Eurasian Beavers (Castor fiber) are native to Scotland but were driven extinct around 450 years ago likely due to human pressures such as hunting for fur, meat and castoreum (a scent secretion). I suppose many people might have been unconcerned and happy to leave things that way, however beavers are Ecosystem Engineers. They have a considerable impact on their surroundings and modify their environment thereby creating and maintaining habitat for many other species. Beavers alter abiotic factors such as water flow and sediment which in turn can benefit biodiversity.
In 2009 a trial reintroduction of Beavers was initiated in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. For many of us this was a welcome step in restoring much needed ecological diversity to Scotland. The trial was carried out through a partnership between Scottish Wildlife Trust, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and hosted by Forestry Commission Scotland with regular studies conducted.
However, away from Knapdale exciting changes were afoot..
There were whisperings in Angus and Perthshire of beavers prior to the Trial and their evidence was there to see for locals from at least 2006. It is thought that these beavers escaped into the river catchment from private collections and have bred and dispersed to found a population that is estimated to number over 200 individuals.
Tayside Beaver Study Group was established in 2012 at the request of the Environment Minister who made the decision to allow the Tay population to remain living in the wild for the duration of the official trial following public outcry at the suggestion the East coast animals would be removed. TBSG have found the Tayside population to be Eurasian in origin and there have been no incidences of disease in the beavers tested.
Having discussed the trial re-introduction and the tayside population during my university degree I wanted to find out more and hopefully see some wild beavers. After a bit of googling I discovered the Scottish Wild Beaver Group website, this offered the chance to go on a “beaver-walk” with Bob Smith.
Our first visit to Bob’s local beaver family was brilliant! We arrived while it was still light and followed Bob to the spot where we were able to hunker down to wait for the beavers.
The stretch of river we visited provides an excellent opportunity to see the animals at close proximity without disturbing them. There were also clear signs of beavers in the area.
The first sign of any activity was a loud PLOP!!
I remember being shocked at how loud and obvious it was, we didn’t see the beaver until it surfaced a few seconds later- swimming towards us.
Bob thought this beaver was the adult female- she was certainly rather large.
For the rest of the evening we moved up and down the river with Bob and saw more beaver activity as well as a kit!
Beavers are typically most active at dawn and dusk so they can be a bit difficult to get nice clear pictures of. At this particular site the beavers burrow into the river bank and don’t build obvious lodges or dams. Presumably this means the river is deep enough for them to get about in and not too fast flowing most of the time.
Inspired by that first visit I returned to Bob’s beaver tours with various family and friends over the coming weeks and had multiple sightings. We even got to visit another location where the beavers have extensively dammed and even built a lodge.
While we were here we actually got to go out in canoes with the hope of seeing the resident beavers and obviously angered the beavers because we were given a tail slap! At this point we decided we should probably leave and let the beavers enjoy their own company.
The official Trial in Argyll ended in 2014 and all scientific reporting was delivered to the Scottish government by May 2015. To date, there has been no decision made on the future of beavers in Scotland and unfortunately there have been some reported cases of persecution across the Tayside population.
I hope that before 2016 is out we will have confirmation from the Scottish government that both populations of beavers will be protected by law and horrible cases like this will be prevented. Of course there will be cases of conflict with human interests but these can be mitigated through non-lethal management, just look up “beaver deceiver” and flow devices.
Now that this native species is back in our waterways we must protect them and ensure their survival into the future, not only for the amazing benefits they provide in creating and maintaining wetland diversity but also because they are lovely animals to have around in their own right. If you agree, you can sign this Scot gov petition online and follow the Facebook page Save the Free Beavers of the Tay for updates.
If you also fancy reading a bit more about these amazing animals I can thoroughly recommend Jim Crumley’s brilliant book, “Natures Architect”. Jim has written many interesting pieces in the Dundee Courier recommending legal protection for the beavers so he’s a bit of a hero in my eyes. For the biology of beavers look up Andrew Kitchener’s book “Beavers”; I was pleasantly surprised to learn that when beavers form pairs it becomes an equal partnership with no dominance on the part of either sex.
Tips to see beavers;
1.) The population on Scotlands East Coast appears to have spread rather successfully so keep an eye out for the gnawed trees and sticks wedged in mud or dams.
2.) They will live almost anywhere there is enough water and food so check your local river or loch for these signs or rippling in the water after a loud PLOP!
2.) Once you have an area you want to look for them, arrive just before dusk to get settled in and be prepared to wait- in our case patience always pays off. Don’t point at them, shout “WOW” or wear rustling clothing- I did all three!
Thanks for reading.