Beavers dip a toe in the water for Scots return

THE beaver is coming back. A new bid to reintroduce the animal beloved of children and engineers to Scotland is to be launched this week.

Up to 20 of the dam-building aquatic mammals, which became extinct in the UK about 400 years ago, will be electronically tagged and released over a three-year period after being imported from Norway.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which runs Edinburgh Zoo, plan to fund a 500,000 trial in the Knapdale forest in Argyll.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The European beaver, which had been almost wiped out throughout the continent by 1900, has already been successfully reintroduced in 24 countries, where they have become tourist attractions.

But the Knapdale plan is expected to face opposition from farmers who fear the animals will damage their property. Pressure from landowners persuaded the former Scottish Executive to reject a similar plan, led by its own countryside advisers, Scottish Natural Heritage, in 2005.

However, the new SNP Government, which will have to grant a licence to allow the trial, has signalled its support.

Before proceeding with a licence application, the SWT, an environmental charity which runs wildlife reserves through-out Scotland, and the RZSS are to first hold a consultation in the Knapdale area.

Simon Milne, SWT's chief executive, said: "The launch of this local consultation is the first stage in the return of an important species missing from Scotland's wildlife. It is vital that Argyll's people are involved in this exciting project from the start and get the chance to share their support as well as any concerns they may have in relation to the beaver trial."

The 500,000 cost will be raised by the SWT and the RZSS from a combination of Scottish, UK and European government grants, possibly supplemented by a public appeal. The money will be spent on transporting beavers from Norway, where the animals have the closest genetic match to native Scottish beavers, placing them in quarantine for six months before release, and tagging and monitoring over the trial period.

The remote trial site, about 10 square kilometres in size, is owned by the Forestry Commission and will be run by the SWT. If the trial is successful - the animals will have radio trackers glued to their backs to prevent them straying beyond the trial area - other colonies could be set up across Scotland.

Supporters of the project believe beavers would improve water quality, produce new habitats for fish and help reduce flooding downstream.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Although there are some beavers in enclosed areas within wildlife parks in Scotland, none have been reintroduced officially into the wild.

Iain Valentine, head of animals, education and conservation at the RZSS, which has already been involved in re-introductions of other species, said the beaver had been very successfully brought back in more than 20 other countries.

"We believe that the time is right to bring the beaver back to Scotland," he said.

"As well as the benefits they bring to ecosystems, they will also provide a socioeconomic boost by increasing tourism in the local area. Knapdale is an ideal location to trial the reintroduction, and the support of local residents is vital."

Critics say beaver dams destroy salmon rivers and fishing beats and damage woodlands through tree felling. A small reintroduced population would also grow out of control because of the lack of predators, leading to damage to farmlands and drainage systems.

A spokeswoman for the National Farmers' Union Scotland said: "There is no doubt that beavers once lived in Scotland, but hundreds of years ago. It is such a long time since extinction that ecosystems have changed and the species that would be introduced have evolved.

"NFU Scotland agrees that before any species reintroduction there must be a trial, but it is vital there are proper controls in place for any trials. We are not against beaver trials as long as there are adequate controls and the right management framework.

"In the case of beavers, any trial reintroduction would be difficult to control - these are roaming animals that naturally investigate more suitable habitats. By freshwater, sea or land their movements would be extremely difficult to constrain."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Earlier this year, Scottish Natural Heritage once again made the beaver one of its priority species for reintroduction. The new SNP Government's Environment Minister, Mike Russell, said:

"Any new proposal would need to take into account the previous objections and the views of interested parties. Subject to these points being dealt with, I will consider this proposal very positively when it comes forward later this year."

Brief history of the dam busted

The European beaver (castor fiber) has been extinct in Britain since the late 16th century. Even in the 12th century, mediaeval chronicler Gerald of Wales claimed the animals were only to be found in two rivers in Britain: one in Scotland and one in Wales.

One of the largest rodents in the world, it was hunted for its fur - Inverness became a major trading centre with links to the continent - and for its oil. Castoreum, the glandular secretion of the beaver, was valued for its purported medicinal properties as it contains salicylic acid, an important ingredient in the manufacture of aspirin. The beaver's meat, while in less demand than the pelt, was sometimes used as food. Scottish fur trappers were much in demand in the early days of opening up the North American continent.

To say that the beaver has not been seen in the wild in Scotland for centuries is untrue. Earlier this year, an adult male European beaver was found living on a small loch near Perth. The beaver was recaptured by an expert from Edinburgh Zoo but no satisfactory explanation has emerged for its presence there except that it may have escaped from a private collection. Release of beavers into the wild without a licence is a criminal offence.