Summer travel: Chance to get up close with dam fine animals

Fascinating and endearing in equal measure, beavers are Scotland’s largest native rodent and to see one in the wild is an ambition for many.

Extinct in the UK for some 400 years, this century has seen several successful reintroductions, but for the best chance of spotting one north of the Border, head to Argyll.

Four family groups numbering 14 animals were introduced at the Argyll Beaver Centre in Knapdale in May 2009. They came from

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Telemark in Norway and were first quarantined at Edinburgh Zoo for six months before being released.

Image: Steve GardnerImage: Steve Gardner
Image: Steve Gardner

The trial was a partnership between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Wildlife Trust, and the Forestry Commission.

At Knapdale, there are now eight or nine families – perhaps as many as 30 individuals – but accurate figures won’t be known until next month when the kits start to emerge from their lodges.

They are crepuscular animals – active at dawn and dusk – so long light summer evenings are the best time to visit, particularly if you want to spot a kit.

Pete Creech, a wildlife ranger for The Heart of Argyll Wildlife Organisation, which runs the Argyll Beaver Centre, says that although they are shy creatures they are by no means difficult to encounter.

He explains: “We run beaver walks every week from April to September. They come out at the same time in the morning and evening and we’ve seen beavers on every walk we’ve done this year.

“Sometimes it is a glimpse at a distance, otherwise it is quite close up. But people can come to the visitor centre and we’ll point them in the right direction.”

While many will know that beavers are renowned for being busy and building dams, there is a lot of misinformation about them. They don’t eat fish for instance, as many presume. Pete explains: “Beavers are non-specific herbivores and they will eat most plants that they find within about ten to 20 metres of water – including rushes, reeds, veg, flowering plants, and they love lily pads.

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“In winter, they subsist on cambium found under tree bark where there are stored sugars. They don’t hibernate and there is little greenery around.”

They are territorial animals and each beaver family at Knapdale commands a couple of hectares and a lodge, home to an adult pair and their kits plus any juveniles from previous years.

But every few years, they will move house. Pete says: “Within a beaver’s territory, they will keep to a particular area to work on and they might stay there for three or four years. But then they’ll target another area of their territory and build a new lodge while still living in the older one, and then move. The previous area will then be left for a few years to regenerate – so they rotationally crop their territory.

“Beavers coppice trees, they don’t kill them, as it would make no sense to destroy a food source.”

The trees they target in Knapdale are birch, willow, rowan and alder – all have the ability to regenerate.

Beavers don’t eat conifers, so are no threat to forestry, and they don’t favour oak either because they tend to grow on drier ground.

Pete says: “We could learn a few things from beavers – in exactly the same way that we will prune an apple tree to produce more fruit,

they prune willow and it promotes a rapid growth pattern. Quicker than beavers can eat it.

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“You compare this to deer, who don’t have any aspirations to be sustainable because they aren’t territorial, so will eat everything in their path down to the ground.”

He says that the benefits of beavers to the natural landscape by far outweighs any concerns.

“They are fundamental to the health of temperate rainforests, with their ability to hold up water and keep the humidity high. That

humidity is increasingly stressed in times of drought, and evidence from beaver wetlands around the world shows that they are oases of green.

In places like California, beaver territory can act as fire breaks.”

He points to evidence from Knapdale when, in a previous dry spell, the water level in the biggest loch the beavers hadn’t dammed dropped by several centimetres, while the smaller lochs, which had been dammed, showed no discernible difference.

The complex habitats beavers engineer in rivers and streams create shallows and deeper pools, shade and shelter, and the bubbling of water pumps oxygen into it. The dams collect sediment, clarifying the water making it ideal for aquatic life.

For daytime visits, you may not spot a beaver but you can marvel at their work. Pete says: “They totally re-engineer an environment to suit themselves. A family moved into an area of old forestry clearfell recently, and that territory has been completely transformed from what was a fairly degraded landscape into incredible wetlands. ”

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For evening visitors, the beavers have a set routine, according to Pete. “They start with a nightly patrol to upgrade their scent marks, select somewhere to feed, and then what level of work they carry out depends on the time of year. They go into overdrive in October when they refurbish their lodge and build up a food cache for the winter.”

Beaver pairs have one litter a year, of up to three kits. Nothing actively predates them but there will be opportunistic predators of the young, mink, otters, pine martens, badgers and foxes, as well as pike in the water, and larger birds of prey if they spot them overhead.

As far as the adult beavers are concerned, they are really only at risk from humans and dogs – but nevertheless they are covered in law as a European Protected Species, and it is an offence in Scotland to disturb either them or their homes.

There has been opposition to their presence as a nuisance in some areas but Pete says: “There are plenty of ways of persuading beavers against doing something you don’t want them to do, they show a lot of learned behaviour . They spend a lot of time with their families to get the hang of being a beaver and pairs are largely monogamous.”

And the animals who were moved into Knapdale 14 years ago are thriving. Pete reports: “Usually they live eight to ten years in the wild, but we have three here from the originals that were introduced. We have one that is at least 18 years old, so he is a bit of a celebrity.”

Centre focus

The Argyll Beaver Centre in Knapdale is open from April through to the end of October, Tuesday to Friday and Sundays from 10am until 5pm.

The visitor centre offers hands-on displays, a wildlife feeding station, a viewing hide, activities for children, as well as a gift shop.

Rangers are on hand to pass on information and there are leaflets and maps available which cover the local area.

Guided walks to get up and close to where the beavers are currently are conducted on Wednesday evenings each week.

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