Bringing back beavers

A six-year trial project to reintroduce beavers into the wild will get underway in Argyll next spring. However, Europe’s largest rodent is thriving at several controlled sites already, writes James Carron

Over 400 years ago, beavers were wiped out in Scotland, hunted to extinction for their fur and fat. Plans to reintroduce them to the Highlands were rejected by the Scottish Government in 2005. But this knock back served only to strengthen the resolve of wildlife enthusiasts who believe Europe’s largest rodent has a key role to play in the management of our countryside.

beaver-playful-web A second application, drawn up by Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), was submitted to the Scottish Government and, in May 2008, it was conditionally approved, allowing the import from Norway of four beaver families as part of a six-year trial project.

The animals are due to arrive at a site in Argyll in spring 2009. However, they will not be the first of their kind to return to our shores. Beavers are already busily going about their business in the Scottish countryside, albeit on a strictly controlled basis. And the early signs are that they are thriving.

Hidden away in the rolling hills of eastern Perthshire, Bamff Estate has a strong emphasis on conservation management. As part of his plans to regenerate the natural landscape and attract new wildlife, owner Paul Ramsay took the unusual step of releasing beavers on to his land.

Eager to see rivers restored and wetlands returned to their wild states, he believes the animal has an important part to play in achieving this. And in the five years since his beavers arrived he has witnessed quite a transformation.

“Beavers would be hugely beneficial to the Scottish countryside,” says Paul. “They create wetland areas, which in turn attract other wildlife and plants. Here at Bamff we have already noticed a change in the landscape through the creation of new wetlands by the beavers. Other birds, animals and insects are being drawn in and there are new plants and grasses growing.”

The Bamff beavers presently occupy two sites: one a pond surrounded by established woodland and the other a wetland area adjacent to a young plantation of willow and grey alder. Both areas are fenced in to prevent the animals escaping into the surrounding countryside

Paul is passionate not only about rejuvenating wild land on his own estate, but also about reintroduction on a much larger scale. His inspiration comes from successful schemes on the Continent. In the early 20th century, due to over-hunting and habitat loss, there were thought to be only 1,200 beavers left in the world. Now, there are more than half a million – 350,000 of them in Europe.

“For me, one of the greatest things is seeing just how successful the various reintroduction schemes have been in Europe and Russia,” he says. “The beaver was on the verge of disappearing completely but recovery has been excellent. That is hugely satisfying and shows just what can be achieved.”

Beavers are generally nocturnal creatures, working from dusk to dawn. They are difficult to spot, but evidence of their activity is obvious. At Bamff, an area of the willow and grey alder plantation has been felled, gnawed stumps and stripped bark both signs of the animal’s industrious nature. There are well-crafted dams on streams, the water fanning out into new pools. Canals used to move wood over longer distances along with ground trails leading from woodland to wetland can also be seen. It is all part of an elaborate network designed to facilitate safe passage and ensure water levels are preserved within the system.

Despite so much time spent in the water, beavers are not fish-eaters. Their diet consists of grasses and leaves, twigs and bark. Willow, aspen and poplar are preferred species.
Although they do not hibernate, beavers do stock up on food for the winter, storing lengths of cut wood in their ponds, ensuring it is accessible even when the water ices over.

Bamff is not alone in providing the once-endangered species with a home in Scotland. Further north, the Aigas Field Centre, near Beauly, took delivery of a pair of beavers in April 2006. Two months later, they produced a kit.

Here, the beavers live on a freshwater loch fringed by deciduous woodland. Their activities are attracting a steady stream of visitors; a viewing hide has been constructed overlooking the site and regular updates on the family’s progress are posted online.

This contrasts with Bamff’s low-key approach, but the growing interest generated by Boris, Lily and Willow (the Aigas beavers all have names) suggests that, in addition to benefiting the natural environment, beavers could play a part in attracting more tourists to Scotland.

Sir John Lister-Kaye, who runs the centre, also wants the Scottish Government to follow in the footsteps of 24 other European countries where beavers have been returned to the wild and reverse its decision.

“The beaver belongs here,” he says. “It’s a keystone species and if it goes the whole ecosystem suffers. There is a body of people who say beavers would destroy every tree, causing devastation in the Highlands. But look at the countries where they have been reintroduced. Sweden reports that, thanks to beavers, its wetlands are 80 times more productive.

“In Norway the wetlands are full of invertebrates, bugs and beetles – great news for frogs and for birds such as osprey and heron. Beavers create ideal conditions for other wildlife.”

The European beaver features on an action plan of priority species compiled by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Government’s own countryside agency. The list highlights animals, birds and plants in need of greater conservation work and considers the reintroduction of some previously native species, like the beaver.

To this end, SNH spent a decade formulating plans to release beavers to a trial site at Knapdale, in Argyll. Public consultation revealed strong support while European experience demonstrated any potential problems relating to issues like agriculture or watercourses could be overcome through effective management. The SNH report also highlighted economic benefits through wildlife-based tourism.

However, the plan was not without its critics. The National Farmers’ Union for Scotland opposed it, as did a number of landowners adjacent to the proposed site. Following lengthy deliberation, ministers rejected the project in 2005. They were concerned over the possible impact on a European Special Area of Conservation at Knapdale and were unhappy with SNH’s proposed exit strategy which may have led to the killing of any beavers found outwith the trial site or causing more damage than might initially have been considered.

At the time, the Government stressed that the door was not closed to future reintroductions and, in December 2007, SWT and RZSS submitted a licence application for a trial reintroduction, again at Knapdale.

Buoyed by their own consultation exercise, which revealed strong public support for the project, they now plan to import between 15 and 20 European beavers from Norway. After a six-month period of quarantine these animals will be released into the trial site.

The RZSS already has captive beavers at its Highland Wildlife Park in Speyside, and chief executive David Windmill is very keen to see the trial progress. “We will work with all the various stakeholders involved in the project to make it a success and to benefit from the contribution the beaver can make to improving our natural ecosystems and habitats as well as encouraging tourism. We are very pleased to have so much support for this project and anticipate a great deal of public interest in the long awaited return of the beaver to Scotland.”

The beavers at Bamff and Aigas will no longer be isolated pioneers in their once native land. In fact, they may just be the start of a revolution in the conservation and management of our countryside.

Further information

James Carron is a Dundee-based freelance writer who specialises in outdoor-related topics. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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