Beavers – between myth and reality

By 11 March 2022 No Comments

After more than 100 years, the beaver returns home to the rivers of the Făgăraș Mountains (Dâmbovița, Argeșel and Târgului). After the successful reintroduction of bison in the area, the presence of beavers is an important tourist attraction, but also a benefit for the environment. The beaver has been a national symbol of, and generates significant income for, Canada since 1975. In Romania, the species was reintroduced during the last 24 years. It is a protected species, but since 23rd December 2021, has been subject to a legislative regime that allows interventions.

Beavers on our lands

‘Breb’ is the name under which Castor fiber (Eurasian beaver) was known in our area, the oldest fossils of which were discovered on the banks of the Olt, in Slatina. Archaeological excavations attest to its presence in all areas of our country, and historians show that their number decreases with massive deforestation and hunting.

Beaver ancestors came to Europe from America in the Miocene and Pliocene, about 23 million years ago. In the post-glacial period they succeeded in populating all water basins surrounded by forests.

As proof of their past presence, many Romanian villages have names like Brebu, Breb, Brebine, the current toponymy (study of place names) includes over 100 villages with this name. Mount Brebul rises over the Dâmbovița Valley, one of the toponyms that provides a reminder of the presence of this mammal in the mountain area.

The oldest related toponym is Hodust, mentioned in 1135, then the village of Hodos in 1169, synonymous with Hodiș, a word that means ‘places rich in beavers’. Villages such as Hodărăști Dâmbovița, Hodea Muramureș, Hodea Arad, Hodea Bihor, Hodoni Saschiz commune, etc. are connected to this toponymy. Equally rich is the toponymy related to streams, hills, valleys and meadows near the waters: Balta Brebilor, Balta Brabul, Brebeni hills, Brebenul valley.

The beaver was spread all over the Carpathian-Danubian-Pontic area, and there is countless written evidence to that effect. Since 1500, various documents talk about the qualities of the beaver, especially about the value of its fur, its tasty meat, tail (considered a real delicacy), castoreum (a secretion used in perfumery), but also about the ‘miraculous cures’ that were attributed to it. The letters of the Nadasdy family from the 16th century indicate the increased number of ‘brebi’ in Transylvania and show that they were also caught and raised in captivity. In around 1700, beaver furs are mentioned in the Regulations of the furriers of Sibiu and in the commercial documents from the Brașov area. In 1823 the pharmacist Ioan Schmitz attests the presence of beavers in the banks of the Danube islands, and the last mention is in 1824, according to the historian Ion Nania.

Why did the beavers disappear?

The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) disappeared at the beginning of the 19th century, not only in Romania, but also in most of Europe, because it was hunted excessively for fur and castoreum, the substance with which it marks its territories. Castoreum contains musk, a compound used in the perfume industry. Its role is to fix and maintain different essences/perfumes.

In Romania, the reintroduction project was initiated by ICAS Brașov between 1998-2003, when 182 beaver specimens were released on the rivers Olt, Mureş and Ialomița. These migrated until 2010, without any human intervention, into the Upper Delta.

The role of the beaver and how it behaves

The beaver is nicknamed the ‘ecosystem engineer’ for its ingenuity in building a mosaic of natural surfaces, where it retains water and expands wetlands, so necessary in the current conditions of climate change and prolonged droughts. Although at first glance, the dams and canals created by beavers seem to be inconvenient, they increase the water storage capacity and produce a slower drainage of water. When storms or heavy rains occur, the risk of flooding is reduced in the areas where the beaver exists. During periods of drought, the slower release of water from beaver dams will allow a constant flow of water, including in streams that have dried up in recent years.

Fishermen are among the first to notice the beneficial role of beavers. In the areas where they live, the fish multiply.

Among the benefits of a beaver’s presence in an area is water quality. It becomes cleaner due to the dams’ ability to filter. Also, the presence of beavers attracts a multitude of species, making the areas much more beautiful and attractive.

Contrary to popular belief, it does NOT feed on fish, but only on vegetation: willow, poplar and hazel, less often birch, maple or alder. It prefers young shoots and softwood trees with no economic value. In addition, it takes care of the ecosystem in which it lives, always maintaining a sufficient density of trees and shoots.

The beaver is vegetarian and does not eat chickens or other domestic animals and nor is it able to flood the cellars/households of the villagers.

Although there are concerns about the safety of hydrological dams, such as Voina or Pecineagu, there is no risk to them, as evidenced by the conclusions of feasibility studies. First of all, beavers prefer stable watercourses, where they find favourable living conditions. Fluctuations in hydrological dams are not compatible with their way of life. Even if a beaver family chooses to live in the vicinity of these dams, they cannot affect the walls of these buildings in any way. In fact, in Romania there is not and has not been any case of destruction or rupture of any hydrological dam caused by beavers during the last 24 years since they were reintroduced.

How long do beavers live?

Beavers are monogamous, live in permanent families for 12-14 years and reproduce only once per year. The reintroduction of any species is done by analysing the environmental conditions, but also by maintaining a natural balance. Beavers have sufficient predators in reintroduction areas, such as bears, lynx, wolves and foxes.

Location and plan of measures

The reintroduction places in the Făgăraș mountains are far from residential localities, in the upper part of the valleys: Bătrâna, Argeșel Chilia, Coman and Bădeanca. The possibility for them to reach and settle in inhabited areas is low. Although it is a protected species, the Action Plan for the national conservation of the Eurasian beaver population (Castor fiber) of 23rd December 2021, prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Forests, published in the Official Gazette no. 22 plus on 7th January 2022, provides for an intervention plan. In the unlikely event, in the area of reintroduction in the Făgăraș Mountains, of potential problems, the CARPATHIA Conservation team will promptly intervene in any problem caused by beavers and will solve it, as appropriate, applying rules provided in the Action Plan such as: decommissioning dams which present risks, especially in plain areas, the installation of metal/electric fences, the protection of certain species with nets, the removal of woody vegetation from certain sectors, ensuring the free flow of water or even relocation.

The project involved legal steps that were met: feasibility study, impact study, approval of the National Agency for Protected Natural Areas and derogation by Ministerial Order.

The benefits of reintroducing the beaver

Through the dams they build, beavers contribute to the purification and filtration of water, improving its quality. They create wetlands, rich natural areas, which provide food and shelter for other species: birds, fish, insects and amphibians. Their activity encourages the development of young shoots of wood species and determines the rejuvenation of vegetation, creating favourable conditions for new trees. They can significantly reduce the flow rate and even stabilize the volume of water after heavy rains, can mitigate the effect of floods and can also help maintain an optimal flow of water during periods of drought.

The reintroduction of beavers provides opportunities for the development of nature-based tourism. The best-known example is Canada, where the beaver has become a national symbol since 1975. Part of the $104.9 bn received in tourism revenue (2019) is also due to the beaver.

To support the development of tourism in the area, Conservation CARPATHIA will create a comprehensive program of ecotourism services and products associated with the reintroduced species, bison and beaver, for nature to become an engine for local development and the benefit of communities in the Făgăraș Mountains. Local benefits can come from using local guides, buying local goods and services, and using the facilities offered by local lodging. Tourism will not solve all the economic problems, but it will be an important source of income.

Nature is our source of life and any negative human action can have an impact that we can rarely repair. Each wild animal has its role and brings with it the prosperity of other species, maintaining the balance in nature and the well-being of us all.