While walking in rural Perthshire recently I came face to face with some of the beavers busy activities. They had been beavering away you may say. There were new pools of shallow wetlands, perfect habitats for dragonflies and young fish fry. There were sizeable trees down, opening up the structure of the woodland canopy allowing more light down to support flowering plants. A red squirrel looked down on me as a examined the trees excitedly explaining that I was in its woodland. It was wonderful to see first hand exactly the impact that these beavers are having on our landscape. Re-wilding it, making it look chaotic and unpredictable, and in return giving it resilience and adaptability. Changing up the ordered way we humans do things and allowing space for more species to flourish.
Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) were a native species in the UK, until their extinction in the 16th Century as a result of over hunting. In fact by the late 19th century they were facing extinction across nearly their entire range. In 2009 a re-introduction scheme led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Forestry and Land Scotland, and the Royal Scottish Zoological Society officially brought the beaver back to Scotland for the first time in over 400 years. Located in Knapdale, on the west coast, the scheme became a popular destination for those hoping to catch a glimpse of this long lost mammal and over the years it collected data on the feasibility of introducing the beaver on a wider scale.
Of course rumours of wild beavers had circulated for a while before this and back in 2006 SNH (now NatureScot) was made aware of reports of several beaver activity sites along the River Tay and Earn catchment areas. These beavers were likely released, or escapees, from private collections. Some landowners were concerned about their impacts on field drains, fishing, and agriculture. The Knapdale scheme was in part a controlled environment where scientists could monitor the impacts of beavers on a landscape that had been absent of them for so long.
New wetland created by beavers
Beavers are structural engineers, feeling trees, building lodges and dams. They have a significant role in creating new wetlands, and rejuvenating woodlands. Beavers are herbivores, eating aquatic plants, bark and new tree growth. They do not eat fish no matter what you many hear from some anglers. They are often referred to as a keystone species. One that other elements of our natural environment rely on for their health. They are also essential to the health of water ways and flood plains as they slow the flow of water averting catastrophic flooding in many areas and ensuring long lag times after heavy rainfalls. This also stabilises riverbanks and leads to less soil erosion. Humans however are not always happy living alongside other species which modify their environment. Sometimes they clash with our modifications and current perceptions of the ordered state of world…
In 2019 licences were issued to cull 87 beavers who were being seen as ‘problematic’ at various locations. The total number of beavers legally killed since they became a protected species in Scotland is now over 200 out of an estimated population of around 1000. Many have questioned whether they would have been better being relocated to benefit the ecosystem in other locations.
Some wonder if there is any room on our island for its native species given their impacts on agriculture and other land use.
If beavers are so important to our eco-systems functioning in a healthy way why do we fear them so much? What about other keystone species such as wolf and lynx?
Do we have room in Scotland for the species hunted to extinction in the past, or will the structures that led to their demise in the past hold sway again?