AFTER a four century absence, beavers are beginning to make a comeback to the Scottish countryside.
Knapdale in Argyll is home to an official trial monitoring the prospects of the European beaver’s return to the wild hundreds of years after being hunted to extinction. Wild beavers have already been spotted on the Tay and here in the Highlands, the Aigas Field Centre is coming to the end of its own beaver project, which began in 2006 with two Eurasian beavers in their own 200-acre enclosure.
On Friday, one of Scotland’s best known nature writers, Jim Crumley, will visit Aigas to check on their progress and talk about his latest book, Nature’s Architect, which looks at the beaver’s return to the British landscape.
Here Crumley, who has also written about the return of the sea eagle to Scotland, tells us why he supporst bringing back the beaver.
The Aigas Beaver project is winding down. Can you say whether it has been a success and what we might have learnt about the possible reintroduction of the beaver to the Highlands?
The Aigas project is a huge success by any standards. The project was founded on sound preliminary research and has been scrupulously monitored. It has shown that the presence of beavers has increased biodiversity by 300 per cent.
Their way of life creates endless opportunities for countless other species from plant and insects to birds and mammals. And if you must have an economic argument, the project has generated several million pounds from visitors signing up for specific beaver courses. So the beaver is good for the environment and it is good for people.
It has been at least 400 years since beavers last roamed wild in the Highlands and obviously much has changed in terms of human contact. Has the beaver’s day passed or is there still room for them after such a long absence (in human terms, at least)?
The crucial thing about reintroduction even after 400 years, is whether the right habitat is still in place. It is. Sir John Lister-Kaye and Paul Ramsay (who has his own beaver project at Bammf, near Alyth) found 111 sites of prime beaver habitat in the Highlands north of the Tay before they brought the beavers in.
The wild beavers on Tayside themselves have demonstrated that there is plenty of habitat south of the Tay too as they spread into the Trossachs and the Forth river system.
What benefits might beavers bring to the Highland landscape?
The benefits of beavers are many. They create and expand wetland which is the most fragile and the most threatened of all native habitats.
They help to purify rivers and lochs. They improve natural fisheries by creating new pools which are much used by young fish.
They mitigate against flooding by spreading water high up in the river systems which reduces the flow further downstream. They improve the biodiversity of woodland by increasing the presence of deadwood; in a good wild wood, something like 40 per cent of all species are dependent on deadwood.
People love to watch them, witness the string of hotels, guest-houses and B&Bs in Argyll and Tayside which now advertise themselves as "beaver-friendly".
As well as the more official colony at Kanpdale, beavers have also been reported on the Tay and in Devon. Are they already making a comeback?
The Tayside beavers are thriving, and steadily expanding their range. There is no question that beavers are already established as a benevolent force in the wider Tayside landscape.
The official trial in Argyll has been minutely monitored because every animal’s every movement is logged on computer and they wear transmitters, so in theory at least it could be stopped and the animals rounded up.
On Tayside, the animals are free-range and demonstrating how they live when they are permitted to choose their landscapes for themselves. None of them are monitored, Rounding up these animals is almost impossible. But any attempt to terminate the presence of beavers now would be a public relations disaster for the Scottish Government.
The reintroduction of species is an issue you turn to several times in your writing. Why is it so important to you and what might the future hold for reintroduced species?
Reintroductions are important because the species belong here, because our landscape is impoverished by their absence, because we as a species are spectacularly incompetent at managing landscape and controlling wildlife, because the healthiest landscapes are the ones where nature calls the shots. The deer forest and the grouse moor are the two most unnatural and unhealthy forms of land use in the country.
And if you could interview nature instead of me and ask what we should do to assist nature’s cause, nature would tell you to put back the wolf. Wolf reintroduction is the whole ball-game, because with the wolf in place, everything in nature makes sense and without the wolf, very little does. In a northern hemisphere country like Scotland, the wolf makes all the rules, and creates even more opportunities for other species than beavers do.
The wolf is the only realistic way to bring our deer population back into natural control, and to fast-track regenerating native woodland and other natural habitats suppressed by overgrazing.
I have one reservation about putting lynx back into the Highlands and that is that its presence might just be the final straw for our native wildcat. Wile we try and assist the wildcat to pull back from the brink of extinction, we should avoid putting lynx into the Highlands. There is a good case for putting lynx into Lowland woods, say in the Borders and Galloway, and watch what happens there.
All reintroductions must be given time.
The only way to understand an animal is to spend time with it, watch what it does, and make accommodation for the way it behaves, because it will have to do exactly the same thing with us. Reintroduction is a two-way process, and snap-judgments are always the worst possible outcomes. Even the five years of the beaver trial is too short.
The time to assess the effect of beavers on a particular landscape is after the complete cycle of their time there, because it is only after they have eaten themselves out of habitat and moved on that the landscape they have left behind begins to evolve spectacularly, until in time it will regenerate itself as new beaver habitat and the cycle will be completed.
All that might take 50 years, and that is nature’s kind of timescale.
• Jim Crumley will be talking about the beaver’s return to Scotland at The Magnus House, Aigas Field Centre, at 7.30pm on Friday 28th August. Entry is free, but places must be booked in advance by contacting Sheila Kerr on 01463 782443 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Nature’s Architect is published by Saraband Books.