Knapdale Beavers: Nine Years On

This Article is by  Pete Creech and was first published in The Kist – The Magazine of
The Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Mid-Argyll  Issue No. Ninety Six, Autumn 2018

Introduction by Bernie Bell

 Mike and I are ‘Friends of’ Kilmartin Museum  so, we receive a publication called ‘The Kist’. In the most recent edition, there is an article about the successful re-introduction of beavers to Knapdale in Argyll.  I thought it might be a good idea for this article to get a wider readership, as the question of whether or not beavers should be re-introduced, can be a thorny one. I asked Roddy Regan, the Editor of ‘The Kist’ if it would be OK to publish this in ‘The Orkney News’, and he was agreeable, as long as I reference the author, and….’The Kist’,  which I have done…….so…… it is………………

Knapdale Beavers: Nine years on

by Pete Creech

Following a torturous licensing process beavers were introduced into Knapdale in 2009. I was privileged to be involved in the first guided walks, initiated by the Dalriada Project, at the Trial’s inception. Initially a purely scientific trial, I think those involved were a little taken aback by the level of public interest displayed towards this busy rodent, the first mammal to be legally reintroduced to Scotland and the UK. Under the EU’s Habitats Directive, the Scottish Government was obligated to consider reintroductions of extinct native species, quite apart from any moral responsibility to reinstate an animal we’d caused to become extinct.

That level of interest has never diminished, as beavers have refused to be dropped from the headlines ever since they arrived. Hailed as both devil and angel, their fortunes have afforded a fascinating insight into the processes and trials of reintroduction programmes and the wider implications and opportunities of ‘rewilding’ our native ecosystems. Their march seems inexorable, there have been over 157 reintroductions into 25 European countries, with trials now also up and running in three English locations and one planned for Wales.

Extinction was a real possibility for the Eurasian Beaver (Castor fiber as distinct from Castor canadensis, the other, North American beaver species). Hunted for its meat, fur and castoreum there were as few as 1,200 individuals in 8 relict populations throughout Europe by 1900. The fur, as well as being made into coats, was the prime constituent of a superior form of felt used for hat making. A move to silk in hat production helped stem the loss but in Canada over 100,000 animals per year are still trapped for their fur.  The castoreum, used by beavers to scent mark their territory is employed as a tincture in perfume production, and in the USA, as a food flavouring additive in products such as ice cream!

France was the first European country to protect its beavers. At the  beginning of the 20th century the country’s last population, a few dozen, was protected in Bouches du Rhône, la Gard and le Vaucluse in 1909. Since then, with further assistance they have spread throughout the country and recently reached the Belgian border.

Why are beavers deemed to be so important that huge amounts of time and effort have been dedicated to ensure their survival and repopulation of their former range?

beavers 1 Pete Creech Often referred to as ecosystem engineers or a ‘keystone species’, they have hugely significant impacts on woodland and riparian habitats. Their activities; digging canal systems, damming water courses, and coppicing tree and shrub species create diverse wetlands. In turn these wetlands can bring enormous benefits to other species, such as otters, water voles, birds, amphibians, invertebrates (especially dragonflies) and breeding fish. The ‘beaver pond’ at the Dubh Loch is an excellent example. Flooded when the beavers dammed the outflow into Loch Coille Bharr, the first casualty was the trail around the loch (and those who enjoyed this exceptionally pretty walk).

However, there have been manifest benefits since. The trail was reinstated and enhanced with a viewing platform across the extended loch and a pontoon that took walkers below the dam. Many of the flooded tree species subsequently died resulting in a large area of dead standing timber, a resource that has often been in short supply in our tidy world.

Lichens, fungi, bryophytes and a vast array of different kinds of invertebrates, hole nesting birds and mammals all depend on deadwood. The view to be enjoyed from the viewing platform is one that has not been seen in this country for over 400 years. The water level is now dropping, as the beavers moved on over four years ago. We will now be treated to the subsequent process of succession through wet meadow to riparian woodland.

Beaver benefits tend to depend on the type of water system they inhabit. On river systems their dams help ameliorate downstream flooding and reduce siltation (two of the trials taking place in England are assessing their flood prevention abilities). In arable areas the still water produced behind a dam has the effect of dropping out chemical runoff, particularly in regard to nitrates and phosphates.

So what have beavers done for us in Mid Argyll?

Well, the flooding and devastation predicted by the doomsayers never happened. At the consultations held at the end of the Trial the polar opposites remained, whilst for the majority of those interviewed beavers had dropped out of their mind-set. It’s difficult to remain opposed to something that simply hasn’t occurred. The beavers have created dams elsewhere in Knapdale and I believe a small one at Loch Barnluasgan has been removed to protect this very popular trail (although it has subsequently reappeared).

Barnluasgan is, in our opinion, a fine example of how a reintroduced species can get along with a diverse range of human interests. Walkers, dog-owners, runners, cyclists, naturalists, anglers and wild swimmers all use and enjoy this beautiful loch, as do the beavers, who now provide another fascinating point of interest in this diverse temperate woodland.

Was the Trial a success?

beavers 2 Pete CreechAt the end of 2014 there were a similar number of beavers in Knapdale as to the number released in 2009. They had settled, bred and raised young; some adults and young had died but they had proved they could live and breed here.

Accordingly, in 2016 all beavers in Scotland were afforded by the Scottish Government the status of a native species (beavers are devolved!). Hopefully this year the species will receive the legal protection promised in line with the European Habitats Directive. Not before time, as the Tayside population continues to be persecuted. Here they have been criticised for flooding farmland, eating crops and felling woodland.

Our farming techniques have certainly changed over the last 400 years, particularly in regard to riparian areas. Where once there would have been flood meadows and summer pasture we now find crops that need protecting from floodwater. The raised banks are an attraction to beavers looking to create a lodge who burrow into the banks.

However, these issues come at a time when we are questioning the wisdom of our current hydrological management. Dredging, straightening and canalising our rivers has been instrumental in causing devastating floods over the past few years. The value of meandering rivers, natural obstructions, flood meadows and riparian woodland in slowing and absorbing water is once again coming to the fore.

It’s also a little ironic that an animal that encourages vigorous regrowth through its coppicing activities is being blamed for a lack of trees when the UK has far less forest cover than other European countries where beavers have always been present.

beavers 3 Pete CreechMeanwhile in Knapdale a further release began last autumn. Somewhere in the region of 20 plus animals will be released over the next three years. The purpose is to bolster the gene pool (the original animals are Norwegian, the newcomers will be mainly of German origin) and to give any kits dispersing a chance of meeting a mate and establishing a territory.

Beavers have only one litter per year (between 1- 3 kits in Knapdale) and the youngsters will stay with their parents for up to three years. Beavers are very territorial and young animals will strike out on their own to find an unoccupied territory. The four families that constituted the original trial animals would be unlikely to ever establish a sustainable and genetically viable population.  They are however doing their best! The redoubtable pairing of Bjorna and Millie are currently raising three kits at Loch Barnluasgan.

Nine years on, a new economic study of the tourism benefits brought by beavers would be a good subject for graduate research. Of the 4,000 or so people that have visited the Heart of Argyll Wildlife Centre over the past two seasons, beavers have been of primary interest for at least 75% of the folk who step through the door. One of our recent Facebook posts, featuring a video of one of the Knapdale beavers, has just been viewed by over 5,000 people.

Our last three beaver walks, held over the past two weeks, attracted a total of 66 paying participants. I’ve lost count of the number of walks over the past nine years, but the thrill of spotting a beaver and the excitement of those taking part in the walk has yet to

beavers 4 Pete Creech20% of Argyll’s economy relies upon tourism and wildlife tourism in Mid Argyll is underdeveloped. Beavers provide another reason to visit this area and to stay here for longer. Small scale tourism businesses, accommodation providers, attractions, pubs, shops, restaurants, garages, wildlife tours etc. form part of our local economy. A greater proportion of the money spent with these businesses tends to remain within that local economy, thus further enhancing its impact.

Since the beavers’ arrival the media has beat a steady and sustained path to Knapdale to follow their story and as a consequence showcase this wonderfully biodiverse area, so often overshadowed by  other areas of Scotland. If this interest can be managed sensitively the environmental and ecological benefits can produce economic ones as well.

Beavers undoubtedly have a part to play in shaping Scotland’s ecological future. Loch Barnluasgan is accessible, popular and a positive example of beavers and humans sharing the same space. However, a visit to one of the more remote hill lochs can be a magical experience. A landscape that is engineered to the beavers’ requirements without compromise to human needs is very special. Here the animals are far warier. The first you might know of their presence is likely to be the startlingly loud sound of a tail slap; they’ve detected you before you’ve seen them! A beautifully constructed lodge, a dam retaining a vast quantity of water, trees felled, brashed, processed and stored or destined for construction. A small oasis of wildness, a step back in time.

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