There have been many wildlife successes during the last half century, but the official return of the beaver to Scotland, announced today by the Scottish Government following a successful trial reintroduction led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, is perhaps the biggest to date. It’s also a major success for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, whose pioneering leadership was instrumental in bringing the beaver back – for good.
Over the five year monitoring phase of the Scottish Beaver Trial at Knapdale, literally hundreds of people were involved in delivering a whole host of activities. A total of 11,817 hours of fieldwork were undertaken by 13 independent monitoring partners and more than 60 volunteers.
The team led 720 guided walks, conducted 1,717 day and 3,016 night tracking sessions, collected more than a thousand water samples, and captured and analysed hundreds of hours of video footage from the site. Meetings, campaigns, fundraising, site visits, photo opportunities, monitoring activities, boat trips, school activities, work with local B&B owners, community consultation… the list goes on.
Even these examples only begin to hint at the huge amount of effort and dedication that has gone into making this project a success.
So why is this such an important milestone for nature in Scotland?
Here’s three reasons for a start.
First, the beaver is a genuine, bona fide, no nonsense ‘keystone species’. A keystone species is one that plays a unique and crucial role in its natural environment. Beavers don’t just engineer dams and lodges, they engineer habitats and in doing so create opportunities for a whole host of other plants and animals – dragonflies, fish, water birds, amphibians and other wildlife – to thrive.
This is important because Scotland is desperately short on keystone animal species since we hunted the brown bear, lynx, wolf – and, 400 years ago, the beaver – to extinction. Beavers in the coming decades will do the work of tens of thousands of conservation volunteers and our landscapes will be richer in wildlife as a result.
Second, we have to remember that the beaver is the very first formerly extinct mammal to be officially re-established in Scotland, or indeed the UK. The moral importance of this decision is profound. Society has taken a stand. People across Scotland have said that these animals, which we drove to extinction, should now be welcomed back. We have reversed an injustice.
Third, the beaver is a symbol of change – positive change. Land use in Scotland has traditionally been driven by short-term financial profit where the production of food and fuel is paramount, often to the exclusion of other values, including wildlife. The beaver is emblematic of a growing realisation that land could actually be used in a more balanced way. Such a ‘land stewardship’ approach could mean we get more, not less, value through a wider range of benefits including carbon storage, clean water, quality food, flood protection and nature-rich landscapes that attract visitors to rural Scotland. This value may not be easy to monetise in the way a kilo of lamb or barley is, but it is real value nevertheless.
So how do beavers fit in to this new ‘land stewardship’ model? Beavers are the change-makers. They will help restore Scotland’s degraded ecosystems back to health and in doing so provide benefits to us all. We need beavers to help make our river systems more resilient to the effects of climate change. We need them to create new habitats for wildlife. We need them to help cleanse our burns and rivers. We need them to help promote Scotland as a great nature-tourism destination. We need them more than they need us. Welcome home!
Jonny Hughes is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust