Bringing back the beaver

Four hundred years ago, the last of our native beavers died out. Now conservationists, politicians and wealthy landowners are locked in a battle to bring the animals back to the west of Scotland. Peter Marren reports
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It was to be an ecologist's dream. In a remote corner of Scotland the first colony of wild European beavers since the Middle Ages would soon be building their new home. Like the first European settlers in the New World they would beaver away, felling trees to create clearings in the forest, constructing wooden lodges, storing food and generally creating a more comfortable home environment. That is what wild beavers do. To an extent perhaps matched only by human beings and wood ants, they modify their surroundings to suit themselves.

It is this instinct to, in effect, farm the environment that makes the beaver such an ecological asset. It is a prime example of what has become known as a "keystone species". The animal's constant nibbling keeps the water open and unblocked by weeds. It maintains low bushy woodland similar to coppice as well as creating new ponds and piles of insect-rich woody debris. Reintroducing the beaver, argue many conservationists, would be species protection and habitat protection rolled into one. Reintroducing an animal wiped out by man may be an act of ecological reparation. But in this case the animal pays its way.

In 1995, ecologists stopped dreaming and started planning. The European beaver has been successfully re-established in many European countries, most recently just across the sea in Brittany and in Holland. The European Habitats Directive of 1992 gives broad encouragement to projects of this kind providing that a suitable habitat is still present. And the re-establishment in the 1980s of another long-lost Scottish species, the sea eagle, followed by that of the red kite in England and Scotland, has been an outstanding public-relations success. The sea eagle has become a kind of masthead for the species-conservationship. Could bringing back the beaver do for furry mammals what the eagle has done for birds?

As the official wildlife body in Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) was certainly willing to give it a try. A trial site was found in Knapdale, Argyll, owned by Forest Enterprise and the Scottish Wildlife Trust and managed jointly as a nature reserve. Described as "a fantastic mix of different woodlands, freshwater lochs and streams" the place resembles natural beaver habitat in Scandinavia. Moreover it is surrounded by low hills and conifer plantations which are said to be as good as a high fence in ensuring that the beavers do not wander outside the trial area. A source of surplus wild beavers for export was found in Norway. All that was needed was the go-ahead from the Scottish Executive.

Of course, releasing a beast like the beaver was never going to be easy. We are not used to large wild animals in Britain, apart from those that bring in a useful income, such as red deer. The plan was to form a breeding family at Knapdale from 16 to 20 introduced beavers. The project would be closely monitored for seven years and any further action would depend on the success of the project.

Farmers were understandably worried by the prospect of free-roaming beavers damaging crops and water courses. Fishermen were concerned that they might erode river banks and cause flooding as well as spoiling salmon spawning grounds. There was a suggestion that beavers could spread fish parasites. There was even a complaint from entomologists that beavers would eat too many aspen trees resulting in starvation for certain endangered flies and beetles.

The considerable experience of beaver reintroductions in Europe suggests that such fears are unfounded. Nevertheless, SNH undertook perhaps the most thorough public consultation of any reintroduction project to date. With its co-sponsors, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Mammal Trust UK, SNH held meetings not only with those directly affected by the project but with representatives of landowners, farmers, crofters and fisheries as well as tourism and conservation bodies. Public opinion in Scotland was broadly supportive, even enthusiastic. Some landowners, however, were not convinced.

In 2002 SNH formally applied for permission to proceed and for a licence to release the beavers. The Scottish Executive took nearly a year to reply and when it did it was only to request more information, particularly on beaver releases in Europe. This took SNH a long time. The coincident move of its headquarters from Edinburgh to distant Inverness had to take priority over beavers and it was not until February 2005 that it got around to sending the Executive the information it had asked for.

Six months later, SNH at last got its reply. The answer was no. There was to be no trial release in Knapdale or anywhere else. Scotland did not want any beavers. The Highlands would remain beaver free. Ten years of hard and patient work down the drain. The reasons, stated by deputy minister Rhona Brankin on 1 September, were twofold. First, the release might have "a possible negative effect" on the natural woodland of Knapdale, a designated European Special Area of Conservation. Second, if any beavers did escape and became a nuisance, the project's last-ditch strategy of shooting the animal would, she argued, be illegal since the European beaver is a protected species.

Brankin explained that she was not against reintroducing species in principle. But "I have to be able to ensure that any reintroduction of a species is not going to cause damage to other parts of the Scottish biodiversity. That is the dilemma." She called on SNH to produce a "species framework" to "prioritise future conservation action". Due weight, she ruled, must go to "distinctively Scottish species". That, apparently, did not include the beaver.

SNH officially expressed itself as "disappointed". Its co-sponsor, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, able as an independent charity to speak more freely, was both "disappointed and angry". The reasons given by Brankin f were "spurious" and "deeply flawed", claimed SWT's chief executive, Simon Milne. They "disregard 10 years of scientific research and significant investment by the Scottish Government's own statutory advisors". The politicians had preferred "to doubt the sagacious recommendation made by SNH as well as the evidence from numerous successful reintroductions achieved by other European countries".

If the Executive's lawyers were right, European legislation intended to encourage the reintroduction of extinct animals had managed to undermine its own objective. Some idea of the substance behind the excuses came in a debate on the beaver reintroduction in the Scottish Parliament on 19 May 2005. The motion came not from the minister but from a Liberal Democrat, Nora Radcliffe, who keenly supported the project. Several members voiced opposition to the project on the grounds that, despite SNH's best efforts, it still posed an unacceptable risk. It seemed impossible to persuade them that beavers were not likely to charge around the countryside devouring trees, driving out salmon and disrupting water supplies.

One view that the minister would have taken seriously was that of the National Farmers' Union Scotland. Although it had dropped some of its original objections to the project, the Union remained implacably opposed to it, repeating its often-stated mantra that "wild roaming animals would be impossible to constrain". Donald Linton, chairman of the Argyll Crofting Association was even blunter: "Beavers cause damage. They eat trees ... They never looked into what would happen if the beavers got into the water supply of rural houses. They could have got away and built a dam or lodge in somebody's water supply. There were never any beavers in Argyll anyway, so they shouldn't have been thinking of putting them here."

Such objections seem directed against a general release of beavers into the open rather than a small, uninhabited plot in secluded Knapdale. The beavers would have worn radio-tags and been closely monitored. Indeed they would have been like the contestants of Big Brother, watched within an inch of their lives. And if a beaver did decide to ignore its own biology and wander off, they are easy animals to trap. Fatally easy. That is the main reason why our native beavers have disappeared.

Given the claims made by the minister and NFU Scotland, it is worth looking at what actually happens when beavers are released. There is in fact a place, at the opposite end of the country, where beavers have been living quietly in the wild for several years. This is an enclosure at Ham Fen, a 50-hectare nature reserve owned by the Kent Wildlife Trust and a neighbouring farmer. Here five Norwegian beavers were introduced in April 2003.

The Trust's John McAllister sees their ecological influence as entirely benign. "They use the water courses and rarely venture more than 30 yards away from water," he says. And as far as management goes, the beavers now do it all for free. "We no longer need to do any coppicing. They prefer small trees, especially aspen and willow. They never touch conifers." The Kent Trust has lost no important trees. The beaver's winter diet is based on a sustainable harvest of young shoots that true to form has created an open bushy kind of woodland that is particularly rich in wildlife.

In terms of management, then, the experiment has been a success. Where there were problems is not in the behaviour of the beavers but in their health. Perhaps through stress caused by lengthy quarantine, the beavers failed to form a breeding colony. Of the original five, only two are left - and they are both females. Moreover, being mainly nocturnal, they are quite hard to observe. You have only about one chance in ten of spotting a beaver at Ham Fen, says McAllister, and for the time being visitors are not encouraged.

As for prophecies of agricultural damage, a useful example lies across the North Sea in the Netherlands where, as in Britain, the beaver died out some 400 years ago. About 100 beavers were introduced into two localities in the 1980s and 1990s. As in Scotland, the project's promoters held a high-profile public consultation exercise and contacted everyone living near the proposed release areas. There were initial objections from farming interests which were allayed by guarantees of full compensation for any damage caused. There are now some 170 wild beavers in the Netherlands. And the promises for compensation have been honoured. By 2003, the total economic damage caused by the beavers was assessed at precisely €250 - about £1 per beaver. The Dutch farmers seem happy to live with this.

Given such evidence, the refusal of the Scottish Executive to grant a licence seems, to say the least, over-cautious. Clara Govier, a spokesperson for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, believes that those living or working close to the trial area either supported it or had been won round to a position of neutrality. Even NFU Scotland, she said, had seemed "not so vehemently anti".

The long delays and legal obfuscation from the Scottish Executive suggest internal resistance. It is said that a senior official in the Executive was concerned about "negative publicity" and warned that "beavers could become another mink". Hence, it is said, the Executive lent a friendly ear to objections from landowners while placing an impossible burden of proof on its scientific advisors.

Yet the beaver has been reintroduced to many European countries with conspicuous success and with the blessing of their governments. As a result the once-endangered beaver is f officially "Out of Danger". Why then has Scotland bucked the trend and been the only European country that said no to beavers?

One reason may be that we are not used to living with big beasts. Along with the wolf, lynx, and the wild boar, the beaver died out long ago. And we have had a sad experience of introduced non-native animals such as grey squirrel, muntjac and mink. It generates fears that may not be justified in the case of the beaver but are real for all that.

Perhaps, as the Scottish environmentalist Ron Greer wrote in The Herald, rural Scotland is still dominated behind the scenes by conservative landowning interests. As he points out, Scotland has acquired its first two National Parks only in the past five years. Most European countries have state-owned national parks into which animals like the beaver can be reintroduced without upsetting anybody. Britain has none.

Finally there is a perhaps widespread view that the beaver should not be a Scottish problem. "The fundamental problem remains that we haven't had beavers in Scotland for 400 years and that they are not part of our ecology," says NFU Scotland's spokesman, James Withers. Although, contrary to statements made in some Scottish newspapers, the beaver was undoubtedly once a native wild animal north of the Border, there remains a conviction in some quarters that the proper place for a trial reintroduction is not in Argyll but in Norfolk or Somerset.

Where does all this leave the British beaver? As far as SNH is concerned, the project is dead. However Simon Milne of the Scottish Wildlife Trust sees it more as a temporary set-back. "I remain confident that in my lifetime the European beaver will once again reside in Scotland," he says. "Although I fear we will be the last country in Europe to reap the well-documented benefits of a reintroduction."

Eager beavers will now be looking for some way of bringing back the beast without going through another 10 years of official hoops and hurdles ending in dashed hopes. Simon Milne warns that "frustration with a system that seemingly prevents positive conservation enhancement could result in an independent introduction that ignores legal safeguards".

The beaver story is indeed far from over. In a new and unexpected twist, six European beavers were released recently into a 15-hectare enclosure at Lower Mill Estate in the Cotswold Water Park in Gloucestershire, owned by the property developer Jeremy Paxton (as reported by this newspaper on 27 October). After some reported grumbling, Defra appeared to accept that beavers could be released into a controlled environment without a licence. "We now just need to leave them alone and let them get on with a bit of breeding," says Paxton.

Perhaps this is the way forward for British beavers: if we can't bring the beaver to the wild then we can bring the wild to the beaver. Paxton's beaver pen may be a forerunner of a series of ambitious wilderness parks populated by lost big beasts: beavers, elk, reindeer, wild cattle and horses, even wolves and bears. The beaver may have gone to ground in Scotland. But in England he is sitting up and sniffing the air.