We look back at the early days of a bold conservation project
For half a decade, a forest in Argyll has been home to families of large rodents that had been absent from Britain for centuries. With the trial period now over, the team behind the project is seeking public reactions and views on the next steps
It’s a timely opportunity to publish, for the first time online, an abbreviated version of a feature by Richard Rowe that ran in Scotland Outdoors in summer 2010, under the headline ‘Muddy waters’. Here’s what he wrote.
At the end of a track inÂ Argyllâ€™s Knapdale Forest, there is change afoot â€“ change that conservationists perhaps dared not imagine they would ever see in Scotland. All around, branches have been expertly lopped; trees felled; a footpath flooded; and a lochan has almost doubled in size. For anyone wondering how much one family of beavers can alter a small patch of Scottish landscape, the answer is clear: rather a lot.
Simon Jones, Project Manager for the Scottish Beaver Trial, readies his radio telemetry equipment before we slide the Canadian canoe from the roof of his van. We are going beaver tracking on Dubh Loch, one of three locations now settled by families of animals imported from Norway and released here.
I feel real excitement at the prospect of seeing an animal that has been absent for the best part of 400 years. These two-foot-long rodents are not the most exotic of creatures, but itâ€™s more about what they represent: a slice of wildness that so many of us have become distanced from.
This particular family started their new life on Coille Bharr, a larger body of water, but wasted little time in damming a drainage channel and hopping over to Dubh Loch where they have spent a year making renovations.Â Quietly, we step into the canoe and set off along one of the canals dug by the beavers. We pause and gaze across at the beaversâ€™ lodge â€“ expertly crafted from rowan, birch and willow branches, all pasted together with mud and debris.
Almost immediately, we freeze as an adult female glides soundlessly across the loch, leaving only ripples in her wake. The animal swims closer and closer until, just 10 metres away, it suddenly turns, dives and slaps the water with its broad tail. I turn to Simon and grin, but he is busy with his notes, recording the beaverâ€™s every move.
In the beginning
The trial is a five-year project that is designed to explore the viability of the Eurasian beaver returning to the wild in Scotland. It is run in partnership by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) together with Forestry Commission Scotland, on whose land the trial is being conducted. Monitoring of the project is being overseen by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
But why beavers â€“ and why now? With more than 25 European countries having reintroduced the animal â€“ encouraged by a European Union Habitats Directive that called on member states to return lost species â€“ those behind the trial argue that Scotland is simply making up for lost time.
Here in the UK, the animalâ€™s territory once spanned much of England and parts of Scotland, although there is no direct evidence that they ever inhabited this part of Argyll. Like so much of our native wildlife, beavers were hunted to extinction, victims of their many uses to man. The animalâ€™s fur provided warmth, while beaver felt was synonymous with hats for centuries.
The project was approved in May 2008 with the conditions of the licence allowing for the release of up to four families â€“ the minimum number with which to create a viable population of beavers and achieve meaningful data, says the project team. A year later the first animals â€“ three families, comprising 11 animals â€“ were released at selected sites in Knapdale Forest.
â€œAs you would expect, the main driver for us is wildlife,â€ explains Jones. Often described as a â€˜keystone speciesâ€™ â€“ one that creates conditions for others to thrive â€“ beavers are credited with helping increase biodiversity. â€œIt is well-studied overseas that the associated creation of ponds, the coppicing of woodland, and mosaic edge of wetland and woodland are all hugely important for other wildlife.â€
And as an animal that has always been here â€“ the last 400 years aside â€“ plants and trees have evolved to cope with having bits nibbled off them, he says. â€œThey change shape, sprout up and keep growing in another form that creates niches for all sorts of life.â€
Value for money
It is this expertise in wetland engineering that is used to defend a project cost â€“ a little over Â£2 million â€“ that is eye-watering in any financial climate. â€œThere has to be proven benefit to bringing species back â€“ it is costly and takes a lot of time,â€ Jones admits. â€œItâ€™s not because beavers are a nice cuddly species, itâ€™s what they do thatâ€™s the point. Letâ€™s not focus too much on the beaver, letâ€™s focus on the restoration of wetlands.â€
Having spent much of his career managing nature reserves, Jones has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds digging ponds and thinning woodlands â€“ work, he says, that beavers do on a much wider scale and in a more natural way.
The beaver then should be seen as part returning native and part management tool. â€œWetlands are one of our hardest hit habitats, so if we are looking at a longer term programme to restore the beaver and value for money, we should also look at the economic benefits they bring,â€ he argues.
This is a view shared by Paul Ramsay. Eight years ago, he launched his own private reintroduction when he released two pairs onto his 1,300-acre estate at Bamff, Perthshire. A second private reintroduction followed at Aigas Field Centre near Beauly in 2006.
Today, Ramsay canâ€™t say for sure how many beavers there are on his land, but the two families have certainly made their presence felt. Each has modified its surroundings to create conditions that Ramsay says now support a large population of trout, as well as benefiting water voles, otters, waterfowl, dragonflies and eels â€“ a species now in serious decline.
Such wetlands, he argues, are not just fantastic for wildlife but also a valuable resource for humans. This is particularly so in an agricultural landscape where they act as purifying sumps, holding and breaking up nitrates and phosphates contained in run-off from arable fields.
And what of the moral argument about beavers â€“ the one that says we drove them to extinction in this country, so we are morally obliged to bring them back? â€œI think a moral obligation is one part of it,â€ believes Ramsay.
â€œIf we are not willing to bring back animals as innocuous as the beaver, what are we going to say to people elsewhere in the world who are about to lose tigers and other more exotic animals? What message does that send about conservation?â€
SBT project officers prefer the more hard-nosed scientific argument that beavers benefit other wildlife, but Jones accepts what he calls the â€˜softer sideâ€™. â€œThe moral argument is not one that we press, but if you ask people why they support the trial, it ranks quite highly.â€
Beavers are much more palatable than top-of-the-line predators that are also often discussed as candidates for reintroduction, but for Jones the most important point is that conditions already exist for the animals to live sympathetically within our landscape.
Both SWT and RZSS stress that beavers should not be seen as the â€˜thin end of the wedgeâ€™ when it comes to reintroductions, but do see merit in returning native species that can exist with us in harmony â€“ albeit with some kind of management.
It is beavers’ tendency to roam that gives major concern from a fisheries perspective, says Nick Yonge, a fisheries biologist and Director of the Tweed Foundation. Yonge describes the Knapdale trial as â€œreintroduction via the back doorâ€. â€œWhat happens at the end of the trial?â€ he asks. â€œWill they all be rounded up? They have already lost some and others will disperse. We will have a wild population and it will spread.â€
The fear is that, in decades to come, the animal could become a dominant feature of the British landscape, threatening the ecological balance of world-class salmon rivers such as the Tweed. â€œThe extent to which beavers impact fish is not yet known but we think it will be quite severe,â€ explains Yonge.
Jones accepts that itâ€™s a delicate issue, but with no salmon rivers in the trial area, it is not something that can be investigated as part of the current trial. For now, project officers point to the two species having coexisted for millennia.Â It is clear that if beavers are to make a return, then some potentially uncomfortable decisions will have to be made. If a beaver dam floods a farmerâ€™s field or is found to be a problem for migrating fish then it can be taken down. But there has to be an acceptance that such action might be necessary and must be paid for.
â€œFrom day one, we have said this is a species that requires management,â€ says Jones. â€œItâ€™s a bit like living with a wild deer population when they exist in any sort of numbers.â€
Back out on the water, the politics and rancour seem a long way off as the rest of the beaver family emerges from the lodge to forage for tubers. As our ears tune in, the surrounding forest comes alive; we hear something moving high on one of the banks, a fish plops behind us and bats skim the water plucking insects from the air. And from somewhere amongst the trees, there is the unmistakable sound of gnawing as one of the animals gets to work on another tree, just doing what it does, unaware of the storm that rages around it.
When we return to dry land, Jones sums up. â€œFundamentally, and this is my personal view, this trial is not about beavers at all, itâ€™s about people and whether we are willing to live with an animal again. At some point the politicians will have to decide whether the pros outweigh the cons.â€
To have your say on the beaver trial, go toÂ www.scottishbeavers.org.uk