Cotswold Water Park: wildlife for every season

The poetry of artificial lakes lies in what you hear, not what you see – especially with the spring arrival of one famous bird.

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Discover Cotswold Water Park article spread

The poetry of artificial lakes lies in what you hear, not what you see – especially with the spring arrival of one famous bird.

The first shavings of light on a bitterly cold January morning were brightening the sky when I parked my car down a dirt track within Lower Mill Estate near the village of Somerford Keynes on the Wiltshire-Gloucestershire border.

Five minutes later, another vehicle appeared out of the darkness, and a woman got out and walked towards me. It was Kate Gamez, the estate’s wildlife ranger, and we were off in search of beavers.

The ghostly, ghastly cries of coots filled the air as we tramped on the iron-hard ground towards Flagham Fen, stopping now and then to peer through our binoculars. “We’re looking,” Kate said, “for a distinctive, bow-shaped wave. It’s a real giveaway.”

The hunt begins

In 2005, six beavers were released into a 20-hectare enclosure – comprising the lake and willow, alder and aspen woodland – as part of an experiment to see how they fared and what impact they had on their environment. All went well until the summer of 2006, when a male and female escaped after a grille barring an overflow channel was dislodged by storm water.

The female was quickly recaptured, but the male was spotted cruising down the River Thames, eventually reaching a tributary just west of Oxford. Though he, too, was re-caught in the summer, I loved the idea of beavers – well, a beaver – being back on a quintessential English river. It just seemed right.

My chances of seeing any of the three remaining beavers in Cotswold Water Park (one died, sadly) were low, however. “The photographer Andy Rouse came here,” Kate told me. “He said, ‘This is a great place for beavers, but not for taking photos – there are too many places they can hide.’”

The area is also vast, and such a throng of wildfowl – coots, great crested grebes, tufted ducks and teal among them – had congregated out on the middle of the lake that I couldn’t really imagine picking out a large but mostly submerged rodent. At least it was gradually getting lighter – though given that beavers are crepuscular and nocturnal, this wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

The proof is out there

But on the far side of the lake, Kate did show me irrefutable evidence that they were here (and not just some elaborate joke being played on a gullible wildlife journalist) – fallen trees with cartoon-like spikes at the ends of their trunks, indicating that the lumberjack had been using incisors rather than an axe. “They can take down a hefty tree in eight minutes,” Kate said. Try doing that with just your teeth, I thought.

While the European beaver is not as prolific a dam-builder as its American cousin, it nevertheless fells trees both to feed (on the bark) and to create the right conditions in which its other food sources, such as reeds, rushes, willow and hazel, can flourish.

To me, that was almost as exciting as seeing the beavers themselves – and one of the strongest arguments for their reintroduction. Beaver ‘ponds’ would help decelerate a river’s flow in periods of high rainfall and so reduce the risk of flooding downstream.

Natural England mammal specialist Tony Mitchell-Jones has been to Lower Mill to inspect their handiwork, and there are many conservationists who would support the reintroduction of the species to this sleepy backwater of southern England.

In the bleak mid-winter

In the meantime, Cotswold Water Park is undeservedly anonymous. It’s a park that isn’t a park, and is barely in the Cotswolds, certainly not within the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that straddles the Cotswold Hills from Bath to Chipping Camden.

But one thing it can boast is water. First, there’s the nascent River Thames, weaving its way from its source near Kemble through the middle of the park and onto Cricklade, where, in April, North Meadow National Nature Reserve blooms with delicate, drooping snake’shead fritillaries. The area either side of the river is prone to flooding, particularly in winter.

Then there are the lakes – more than 140 of them – dug to provide raw materials for roads and concrete, which now offer a winter home to the estimated 20,000 wildfowl that venture south from Scotland, Scandinavia and even Siberia in search of warmer climes.

Like the dishes on a Chinese takeaway menu, each lake is identified by a number – so 74 is a regular winter hideout for a great northern diver, while on 44 I saw goosanders, goldeneyes and some red-crested pochards (a rare resident that can be found in large flocks during the winter).

For enthusiastic birders, January is certainly the time to visit the park, and until mid- to late February it should reward you with spectacular numbers of birds. Accompanied by Simon Pickering of the Cotswold Water Park Society (a charity that works with councils, developers and conservation organisations to preserve the wildlife aspects of the area), I counted 300 to 350 tufted ducks on a lake also frequented by weekend dinghy sailors.

 

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