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Monday, June 1, 2009

Beavers return to Scotland after absence of 400 years

More than 400 years of Scottish history were rolled back last night when two families of European beavers were released into the wild beside a loch in Knapdale, Argyllshire.

For many environmentalists, this was a joyful moment, another small step in a long battle to recreate the biodiversity of wilderness Scotland, lost in large part to centuries of change. For their opponents — often drawn from commercial fishing interests — it was a disaster, a furry threat to a £100 million fishing business.

To illustrate their concerns, British fishing associations distributed photographs yesterday of a beaver dam already in Scotland. The man-sized dam was built by a colony of beavers kept by the wildlife enthusiast Paul Ramsay at his 1,300-acre Bamff Castle estate near Alyth, Perthshire.

According to Nick Young, director of the Tweed Foundation, a charitable trust that promotes the sustainable development of fish stocks in the River Tweed, it shows the problem that salmon will face when migrating upstream.

Mr Young said that the romantic dreams of environmentalists threatened all of Scotland’s migratory fish, trout as well as salmon. “Salmon need a depth of water to leap — you don’t find that below a beaver dam, especially one that big. I am sure the people who are reintroducing them know a lot about beavers, but nothing about salmon.”

Mr Ramsay said that the likely impact of the reintroduction on fish stocks had been exaggerated. The main spawning areas in salmon rivers such as the Tay were in the river itself, or in its larger tributaries such as the Tummel and the Ericht — waters so broad that beavers could hardly dam them. Instead, beavers would build in the upper reaches of a river system, areas where relatively few fish spawned, he said. Even where headwaters were spawning grounds, it was possible for conservationists to manage dams to allow fish to swim upstream.

Mr Ramsay, president of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, added: “This problem is not insoluble, and there is evidence that dams result in good conditions for young fish.”

A beaver-damaged tree

Paul Ramsay examines the damage to a tree caused by beavers on his estate in Perthshire, Scotland

Fishing interests remain convinced that the evidence damns the beaver. American beavers — slightly smaller than their European cousins — were reintroduced to Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1949, and opponents of that scheme say that the difficulties associated with their inexorable spread will soon be mirrored in Scotland.

According to a report commissioned by the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Canada witnessed a slow decrease in salmon numbers and then, in 2002, a collapse, with the loss or huge decline of the fish in 18 rivers on the island. The report concluded that “beaver blockages appear to be the main reason”, said Paul Knight, executive director of the Salmon and Trout Association. “Six decades on it is clear that their impact on salmon numbers has been catastrophic. Surely this must cause alarm bells to ring within Scottish government.”

His view is opposed by the scientist behind the Scottish Beaver Trial, whose members are from the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Forestry Commission Scotland. They argue that beavers co-existed with salmon in Scotland for millennia before Man wiped them out in the 16th century.

The animals being used in the £750,000 Scottish trial were captured in Telemark, Norway, and have been held in quarantine for six months before their release in Knapdale. Simon Jones, project manager for the five-year trial, said that both the positive and negative effects of the reintroduction were being examined.

“We believe this site is large enough to sustain the natural expansion of the [Atlantic salmon] population over the next five years. There are no plans to reintroduce beavers in other sites across Scotland at present. The future of beavers is a decision that will be made by the Scottish government once the findings of the trial have been evaluated,” he said.

Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish Environment Minister, will release a third family of beavers at a ceremony this morning.

Behind the story

The beavers being released in Scotland are but tiddlers compared with the behemoth that has been on the loose in Devon for the past six months (Simon de Bruxelles writes).

The 40kg (6st) male, which escaped from a farm at the end of last year, has so far evaded all attempts to trap him, ignoring the scent of female pheromones and offerings of food.

From the furore that preceded the release in Scotland, you might be forgiven for fearing imminent environmental catastrophe, comparable to the reintroduction of the woolly mammoth to suburban Surrey or the release of wolves in Hyde Park. But the Devon beaver has shown that the species can turn out model citizens and perform a useful function.

Using his large chisel-like teeth, the beaver has felled a few trees to get at their leafy tops, in the process opening up scrubby woodland alongside the River Tamar on the border with Cornwall. The evidence of his activities is plainly visible in the shape of tree trunks gnawed into perfect pencil points. The benefit is new growth where the light has been allowed to reach the woodland floor, and clearings that are buzzing with new life as insects and amphibians move into a welcoming home.

So far he has conspicuously failed to dam the Tamar, as some feared.

Derek Gow, who imported the European beavers released in Scotland, is the owner of the Devon runaway. His attempts to recapture his prize specimen have so far been unsuccessful.

He said: “Baiting the trap with the scent of a female didn’t work, and there’s so much fresh growth around that there’s no shortage of food.

“We are probably going to have to wait until he establishes some paths so we can place the traps where we know he’s going to be.” Mr Gow is in no rush to recapture the giant rodent, however. Every day that the beaver spends on the river bank failing to live up to the doomsayers’ expectations is one day closer to Mr Gow’s dream of re-establishing beavers in England, as well as in Scotland.