I’ve just spent an enjoyable weekend with my family in Kenmore, a picturesque spot on the banks of Loch Tay in Perthshire. For us city-dwellers it came as a welcome reminder of the natural splendour we have on our doorsteps here in Scotland.
Undeterred by intermittent drizzle and soggy ground, we managed an eight-mile foray along the river – with only occasional outbreaks of “Are we nearly there yet?” from our six-year-old girl and her nine-year-old brother.
One of the most interesting sights we saw on the way was the gnawed stumps and felled trees that are evidence of some of the area’s most controversial inhabitants.
Eurasian beavers were once native to Scotland but have been absent since they were hunted to extinction by our ancestors in the 16th century for their skins, meat and oil. After humans, they are considered some of the world’s best natural engineers, able to create new wetlands, restore native woodlands and improve conditions for a wide range of species.
A five-year official, licensed project to reintroduce the species kicked off in Knapdale Forest in Argyll in 2009. It has been hailed as a major conservation triumph and represents the first formal reintroduction of a mammal to the wild in the UK.
However, the animals making their home around Loch Tay – and Isla, Earn, Ericht, Dean Water, and Baikie and Lunan burns – since around 2006 are the offspring of animal thought to have been illegally released or escaped from captivity. And not everyone is happy about their presence.
They can be a major problem for farmers, damaging trees and causing flooding on agricultural land through their dam-building activities. Many landowners have been calling for the government to remove them.
But although they may not be flavour of the month with farmers, members of the public seem to love them. The Scottish Beaver Trial, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, has attracted a huge amount of interest – and thousands of visitors – from far and wide. It has also seen Scottish Government allowing beavers to remain in the wild and granting them protected status.
And now beavers have been voted Wildlife Success Story of the Year in this year’s BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards, thanks to the Argyll project. It’s a well-deserved accolade.
We weren’t lucky enough to actually spot any beavers in action on our Tayside trek, since they are mainly active at night. However, I would make the trip back especially to see them. And I’m sure many others would do the same.
Experts warn that as numbers increase we are likely to witness growing hostility as more visible impacts occur, such as felling of specimen trees in parks and gardens.
Roisin Campbell-Palmer, field operations manager for the trial, believes we need to be tolerant until society can “rediscover” what it means to live with beavers. To see the real benefits of having this native species back in the wild, we should let them do what they do as much as is practical. At the same time we must be pragmatic and offer “realistic” options for those worst hit by beaver activities – including “some degree of lethal control”.
Proposals to reinforce the Knapdale colonies and plans for reintroductions north of the Great Glen are currently being explored.
With all Scotland has to offer, it’s not surprising that nature tourism is on the rise. It offers a valuable source of income for rural communities. Beavers could be an important addition to our already impressive repertoire.