Outdoors: Beavers are being reintroduced, but will they prove friend or foe?

The first beaver kits born in the wild as part of the Scottish Beaver Trial have been spotted. Picture: PA
The first beaver kits born in the wild as part of the Scottish Beaver Trial have been spotted. Picture: PA
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FOR SIMON Jones, Scottish Beaver Trial Project Manager of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, there is no other experience quite like it.

“I am sitting on a canoe in Dubh Loch in Knapdale at night under the light of a full moon,” he says. “There are owls calling and bats flitting over the water, when suddenly the still surface is broken by the wake of a swimming beaver. The fact that this is happening in Scotland makes it all the more special.”

It is an experience, however, that has been lost for many centuries. Beavers were formerly widespread throughout much of Britain and there is some evidence to suggest that they may have even survived in Scotland in small numbers up until the early 16th century. But their pelts were in great demand, and over-hunting ultimately led to the demise of Europe’s largest native rodent.

But now the beaver is officially back, thanks to the Scottish Beaver Trial (SBT), a partnership initiative between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and Forestry Commission Scotland to undertake a five-year trial reintroduction of Eurasian beavers to Knapdale in mid-Argyll. The licence for the trial was granted in 2008 by the Scottish Government with the first beavers (from Norway) released the following year. Scottish Natural Heritage is co-ordinating the independent scientific monitoring of the trial.

In an interesting twist, it has also come to light in recent years that there is a significant population of beavers – possibly many dozens – in the River Tay catchment system. This population was probably founded by escaped beavers from private collections.

According to Jones, the four pairs of beavers reintroduced into the Knapdale study area are thriving and have settled into several lochans over a relatively small core area. Three of the pairs have bred, producing nine kits so far and all the groups have built substantial lodges. Three of the families have also constructed dams – a fascinating aspect of beaver behaviour that creates areas of water that the animals can easily swim in and enabling convenient aquatic access to nearby food resources.

Research in other parts of their world range has shown that the large pools created by beaver dams significantly enhance biodiversity, benefiting many invertebrates, plants, and creatures such as birds, water voles and amphibians. They also create good nursery areas for young fish. However, these dams are also a matter of concern for anglers and fishery managers, fearful that they may block rivers and impede the movements of salmon and sea trout.

Jones says: “This is a legitimate concern and is one of the reasons why we are having this independently monitored trial before any decision is made on implementing a reintroduction programme on a wider scale. Assessments are being made on both the Knapdale and Tay catchment beavers to see what, if any, detrimental impact dam building may have. Certainly, in other parts of the world, salmon and beavers thrive together without any adverse impact on the fish.”

Beavers are completely vegetarian and eat a range of aquatic plants, grasses, shrubs and woody plants. Simon says the coppicing by beavers of small trees enhances the biodiversity of woodland by creating a patchwork of open areas 
along the water’s edge, which in turn benefits wild flowers, breeding birds, and insects. Although concerns have been raised by some woodland owners about the impact the animals may have on trees, beaver supporters argue that coppicing breathes new life into forests and creates a diverse range of trees that is advantageous to 
woodland management.

The purpose of the Knapdale trial is to determine whether the reintroduction of beavers into Scotland is feasible and beneficial to the wider environment and local communities. Certainly, the Knapdale beavers are already stimulating huge interest and are attracting many visitors to mid-Argyll. Beavers have been successfully reintroduced to numerous other parts of their former European range, where the impact has been overwhelmingly positive. At the end of the trial in 2014, the results will be assessed by the Scottish Government before a final decision is made on whether a reintroduction should be considered on a wider scale.

Jones is hopeful of a positive outcome. “I am certain that over the long-term beavers can bring important benefits to our natural environment, as well as for tourism and stimulating a wider interest in nature. Hopefully, we are just at the start of a long journey.”

• www.scottishbeavers.org.uk