Britain's beaver reintroduction stirs controversy

Beaver in water (c) De Meester/ ARCO / Nature pl Habitat manager or wildlife menace?

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The fashion for looking, and smelling, like a beaver killed off their entire population in the UK. But now beavers are back, and not everybody is happy to have them.

Thick brown waterproof fur coupled with a medicinal musk made beaver-chic serious business in Britain until they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century.

In recent years, conservationists, perhaps remorseful for their ancestors' actions, have been determined to bring the toothy mammals back from the dead. Or at least reintroduce their closest relatives from Norway.

Between May 2009 and September 2010, the Scottish Beaver Trial released four family groups and one pair of beavers into Knapdale Forest, Argyll in the country's first major mammal reintroduction scheme.

Not everyone, however, has welcomed the species back with open arms and controversy continues to surround the animals with a reputation for radically changing their environment.

Ecosystem engineers

The beavers' considerable construction skills are exactly what made them a favourite for reintroduction with conservationists.

BEAVER DIET

Beaver with food (c) Gareth Fuller / PA wire
  • Beavers are herbivorous and eat aquatic plants and shrubs in summer
  • In winter they eat woody plants, including tree bark
  • The Knapdale beavers mostly fell willow and birch trees over 6.5cm in diameter

According to an independent study, six months into the Scottish trial the beavers have felled 13% of the trees in 18 areas alongside lochs in the trial area.

As well as eating wood for nourishment, the beavers used some branches to build a dam at Dubh Loch, inundating the surrounding area with water.

Rather than being a destructive force, beaver fans herald these changes as the pinnacle in natural habitat management.

Best known for their dams which create localised flooding, beavers stabilise wetlands during dry months and create still water pools where invertebrates such as dragonflies can thrive.

On dry land, beavers' natural behaviour of coppicing broadleaf trees is said to promote vigorous tree regrowth.

These regular clear-outs improve biodiversity; single tree species do not have a chance to dominate and spaces are opened up for flowering plants and visiting insects to flourish.

Independent organisations are currently performing research at Knapdale to assess exactly how the beavers affect biodiversity at the site.

Start Quote

The trial area is designed to be big and, as far as possible, to encourage natural behaviour which is movement”

End Quote Simon Jones Project Manager, Scottish Beaver Trial

Although conclusive results will not be available until the end of the trial in 2014 the beavers themselves appear to be going from strength to strength.

Last spring saw the birth of two kits, the first UK beavers to be born in the wild in 400 years.

But the programme has not gone entirely to plan and Project Manager Simon Jones admits "the trial has had its twists and turns."

Beavers on parole

Although a total of 15 beavers have been released into the trial, a recent report only recorded nine of the original animals remaining in the area.

Two deaths were recorded in the wild and a third beaver died in captivity following its removal from the trial due to ill health.

In a dramatic twist, three females were described as "missing" last summer amid concern over unauthorised gunshots heard in the area.

Researchers have found no evidence of wrongdoing, but there is no trace of the animals or their identifying ear tags and microchips.

To track their locations when first released, the beavers are equipped with radio tags.

BEAVER FACTS

Beaver at Cotswold Water Park (c) Gareth Fuller / PA
  • European beavers are bigger and have lighter fur than their American cousins
  • Beavers are well adapted for the water with webbed feet and strong muscular tails for propulsion
  • They have special skin folds in their mouth to allow them to gnaw branches under water without drowning

However, the radio signals can be lost in the thick woods and steep ridges. Tags also fall off after two to three months through natural wear.

Monitoring is then left to keen-eyed staff. But with a trial area of 45 square kilometres, it is impossible to keep an eye on the beavers all the time.

"It's obviously disappointing when animals are lost completely from the trial area but to be honest it's to be expected in a trial of wild animals," says Mr Jones.

"The trial area is designed to be big and, as far as possible, to encourage natural behaviour which is movement."

But when beavers move outside of the trial area, they can meet with considerable opposition.

Because beavers alter riverbanks, remove trees and flood areas, local landowners and residents have expressed concerns that the reintroduced animals could place homes and businesses at risk.

Farmers are anxious that wild beavers could damage crops and spread diseases to livestock and many in the local angling industry are uneasy about the beavers' impact on fish stocks.

Conservation costs
Beaver and kit (c) Steve Gardner / Scottish Wildlife Trust A Knapdale beaver and kit

Simon Jones tells the BBC that so far there has only been one minor conflict of interests on land outside of the trial area.

"In one site a beaver had felled a few side branches and a few stems from some willows growing along the riverside. Basically as soon as we were aware of this we went to talk to the landowner and we planted a whole load of new trees, ten times the amount that had been taken by the beavers," he explains.

"There were a couple of areas where they burrowed into the banks as well and what we did is we drove some wooden stakes into the banks to protect the bank from any erosion."

Managing the beaver trial is intensive, costing approximately £2 million over seven years, and some question whether this cost is too high.

The National Farmers Union have branded the scheme a "costly luxury" and said that the money could be better spent "halting the decline in existing resident wildlife".

Those opposed to the reintroduction also argue that without natural predators, beaver populations can rapidly expand.

Scottish Natural Heritage recently took decisive action on escaped beavers from private collections living on the River Tay and its tributaries in Perthshire and Angus.

The government-funded body organised a trapping trial in Tayside after reports that there could be as many as 20 rogue beavers in the area.

Only one was caught and it subsequently died in captivity at Edinburgh Zoo from an infection caught in the wild.

Start Quote

[The trial at] Knapdale will give the Scottish Government the information it needs to decide if beavers should be brought back to Scotland”

End Quote Nick Halfhide Head of Operations, Scottish Natural Heritage

The decision to capture these beavers raises the question of whether the species can only exist in the UK within enclosures or carefully monitored trials.

Nick Halfhide, Scottish Natural Heritage's head of operations, suggests that truly wild integration could still be some way off.

"We feel that an official, scientifically monitored trial, such as the one in Knapdale, is the most effective and fair way to measure and evaluate the effect of beavers in Scotland on existing habitats and species, as well as to explore the concerns of landowners, farmers and fishery managers," said Mr Halfhide.

"[The trial at] Knapdale will give the Scottish Government the information it needs to decide if beavers should be brought back to Scotland."

In England, beavers are limited to private collections and enclosed conservation projects run by groups including Devon Wildlife Trust, Cotswold Water Park and the WWT Martin Mere reserve.

Wales is also now set to host beavers after an absence of 900 years in an ambitious project that aims to restore the wild indigenous woodland of the past.

Following a lottery grant, conservation group Wild Wales Land Foundation are relocating a male and female from private collections in Devon and Gloucestershire.

The pair will be introduced to an enclosed habitat in Artist's Valley, near Machynlleth but farmers' union NFU Cymru has already expressed concerns about the beavers' impact on the local area.

Project Manager Sharon Girardi tells the BBC that the Blaeneinion project is still in the early stages as the team focus on making the site secure.

After hundreds of years without them, it seems more time is needed to establish whether we can once again live harmoniously with wild beavers in the UK.

The Knapdale beavers feature in Springwatch this week from 2000 BST on BBC Two.

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