river like the Mississippi and I don't know, somewhere in Tennessee or something, it doesn't need to build a dam. Well, one thing is because it's an enormous river, it's deep and it's wide and they can just drill a hole into the bank underwater and they've got somewhere they can stay. So, the magic doesn't really happen there. The beavers are around and they're cool, but there's no real magic happening.
Now, when you get into the headwaters of a system where the streams are smaller, then that cannot support this concealed entrance to a lodge, they build dams, and that dam building, essentially holds water. That's pretty obvious really, I suppose. And they don't just build a dam. Other than that, they will build a series of dams. And as that population increases, there'll be more and more and more dams. And this has the effect of wetting the soil.
Imagine that where there's no water that flows, or just a very shallow stream, they're now building up a three feet or six feet of water. That is now creating a pressure, which was beginning to get it into the soil, naturally as well. They create wetland and they make the streams branch. So, that's how they begin to hold a lot more water upstream. And it acts like a series of buffers.
We have them on a five acre site, there's 200 meters of stream here and they have created, out of that stream, they've built eight dams and there are now one, two, three, four, five considerable ponds. One of them very big, but started life as a small pond because now they're bigger, and the other ones where there was no pond at all. So this land, if you like, has been turned into a big sponge. It's a buffer against heavy rain. So, and we've got a lot of instruments and so on in the water, which, what's the word I'm looking for?
Hydrology instruments, which measure the water every five minutes. The water depth and the water temperature and how cloudy it is, and a rain gauge as well. So you can see in real time when it starts raining, the level of the stream entering the site begins to come up. And then when it stops raining that level going down. And you can see at the exit of the site as well. So, the water going into the site is always a very steep, sharp peak. The stream is very reactive there. But below the site, it is not like that anymore. You still get a peak, but it's a much, much lower peak and it's really spread out. So it's almost like a water plateau, and it's delayed with all these dams going through it in just 200 meters.
So what it means is, at the point where the flood is happening, the conflusion that's coming from there is arriving later and it's lower. So, if you like, our little stream is now not working so hard to create a flood in my neighbor's house. Does that make sense?
FM: Yes. It's very interesting. I can imagine though that the beavers doing this, maybe some people see that as an infringement on their land. Have you dealt with backlash from people? Like for example, here in South Carolina, I know there are farmers that consider beavers as pests instead of trying to maybe figure out a way to live with them naturally. So there has to be pros and cons of both. How have you experienced that locally? And what would you say to farmers or landowners that see this sort of wetland creation as a nuisance?
CJ: Yeah. I recognize that beavers have impacts. They create local flooding. They cut down trees, these impacts, while they are definite impacts, if they're in a place that doesn't matter very much, they are incredibly beneficial to everything else. To people who live downstream and also to wildlife and the hydrology cycle and all of those things.
But also, those impacts are really easily managed. So, for example, if you have some trees close to the water, because they tend not to come out much more than about 20 or 30 meters from the water anyway. But if you have, so if you have some, let's say, some special fruit trees that you want to preserve in your garden, all you have to do is take some glue, or some paint, mix it with some sand, maybe a little chili pepper if you're really crazy and then paint it onto the tree then the beaver won't eat it, won't try to cut that tree down, because it's not nice trying to bite through sand.
If you have, let's say again, it's your garden and a beaver is set up there and the water level starts coming up and you think, "Oh Jesus. I'm going to have water my back door." You can very easily, by taking a pipe, putting it through the dam, and putting a mesh around one end so the beavers can't block it up, you can control the level to which the dam, to which the pond gets to. So these impacts are manageable.
Now what I would like to do is to refer you to a guy called Mike Callahan, who you can find by a brisk search of the interweb and this guy, he has made a career out of what some people call Beaver Deceivers. Equipment which fence the flooding of land, if you like.
Because even in the USA, which is relatively speaking, enormous and less densely populated than we are here, there's still lots and lots of people and inevitably beavers will create conflicts with people. But you shouldn't underestimate how strong the pro beaver lobby is. I know there are plenty of people that are anti as well, but there's a very strong pro beaver lobby and a lot of people who are really campaigning hard for better treatment and better understanding. And I think that the main thing is understanding this animal.
And there's a fabulous film by an American woman called Sarah Koenigsberg called Beaver Believers and I would really recommend you watch it. I should put some links and things on here for you to get ahold of some of these people. But there's a lot going on. And I think what we're finding out about these animals is that they are in a very, very real sense, a keystone species.
Everyone's talking about this keystone species, that keystone species, the other keystone species. There are actually very, very few actual serious keystone species. But this is one of them. And the reason it is is because where you have a stream flowing fast, if you stop that flow, for a start it will begin to accumulate sediments, but also as the water slows down, it will begin to produce algae. And algae is the bottom of every food chain that I can think of. And suddenly there's a lot of algae, so you can very quickly produce lots of little critters that eat algae. It's microscopic things, single cell things, and then lots of things which are a little bit bigger than that. And before you know where you are, you've got fish getting bigger and fatter because there's so much to eat. And things that eat fish getting bigger and fatter like ospreys and bald eagles and herons, otters, all these things.
You have an enormous boost in the bio diversity. And it's because of this animal and the action that it takes. I would recommend a book to you by a man called Eric Collier called Three Against the Wilderness. Now this guy was a trapper in Canada in the 20th century, in the middle of the 20th century, and he talked about the effect of bringing beavers back to a part of British Columbia where they'd been made extinct during the trapping days.
It is astounding to see the level of understanding that this man has of what the beavers are doing and the effect indeed of actually bringing them back there. Most extraordinary. I can understand people not wanting to have their garden flooded or their house flooded, but we can get, we can sort that out.
I also know ranches in Utah and in Wyoming in particular, who've said to me their farms, their ranches have been saved by beavers. Because with the beavers, you begin to get water that previously might've even been just seasonal, but you get water being held in the landscape. Water tables rise, vegetation starts to come back and you get green vegetation all year round. And then ranchers, they like cows and cows like green vegetation and suddenly, there's, in a lot of cases there's a light going off, light bulb going off and they're saying, "Hang on a minute, these animals are important."
I would recommend to you an environment journalist in the States called Ben Goldfarb. And Ben has recently written a book called Eager, The Surprising Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. And there's a lot of very current work being exposed and in fact Mike Callahan's in there and all sorts of people. And this is something that needs to be backed.
I understand there's about 10 to 15 million beavers in the States at the moment. In North America in, say 1600, when white people started showing up and wrecking everything, they were maybe 400 million. And these animals, where they'd been for millennia, have created the most incredible soil in valleys, because they were catching sediments that otherwise would have ended up in the Gulf of Mexico is being caught, and dams over millennia are slowly filling up with this extraordinary sediments, and they ended up with really very, very fertile soil there. And once the beavers had gone, it was pretty easy just to take it over, clear it and farm it.
FM: Yeah. Definitely.
CJ: And yeah, go on.
FM: Yeah, it's again, I feel like we're coming back to this overarching theme of man trying to dominate the land, right? We're trying to make it what we want it to. We want to put fences around it and make it square and we want to give it the inputs that we want to give it when in reality if we let nature do what it needs to do, it provides it for itself.
CJ: Right. Very often, I do recognize fences have a function.
CJ: We shouldn't ignore that there are things out there in nature which are just a pain in the ass and that can cause you real problems. But mostly, if we sit back and just observe what's going on and learn from that, we can run a satisfactory operation. What I would say is, going back to the food thing, what my sort of favorite soundbite that I've come up with in the last couple of years is that, "The food we eat, that should be a byproduct of a really sound ecology, and if it isn't, we're going to be starting to wear out the environment." That's where we are. We have done a lot of damage.
FM: So, Chris, what do you envision for the future of beavers and farming and this environmentalist movement? What are your hopes?
CJ: Well, I think we're going to see government begin to accept that the beavers are a force for good on the whole. I hope if they do that they will also accept that there has to be some management structure in place. Because otherwise, if there isn't the management structure, then land owners, people who are, have let's say, conflict with beavers, they will take the law in their own hands and that would be a pity. So, it's not just as a thing of saying, "Oh, they're nice fluffy animals." We need to accept that they do cause conflicts and that we should be prepared to control them when we have to.
But I also think that we need to be rapidly increasing the range of them over this country, because I think there's a lot of places in rural Britain which have flooding issues, which we can reduce dramatically. And we've done some calculations and we think we can get beavers back here, across the nation, in the thousands for about 1% of what the government spends on flooding. Sorry, about a half of 1% of what the government spends on flooding every year or flood prevention. So, and if we can say, knock off 10% of the risk of spending half the percent of the money, that seems like a pretty good deal to me.
CJ: So, I just hope that we, my vision if you like, is that government gets a bit braver than it has been. A little bit less risk averse. And say, yeah, take a punt and say, "Let's get these animals back." It's not like getting wolves or bears back, they don't eat your children, they don't eat fish, they don't compete with us really. And I think we should be embracing them.
As for farming, I think that, we get the charge against us sometimes that with regenerative farming, it is not going to feed eight billion people or 10 billion people or whatever it is. And I guess my reply to that is, "Well, if regenerative farming isn't going to, for sure chemical farming isn't going to." So I think we've got to grasp this and start to work on it seriously on a big scale.
And maybe when we look forward, how we are going to make that work, I think when we begin to realize that you can't eat money. Well, you can, but it doesn't taste good and it doesn't sustain you. We need to be producing food that is fit for people. You will know, I'm sure, that this world of ours, as of the global law, is awash with calories.
We are growing crops to put straight into our refineries to produce bio fuel, ethanol or biodiesel. We're producing crops to put into the digesters to produce gas. This is crazy. This is mad. What the hell is the matter with us? Because the carbon footprint of actually growing all that stuff is nearly as great, if not greater than the energy we're getting back. Why are we doing it? It's crazy.
We've got to change the way we view our planet or, I'm okay, I'm going to die before things get really, really, really bad. But, I wouldn't give much for your children's chances, or mine. And this is serious stuff.
You just got to look at Australia. They've been having fires there. There were big fires in California last couple of years. They are nothing compared to what's happening in Australia. Nothing. What happened in California might've cost them money and made a few movie stars move out of their houses and so on. But it's nothing, just nothing.
I know people in that part of Australia who were just told, the police just came and said, "Go. Go now. You haven't got time to pack, just get in the car and drive. Go." And they've lost everything. And it's not just one or two. This is whole towns over and over and over. So I think there are pretty clear warnings there. That we have got to get our act together and it's, I'm not saying it's going to be easy. It's a very simple prospect, but it's not easy because we shouldn't confuse simple with being easy at all. But we have got to change.
FM: True, I agree with what you're saying. And final question, what advice would you give someone who's just now waking up to the climate crisis?
CJ: That is a very, very good question. I guess I'd be asking or I would be telling them, meet other people who are coming or have come to the same realization. Try to get a grip of what your impacts are and how you can start to reduce those. And this is very hard for us in West. The real cause of the climate crisis, the real cause of emissions, isn't cows or growing wheat or any of those things that we've been told. But, the real cause is burning fossil fuel.
So, you need to learn how to localize your life. If you have to drive 20 miles a day to get to work, you need to either move next to your work or change your job. There's no two ways about it. We cannot go on as we are. So, learn who else around you gets it and get with them and work together to change the way you live.
FM: There you go. That is great advice. And I hope one of my goals for doing these interviews is to try and connect people locally and then also across the world so that people understand that they're not alone in this realization and that there are people like yourself who are doing things actively to try and improve the situation. And that we all have our own personal individual responsibilities that we can do. But it's going to take a communal effort for us to tackle the biggest crisis in humanity, most likely.
So, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, and I want to go out and find out more about beavers for sure. And I'm excited to be growing more stuff in our backyard and hopefully regeneratively. Although, we are already organic in our garden, but I'm interested to learn about the regenerative aspects of it. So...
CJ: Yeah, well, that all sounds amazing Fiona, and I would be very pleased if you can start taking some two-minute movies and getting them up on YouTube so we can see where you're starting from. And where you're going to end up.
FM: Oh yeah, that's a good idea. Definitely. So my course starts on January 22nd, so I have time to do a little recording of what our back garden looks like now. And we'll have to see if my husband will either give me some of our beds or if I have to start my own beds. He's a little bit protective of the stuff that we grow right now. He's really the farmer in our house, but I'll be interested to see what happens for sure.
CJ: Okay. And have you grasped permaculture?
FM: Yes. Yeah, I call our front flowerbed permaculture, so...
CJ: Yeah, okay. Well, you can never go wrong with, I think fruit trees are the most amazing things. Yeah, that sort of edible landscape.
FM: Yes. We've done that. Actually, we just invested in four fruit trees for our front yard. Our front yard gets the most sun, so anything that's being planted in the front yard is edible from this point onward. So, we have some trees planted and hoping for fruit, I don't know, the next two years, it's going to take a little while, obviously.
CJ: Yeah. But also the other thing to do is, get out there, and whatever it takes, start to get to know some farmers.
FM: Yes, I agree. I will be on that. Okay.
FM: I appreciate your time. I will be following you with everything that you're doing. And it would be great if you could send links to some of the resources that you mentioned. I wrote some of them down. I'd be more than happy to share those links with our audience so that they can follow up on that as well.
CJ: Yeah. Something which I just wanted to mention, which is just recently started, but I've been involved with a group of people who have started up something called Beaver Trust. And Beaver Trust is currently just in the UK. But, as it happens, we as a group have been having conversations with people in the USA, and I think one of our people will be opening the Beaver Conference this year in Baltimore.
And we will be working with all sorts of organizations in the US, and ideally with the hope of starting up a US version of Beaver Trust. Or indeed, maybe something like "Beavers Beyond Borders" or "Beavers Without Borders" or so. Because this animal has got something for all of us and we need to be talking about them a lot more. Learning about them and getting them.
FM: Yes. All for the beavers. All right, Chris, I appreciate it. Have a wonderful rest of your evening and I appreciate your time and I will be following you and we'll speak sometime later. Thank you.
CJ: Thank you Fiona. Bye bye.
- The Cornwall Beaver Project https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/what-we-do/our-conservation-work/on-land/cornwall-beaver-project
- Beaver Trust www.beavertrust.org
- Oxford Real Farming Conference https://orfc.org.uk/
- Farmer’s Footprint https://farmersfootprint.us/
- Silent Spring, Rachel Carson https://www.rachelcarson.org/SilentSpring.aspx
- Beaver Believers https://www.thebeaverbelievers.com/
- Three Against the Wilderness, Eric Collier https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3084797-three-against-the-wilderness
- Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/39345591-eager