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Nature & Wildlife

Across the region, we are lucky to have a wide variety of habitats and landscapes giving us the opportunity to observe a wide range of flora and fauna. From windswept shores to inland waterways, from plains to craggy rockfaces, each has secrets to share. 

At Living, we have teamed up with experts in the region to show you what to watch out for at the different times of year...

 

Nature notes on... Beavers & Otters

Nature notes on... Beavers & Otters

A spring day by the river is the perfect opportunity to watch for two of the region’s most loved (but most elusive) aquatic mammals, as Chris Luck explains… 

Since the 17th century the European beaver (le Castor d’Europe) has been hunted for its meat, fur and castoreum (a secretion from their scent glands used in the perfume industry, and more recently, outside Europe, as a food flavouring ). At the beginning of the 20th century, with an estimated population of only 1,200 beavers left in Europe and western Russia combined, imminent extinction caused several countries to instigate one of the earliest-known protection plans for a native species. In 1909, with perhaps only 100 beavers left in the Rhône delta, the French government passed a law prohibiting them from being hunted or killed in the region, and the slow recovery began. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that they became a National espèce protégée, which finally provided the protection required for subsequent reintroductions to other parts of the country.

Beaver

The only river in Poitou-Charentes where a reintroduction was attempted was the Creuse in Vienne, where four beavers were released during 1970-73. Although this failed, it wasn’t the end for our region. Two releases in nearby regions were successful: in 1974-76 thirteen beavers were released into the river Loir in Loir-et-Cher, and in 1994-96 another thirteen were released into the same river in neighbouring Loire. Beavers from the river Loir have bred and slowly increased their range, and can now be found in the rivers Vienne, Creuse, Gartempe, Anglin, Salleron, Clain, Thouet, Argenton and la Dive du Nord.

Though visually similar to the Canadian beaver, there are major differences, as they are not only larger but also genetically incompatible. As well as behavioural patterns, there are many anatomical differences, such as larger, less rounded heads, longer, narrower muzzles, narrower, less oval-shaped tails and shorter shin bones. They are one of the largest living species of rodent and are the largest rodent native to Eurasia, with no natural predators in this part of France. Despite their size, they are difficult to catch sight of, being primarily nocturnal, extremely shy of human contact and in most cases the riversides have no public access except for the land owners. Nonetheless, sightings do occur in daylight, and at least one tourist has managed to photograph one on a riverside path. Otherwise, presence is determined by signs of their activity: footprints, fur caught on wire or vegetation, trees and branches showing their characteristic gnawing, and finally the presence of any beaver-made structures.

Dams and lodges tend to be made on small tributaries or affluents, and are a bit of a double-edged sword. Generally they are beneficial to other species as they create wetlands, increasing bio-diversity by providing habitat for a number of species, including water voles and amphibians. Strictly vegetarian, they coppice waterside trees and shrubs, which then re-grow as dense shrubs, providing cover for birds and other animals. On the down side, a small number of farmers have found their fields subject to greater and more persistent flooding where a dam is present, and various methods are being tested by the ONCFS (Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage) to prevent flooding while maintaining the dam/lodge. As the beaver is a fully protected species, the ONCFS are the only people authorised to do this. Beavers mainly frequent medium-sized lowland rivers with substantial bank-side woodlands, especially those comprising salicacée (willows and poplars). Their diet comprises bark, twigs, roots and leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs, and prior to winter, they will store sticks and logs in underwater piles as food stores for the winter months when they are less active.
Beavers are sociable animals, often living in family groups with young from more than one year. Beaver couples mate for life, and mating takes place in January or February, producing a single litter. Young beavers, known as kits, are born in April or June, with one to nine kits per litter. The young are nursed by the female for around three months and may stay with the adults for up to two years, at which point they become sexually mature and leave the family group.

The main threat to the beaver is still man, principally through being accidentally shot after having been mistaken for coypu (ragondin), a very common large rodent which was introduced from South America, and which can now be found everywhere in France.

Historically, the otter (la Loutre) was also pushed to the point of extinction in many European countries as a result of polluted waterways and hunting for fur, meat and to “protect fish stocks”. In the 1950s – 60s the decline had become quite rapid, having disappeared completely from 60 départements in France, and the population continued to weaken into the 1980’s, when they remained only on the Atlantic coast and in the Massif Central. Since being given full species protection, and work having been undertaken to clean up the rivers, the situation has improved and recolonisation is gradually taking place. They are currently present in all the départements of Poitou-Charentes, especially Charente and Charente-Maritime.

beavers-otters-south-west-france

A solitary species when not mating, they have a large individual range of up to 20km so actual numbers are hard to ascertain. A definite indictor of presence in an area are spraints (faeces) which are usually found on flat surfaces, rocks, under bridges, etc., and extrapolations are made from their frequency and location. It really is worth keeping an eye out for spraints or perhaps otters themselves when walking by rivers and streams, or even in the coastal dunes and marshes – you might be pleasantly surprised!

Perfectly adapted to their water life, they have a long, slender, streamlined body, small ears, a long thick tail and webbed feet, are able to swim in strong currents and can remain underwater for up to 4 minutes. Their eyes and nostrils are high on their head, enabling them to see and breathe when the rest of their body is submerged, and the small ears have valves which close against water pressure. Their big whiskers (vibrissae) probably help them to find food in dark water.

All kinds of fish, eels, molluscs and crustaceans make up the majority of their diet, but they have occasionally been known to hunt snakes, frogs, ducks, moorhens and even rabbits. Once caught, they usually take their prey to land to eat. They require dense bankside vegetation with the presence of holes in the riverbank, cavities in riverside tree roots or similar spaces for the construction of holts (dens), which are lined with grass and have an underwater entrance.

Up to 3 cubs can be born at any time of the year, after a pregnancy of 63 days, but usually this takes place in early spring. The cubs are blind for 35 days and suckled for 6 months, not taking to the water until they are 2 - 3 months old. Often, they initially fear the water, and can be seen having to be dragged into the water by the mother where she teaches them to hunt.

In Poitou-Charentes, the main threat and danger for the otter is from man. Living along the coast, many are struck by vehicles when crossing roads, with 151 being killed in the last 10 years in Charente-Maritime. More than 60% of these deaths have been on the RD137 between La Rochelle and Rochefort. The département is now creating a number of structures to mitigate this problem on both the RD137 and RD110, with under-road tunnels,
barriers and other structures.

If you would like to find out more about beavers and otters, then it is worthwhile downloading the ONCFS guide (in French) at: www.oncfs.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/Guide_Castor_Loutre_ONCFS_2010-sdt.pdf

 

EUROPEAN BEAVER FACTS

Weight: 11 - 30 kg

Length (excluding tail): 80 - 100 cm

Tail length: 25 - 50 cm

Colour: normally beige or pale brown, although reddish-brown and black variants exist elsewhere in Europe.

An adult beaver requires 2kg of plant material or 700g of bark per day.

A BEAVER LODGE consists of a pile of logs, branches and sticks, compacted with mud and stones to create thick, well-insulated walls and can be 2 metres tall with a central chamber above the water level. One or more tunnels lead to underwater exits, and a vertical ‘chimney’ regulates the internal temperature. Most beaver activity occurs within 20-30m of the riverbank, and the family territory extends for 1-3km along the river.

OTTER FACTS

Weight: 7 - 17 kg

Length (excluding tail): 60–120 cm

Tail length: 40-45 cm

Colour: Brown with pale underside 

EUROPEAN MINK

Once widespread in France, the European mink is recognised as critically endangered and is now confined to south west France. Due to the similarity between it and the introduced American mink, identification is completely dependent on capture and the use of scientific methodology. An action plan is in place to help, part of which involves capture. Organised between September and March across five départements of Poitou-Charentes, Aquitaine, and Midi Pyrenées, rivers and waterways are divided into 20-30km sectors, with 10 traps per sector over 10 consecutive nights. Every European mink captured is anaesthetised, has blood samples taken and an identification transponder placed under its skin, before being released again in the place of capture. In addition to destruction due to confusion with American Mink and possibly Polecat, the major risk for this species is on the roads, so they will also benefit from the road structures proposed for the otter. 

For more information on this species (in French) visit: www.sfepm.org/visonEurope.htm or www.oncfs.gouv.fr/Documents-sur-le-Vison-dEurope-download499

 

PHOTOS: SHUTTERSTOCK AND WIKIPEDIA

© All rights reserved. Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes in April 2013