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A dam good idea

This feature is about 8 years old
 

Five years on, Scotland’s first mammal reintroduction trial celebrates success

We’re extremely happy about how the trial has gone but now it’s for the government to decide whether we want to have a wider beaver population in Scotland

They’re four-legged, furry and, if you’re lucky enough to get a rare glimpse of one, their antics are hilarious.

Now these comical little creatures are being credited with boosting tourism and helping support rural Scotland’s increasingly fragile ecosystem.

Beavers have been missing from Scotland for 400 years, hunted to extinction largely because they made easy prey.

Now, after an intensive five-year breeding programme, they’re back and creating a minor conservation miracle in the process.

This month monitoring of the UK’s first licenced mammal reintroduction programme comes to an end and, according to conservationists, it has been a huge success.

Four pairs of beavers were reintroduced to Knapdale, a rugged rural outpost adjacent to Kintyre on the Argyle peninsula in 2009.

After five years evaluating the impact of the species on the local environment and the potential to attract tourism, the results will be presented at Holyrood, where MSPs will make a decision on the future of beavers in Scotland next year.

Simon Jones, project manager of the Scottish Beaver Trial, said the project had been an outstanding success that provided an opportunity to study the ecology and biology of an animal that has not been seen in Scotland for more than 400 years.

“In terms of asking ‘Can beavers live in the wild in Scotland and can they breed?’ then the answer is yes. We’re extremely happy about how the trial has gone but now it’s for the government to decide whether we want to have a wider beaver population in Scotland,” he said.

Simon Jones and colleague get ready to release a beaver at Knapdale in 2009. Picture: Steve Gardner
Simon Jones and colleague get ready to release a beaver at Knapdale in 2009. Picture: Steve Gardner

The trial, conducted by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and Forestry Commission Scotland, released 16 Eurasian beavers in four family groups between May 2009 and September 2010 into three lochs in the Knapdale forest.

Although at first the project faced a few hurdles, the first beaver kit was born in 2010 and the latest count shows there are now 13 animals living around lochs Coille Bharr, Buic, Creagh Mhor and Linne.

Researchers studying the environmental impact of the beavers on biodiversity, forestry, the landscape and hydrology, found the animals had transformed the landscape, constructing dams, felling trees, creating canals and building lodges.

The largest dam built during the trial was 18 metres long and 1.6 metres high and was on the Dubh Loch. The largest lodge measured 7.8 metres long, 2.1 metres high and 11.3 metres wide – around the same size as a double garage.

Beavers were once widespread in the UK but were hunted to extinction by the 16th century for their fur, medicinal value and meat.

They are known as a keystone species because of the effect they have on their surrounding environment.

Beaver Q&A

Are there different species of beaver?
There are two species of beaver: the North American beaver (Castor canadensis) and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). The Eurasian beaver is native to the UK and is the species involved in the Scottish Beaver Trial.

Why did beavers become extinct?
Until the 16th century, beavers lived throughout Scotland. They were hunted to extinction for their fur and a glandular oil (castoreum) secreted from the base of their tail, which contained medicinal properties. In medieval times, castoreum was used as treatment for headaches.

How do beavers benefit the environment?
Beavers are nature’s top engineers. They are tree felling, dam building champions and a keystone species; that is, one which affects the survival and abundance of other wildlife in the community in which it lives. Beavers create ponds and wetlands which attract other species, provide a food source for others, and even help improve water quality.

How big are Eurasian beavers?
Beavers are approximately the size of a tubby spaniel (25–30 kg), measuring 70–100 cm in length. Unusually for mammals, the female beaver is the same size or larger than males of the same age.

Among many potential benefits of a beaver reintroduction, supporters of the scheme cite their draw as an attraction for wildlife tourism.

For example, according to a study by SWT, visitors to Wales who come specifically for the wildlife spend approximately £13.8 million a year. In the west of Scotland, the gross tourist income from whale watching alone has been estimated at £7.8m a year.

The study says a beaver release site might bring over £2m a year into the local economy. The relative sizes of the benefit of a beaver reintroduction could be around 100 times larger than costs.

Last month a YouGov poll found 60% of Scots backed the reintroduction of beavers and only 5% were opposed.

Support was higher, at 74%, among those people already aware of the issue.

“It is really positive to see the majority support the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland,” said Jones.

“Separate feedback from several business owners in the Argyll area has also been positive and suggests the Scottish Beaver Trial has boosted visitor numbers.

“Monitoring the social and economic benefits of beavers

to the local area was always one of the trial’s major aims. We hope that any benefits will be lasting.”

The beavers will remain in the Knapdale Forest until a decision on their future is made by the Scottish Government.

Guided walks in the spring and summer months will enable people to be able to visit the site and learn about these fascinating creatures.

Coming soon... wolves!

Wolves could be the next mammal to be reintroduced to Scotland after a leading conservation charity said there was no sound ecological reason to prevent their re-introduction.

The John Muir Trust said it wanted to stimulate discussion on the subject after centuries of the animals being vilified.

Wolf ecotourism is growing in parts of Europe and it is thought it could be a source of revenue for areas of Scotland not normally frequented by visitors.

The wolf was hunted to extinction in Scotland in the 1700s, with some of the last killed in Sutherland and Moray.

European wolves can now only be seen in captivity, such as at the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, near Aviemore.

However, a private landowner in the north of Scotland is currently looking at how feasible it would be to re-introduce wolves as well as bears on his estate.

Paul Lister, the heir to the MFI furniture fortune, bought Alladale Estate 10 years ago, with the goal of creating a wilderness reserve.

Elk and wild boar were introduced on a trial basis to the 23,000-acre estate, but

Highland cattle are the biggest animals to be found there today.

More than 800,000 native trees have been planted, and the estate is involved in projects to protect native species including the Scottish wildcat and the red squirrel.

He said: “We’re going to do a feasibility study on the big vision to have a minimum area of 50,000 acres, have a fence around it, and bring back wolves and bears into that area.

“We’ll assess the socio-economic impact that will have and also the environmental impact. The presence of these large predators really changes the landscape for the benefit of nature.”

 

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