50 for the Future – Bring back beavers

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Roisin Campbell-Palmer, Field Operations Manager at the Scottish Beaver Trial explains why beaver reintroduction is needed. 

 

Number 11: Bring back beavers for good and allow their natural colonisation across Scotland

 

It’s hard to explain the feeling of watching an animal explore its new territory for the very first time. Excitement is, of course, a given mixed with trepidation about its survival, conviction that this is resetting a balance and an overwhelming sense of pride that this feels like the beginning of something very special. 

The Scottish Beaver Trial brought this keystone species back to Scotland for the first time in 400 years

The end of May 2009 saw the culmination of many years of work by numerous organisations and individuals, as three families of beavers were released as part a partnership project between the Scottish Wildlife Trust and RZSS – the Scottish Beaver Trial. In reality, this was just the beginning of five years of scientific monitoring, public engagement and education, and a lot of fieldwork regularly beset by rain and midge infestations. Regardless, the joy of quietly watching a beaver go about its business – especially in the early morning before others start their day – is incredibly inspiring. It also highlights just how well these animals slot back into Scottish landscapes.  

The Eurasian beaver – not to be confused with the North American or Canadian beaver – was once a common wetland species in our landscape, but was hunted to extinction by our ancestors, adding to the dwindling list of species that now constitute our native fauna. But who can blame them? Beavers were useful things: a good source of meat (and being classed as a fish in times when the church dictated people’s eating habits, a bonus source of protein on holy days); castoreum – a unique-smelling secretion with medicinal powers; and of course its pelt (which has historically supported huge fur industries in Europe and North America). The last remaining beavers were thought to have been removed from our shores around 400 years ago, after an evolutionary history of nearly two million years. 

Radio tags were fitted to the beavers in order to track their movements

Bringing beavers back is not simply about replacing a charismatic mammal for the sake of it; the pivotal role that this species plays in wetland ecology is widely recognised. Let’s face it, our wetlands are in trouble. Centuries of draining, canalisation of our waterways and replacement of riparian vegetation with mono-crops have led to mass losses in biodiversity, flooding and soil erosion. We need to do something different… We need an ecosystem engineer. And that’s where the beaver comes in. 

Scotland is by no means the first to recognise this. The Eurasian beaver, hunted to near extinction across the whole of its range by the late 19th Century, has now been reintroduced (in both official and unofficial capacity) in over 25 European countries. Whilst some of the earliest releases were largely to support the fur trade, the majority have been undertaken due to the demonstrable benefits this keystone animal has to species biodiversity, habitat creation and maintenance, and the ecosystem services they can provide (such as water management and sediment retention). 

31,100 people have been engaged in Scottish Beaver Trial walks, talks, events and education sessions 

But beavers aren’t going to get here on their own. As an island, we have the ability to be much more selective about which species we bring back and naturally this leads to much more debate. The restoration of beavers to Scotland, for example, has been a subject that has received much attention and academic debate and has become something of a political hot potato. Reintroductions, especially of mammals, capture people’s imagination. Although beaver restoration in Britain has been a long, haphazard affair, and the productiveness of animal ‘appearing’ in certain parts of the country has been fiercely debated. 

Obviously there will be concerns and nervousness about bringing back a sizeable mammal that can significantly modify its surroundings and which we have no living memory of living alongside. Whilst there is no doubt that some beaver activity causes real challenges for land and wildlife managers, the bottom line is that if we want to realise the true benefits beavers can bring we are going to have to let them get on with what they do best: modifying the environments around them.  

The Scottish Beaver Trial allowed for researchers to learn more about beaver ecology

When beaver populations initially re-establish, the physical impact of their activities is often confined to a small group of land users such as farmers, foresters or water authorities; their presence is viewed as a novel phenomenon often generally supported by most people. As numbers increase, however, the novelty of their presence can be replaced by hostility from wider elements of society, when more visible impacts occur such as the felling of specimen trees in public parks, orchards or gardens. It is inevitable that a process whereby people ‘rediscover’ what it means to live with beavers will become a critical component of coexistence. We will need to be understanding and tolerant, but we will also need to manage undesirable aspects of beaver activity competently as time progresses.

To live with this species again we need to understand what it is and isn’t capable of, and we need to put appropriate management systems in place. Second only to humans, beavers have outstanding capabilities of modifying wetland environments to suit their needs. In degenerated habitats, this can have vastly positive effects, but there is no doubt beaver activities can’t and won’t be acceptable everywhere, so we need to be pragmatic. Understanding, support and mitigation are vital if we are to see the wider benefits of beavers in our landscape.

Tree felling by beavers in Knapdale has allowed for woodland regeneration

The Scottish Beaver Trial was a potential model for how Scotland can examine the feasibility of future releases, involving a multidisciplinary approach, robust scientific monitoring, community support and engagement, pragmatic animal management and collaboration between a diverse range of organisations. The restoration of beavers means we are thinking about landscape ecology, habitat recovery and loss of biodiversity.

However, if we wish to see the real benefits of beavers, we must tolerate their activities and allow them to modify environments where practical. At the same time, we should be working with those who are most likely to experience negative impacts and be realistic that in time this is a species whose management is likely to include some degree of lethal control. 

The Scottish Beaver Trial – alongside new initiatives such as the National Species Reintroduction Forum and the launch of the Scottish Translocation Code by Scottish Natural Heritage – represents a significant step forward in British conservation, demonstrating how a collaborative approach can help Scotland safeguard its native biodiversity both now and in the future. 

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Roisin Campbell-Palmer is Conservation Projects Manager at RZSS and Field Operations Manager at the Scottish Beaver Trial

Preface

In this week's 50 for the Future article, Field Operations Manager for the Scottish Beaver Trial, Roisin Campbell-Palmer, discusses why we must bring beavers back to Scotland for good. 

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