Natural Engineers – bringing the beaver back, was the title for the talk by Susan Davies at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Berwickshire Group evening talk in February.
The pros and cons of introducing an extinct mammal were discussed and all the steps required to get a licence to import and release the beavers into the natural environment.
There are two species of beaver, the North American Beaver and the Eurasian Beaver.
The Eurasian Beaver became extinct in Britain around 1600 due to hunting for their pelts and for their tails which were used as food. They were also extensively hunted across Europe and only a few relic populations survived. Reintroduction programmes across Europe have now returned them over most of the continent and Britain is one of the last European countries to attempt to re-introduce them. Beavers from a remote population in Norway were selected for this reintroduction programme as there is no rabies in Norway and therefore they only required a short period in quarantine.
Discussions started prior to 2005 to obtain a licence to release them and after a lot of discussions it was agreed that in 2009 16 animals could be released for a five year trial in a joint project between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Forestry Commission Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
Land owned by the Forestry Commission in Knapdale in Argyll was chosen as the release site, an area with mixed woodland, streams and marshland and where there could be little conflict with other land users. The animals released were adults in pairs or family groups and they soon settled down and started breeding, to date the population has not expanded and has in fact shrunk to about eight animals.
The beavers adapt the vegetation for an area about 50 meters beyond the streams by coppicing their favourite food the willow bushes, they will also cut down other species of trees. They also eat rushes and are partial to the wild water lilies which will grow in their ponds.
Inside the dams they have their lodge which is a safe home as entry is gained from under the water. he dam itself is a substantial structure, built from wood, mud, moss and stones. Willow branches are stashed under the water in autumn and are used as a source of food throughout the winter, enabling the beavers to feed either under any ice or the need to stray on land in search of food.
The beavers have proved an important new tourist attraction in Argyll and the ponds and open marshlands they have created provide an ideal habitat for dragonflies, fish and frogs.
The beavers which are now found on the River Tay are not from this reintroduction project and were either released by private individuals or escaped from animal collections.