Give a dam about Scotland’s brilliant beavers

A rare but precious sight that could enhance Scotland's rural resources. Picture: Steve Gardner
A rare but precious sight that could enhance Scotland's rural resources. Picture: Steve Gardner
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The RSPB is backing their reintroduction into Scotland in a move which will help rejuvenate tracts of countryside, writes Jane Sears

I will never forget the first time I saw a beaver in the wild. I was standing on a pontoon on the edge of a Scottish loch at 10 o’clock on a July evening. As my eyes adjusted to the twilight I became aware of a V-shaped ripple; it was heading my way with all the stealth of a submarine. Its head and back just breaking the surface of the water, the beaver glided towards me but at the last minute turned, and with a loud slap of its tail dived beneath the surface and swam away. It had sensed my presence and was warning the rest of its family to watch out. I have been in awe of beavers ever since.

To see a beaver in the wild is a great experience and one that has been missing for people in Scotland since this native species was hunted to extinction here in the 16th century. You do need a bit of luck on your side to spot one though, as they’re mostly only active at dawn and dusk. Beavers feed mainly on small branches and leaves, but they also strip bark off twigs and branches. Although renowned for leaving trees looking like half-finished sculptures, there are many places in Europe where generations of beavers have lived without actually felling any trees.

Beavers are probably best known for building dams and lodges. Lodges provide shelter and dams are constructed to provide deeper water. They don’t always build dams though, as rivers and lakes are generally deep enough to supply enough water around their lodge for underwater access. The pools that form behind dams allow them to swim to food caches, but also provide great breeding habitat for invertebrates like water beetles, caddis flies and dragonflies. Being wary of predators when walking on land, beavers prefer to transport branches through the water to their caches and often engineer special canals for this. Dug with their powerful feet, the canals are about 50cm wide, with such neatly excavated sides that any JCB driver would be envious. Other wildlife takes advantage of these passages which provide refuges for fish and wildfowl, like teal.

Whole landscapes can be transformed by beavers in a way no conservation manager can ever achieve through mechanical means. Such areas can be fantastic places to visit, and thanks to the ever-changing nature of beaver activities, no two trips will be quite the same. Picture flood-plains full of wet woodland, tall trees standing in shallow water and a network of muddy banks. Pools and channels that are full of toads and frogs with herons and egrets taking advantage of easy pickings, and woodpeckers abound thanks to a wealth of nest-sites and beetle grubs.

Areas like this would be a huge draw for nature lovers and the large number of wildlife tourists that flock to Scotland each year, generating much needed income for local economies. They also offer up a fantastic canvass for nature photographers looking to showcase the very best of the breathtaking scenery and incredible wildlife we have on offer in Scotland. Both of these valuable, expanding sectors could benefit greatly from diversifying habitats and restoring once lost native species to suitable sites across the country.

We at the RSPB are very keen to see beavers re-established in the wild in Scotland. With the Scottish Government due to decide on the future of beavers here later this year, we have started assessing the suitability of some of our reserves to support these mammals, either through natural dispersal or further licensed reintroductions. Beavers can provide the type of habitat that we try to achieve through laborious work parties or contractors, such as scrub clearing, coppicing and pond creation. What’s more they will add dynamism to the habitat that is impossible to achieve through even the most innovative regime.

RSPB Scotland has been rallying the nation to Give Nature a Home and the level of support has been fantastic so far. We dearly hope that we’ll be able to help give beavers a home on some of our sites too. Not only will we be able to enjoy watching them, but we can also reap the rewards with the other wildlife they’ll attract too. As well as giving themselves a home, beavers are great hosts for other wildlife. If only we were all so hospitable!

For more information about RSPB Scotland’s work to give nature a home visit: rspb.org.uk/homes

Jane Sears is a Biodiversity Projects Officer with the RSPB.