Report from Geoge Markie
THE re-introduction of beavers to river valleys in the Borders, and the return of wild cattle and wild boar to wilderness areas of the region, are among the more controversial topics for debate at a major conference which starts today.
While the main aim of the two-day event, organised by Borders Forest Trust [BFT], is to promote the regeneration of natural woodland, speakers will advance the case for bringing back lost mammals and birds.
Many of the local native species were driven to extinction with the destruction of forested areas from the 16th century onwards, when tens of thousands of sheep were "imported" by King James V.
It brought about the destruction of 99 per cent of the Ettrick Forest, a large royal hunting ground that stretched from the central Borders across the south of Scotland to Galloway, and had existed since the Ice Age.
In its heyday, the forest supported populations of wild boar, deer, wolves and even bears, but now only fragments of the original woods and scrubland remain.
BFT, an environmental charity formed in 1996, has already planted tens of thousands of hardwood trees in the Borders in an attempt to reverse the decline.
Delegates at the conference will hear presentations from eminent environmentalists and conservationists, including the writer and broadcaster Roy Dennis, a founder member of a European large mammals initiative, and Duncan Halley, of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. He will talk about the beaver's reconquest of Eurasia.
A plan to re-introduce beavers to the Highlands after 400 years has been delayed, following protests from landowners and farmers concerned about damage.
The small colony of 12-15 European beavers was due to be shipped from Norway to the Knapdale forest in Argyll this year, but now the first re-introduction of the species into the wild in the UK has been held up pending further research.
At the end of the 19th century, over-hunting had reduced the European beaver population to only 1,200 animals in eight isolated populations.
But conservation measures throughout the past 100 years have seen continental numbers spiral to around 600,000, with beavers now established in every European country except the UK, Portugal, Italy and some of the Balkan states.
Mr Halley has said there is no need for another report prior to the re-introduction of beavers in Scotland after five years of consultation and research. There have already been 90 re-introductions in 20 European countries over the past 40 years, and he believes the process is very well understood.
Dr Philip Ashmole, an eminent zoologist and BFT trustee, said: "The trust has not adapted a stance on the re-introduction of the beaver, but in the long term the Borders could certainly be considered as a suitable area."
He added: "The region has made impressive efforts to restore raptor populations, with the return of the osprey and golden eagle, but there are some who would like to see more progress so far as species such as wild boar and wild cattle are concerned."
Dr Ashmole is co-ordinator of the acclaimed Carrifran Wildwood project, near Moffat, where 660 acres are being replanted with up to 500,000 native trees.
He said: "The Millennium Forest for Scotland project gave an enormous boost to those concerned with the restoration of natural woodland, but it is becoming much more difficult now to obtain funding for this type of work."
The conference will be told that, with Common Agricultural Policy [CAP] reforms undermining upland farming, and the future of marginal sporting estates in doubt, thee are growing opportunities to promote wild areas as an alternative form of land use.
© Scotsman, 28 st August 2002
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