Report from Chris Smith
Once upon a time there was a large rodent with soft, waterproof fur, large, protruding teeth and a long, flat tail. It was called a beaver, and beavers flourished freely in Scotland. Whole families made their homes in the slow-running waters of the countryside, gnawing trees with their front teeth, eating the bark and using the wood to build dams on the rivers. Then, one day, people all over Europe decided to hunt the beavers.
Their fur was very fashionable and valuable, and castoreum, a secretion from a gland below the beaverÕs tail, was famous for its medicinal properties (recently discovered to be an ingredient of aspirin). It was also used in cosmetics. So that they could have this fur, and this special fluid, the people trapped and killed every single beaver in Scotland. Not one of them lived happily ever after. The end. Or so we thought ...
Beavers have been extinct in Britain since around the 16th century. But they may be about to make a historic comeback thanks to an initiative proposed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Knapdale Forest in Argyll has been identified as a suitable site for a proposed field trial and earlier this month SNHÕs Board applied to the Scottish executive for a licence for the release of 15 to 20 European beavers to this area. While the SNH board concede the application will be contentious, Colin Galbraith hopes "over time beavers can do for Knapdale what ospreys did for Speyside". They have committed £250,000 to the project, which will cost an estimated £490,170 over seven years. A further £150,000 from Mammals Trust UK, a London-based conservation organisation, has also been confirmed.
Of course, this has all been in the news before - in fact, the whole project was scheduled to be underway already. But with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth, crucial fieldwork to be carried out in the area prior to the reintroduction of the beavers had to be postponed, pushing the whole project back a year. Assuming the Scottish executive give their assent, 12 beavers would be brought over from Norway next autumn for a six month quarantine period, before being released in the wild in spring 2003.
But given that beavers have left a gap in our ecosystem for more than 400 years, the longer term effects of this project could be quite startling. Some - admittedly those with a vested interest - have raised questions about a possible threat to salmon stocks, erosion of riverbanks, the loss of forestry to satisfy the beaversÕ appetite for dam-building and bark, the undermining of roads and tracks by beaver burrows and the disruption of drainage systems.
While we must wait and see how our ecosystem reacts to the introduction of such an industrious species, these horror stories smack somewhat of scaremongering. The European beaver, Castor fiber, has undoubtedly suffered from the bad reputation of the North American beaver, Castor canadenis, which can be more than twice as heavy and twice as long, building much larger dams and causing much greater damage in terms of timber loss and flooding. Reintroduction schemes may also suffer from association with wolves - rumours of the return of the exiled scavenger often came in the same breath as talk of beaver reintroduction. But while beavers may chew down trees, they canÕt be accused of eating lambs or howling at the moon.
Nancy Fraser of SNH promises "beaver benefits" will include water purification, flood control, the preservation and renewal of wetland ecosystems and opportunities for the public to indulge in beaver-spotting and a resultant increase in wildlife tourism. Niall Benvie, a nature photographer from Angus, has spent time in Latvia and Norway photographing the European beaver and has his own view of the project. On the one hand, he cites the financial spin-offs of beaver activity in Latvia, including natural fire-breaks, clean drinking water, stabilised water-table levels and beaver products worth between £600-700 million a year. In answer to the objection over an imagined impact on Scottish salmon, he reminds us "beavers are entirely herbivorous, and salmon and beavers successfully co-existed for thousands of years in the Scottish landscape before the beavers became extinct." Rather, he argues, beavers provide ponds rich in nutrients for fry to develop in and improve water quality as pollutants are oxidised as they filter through beaver dams. The slow-moving waters in beaver ponds also provide a habitat for uncommon plants, as well as waders and ducks. Many other birds benefit - cranes and storks, herons and kingfishers - ScotlandÕs countryside could slowly become alive with species we rarely see.
But Benvie is also keen to point out that Scotland and Latvia are very distinct agriculturally, the latter encompassing "large parts of the country where land management is low-key and agricultural practice traditional." Reintroduction schemes have, however, been successful in countries across Europe since 1922 and populations now exist in 21 European countries.
But while SNH is taking action, their counterpart English Nature has no such plans: "ItÕs not suitable for England. TheyÕre not part of the English countryside," says Sue White of English Nature.
By contrast, statistically, ScotlandÕs population seems in favour, according to a survey conducted in 1998 by the SNH, in which 86 per cent of interested parties consulted and 63 per cent of the general public supported a re-introduction. At a local level, the Mid Argyll Farmers Union are content to agree with the proposal if straying animals are trapped; the Lochgilphead and District Angling Club has also given its assent; and £1,000 a year has been put aside in the projectÕs budget for compensation to neighbouring landowners and managers should any damage be caused.
ItÕs true it might take a bit of effort, but IÕm sure we can learn to get used to our new neighbours. In fact, Catholics in Scotland used to eat beaverÕs tail and paws instead of fish on a Friday - I can hear the voices in the chippie of a Friday night now, "IÕll have a large beaver supper with salt ÕnÕ sauce, cheers!"
Benvie is keen to stress that: "We need to give beavers space. If we are to have the beaver back in Scotland, we will have to practise restraint." And he believes the beaver is a "land manager par excellence" and suggests we allow the beaver to "become a partner in habitat maintenance and creation rather than another species which needs to be controlled."
So, if the Scottish executive accept the arrival of EuropeÕs largest rodent with its monogamous family unit, babies that hold hands when they sleep, teeth capable of felling trees up to 75cm in diameter and its obsessive burrowing and dam-building, then who knows - we might all live happily ever after, after all.
The Scotsman, 17th November 2001
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