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Beaver to return after 400 years

BEAVERS ARE to be re- introduced into the rivers of Scotland - 400 years after the hefty, amphibious rodents were hunted to extinction.

But do not rush down to the river bank expecting to see them. Conscious of anglers' fears that the beavers' return could disrupt breeding patterns of fish, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is recommending a carefully controlled programme. It will be like a Truman Show for beavers. The animals will think they are at liberty but they will be under close observation. If there are problems, the whole colony could be scooped up and Scotland left beaver-free.

SNH believes that Scotland could ultimately support about 1,000 beavers, but none is likely to be released before 2002. Which river systems they are to be released into has not been decided.

Under a European Commission directive, the Government is required to consider the feasibility of restoring species threatened in Europe and extinct in Britain. Bringing back the wolf would be vehemently opposed by sheep farmers, even if it was thought feasible. The beaver, however, is a gentle vegetarian.

Even so, SNH, the Government's nature adviser north of the border, has moved cautiously, undertaking a thorough consultation exercise. Overall, 86 per cent of the nearly 2,000 respondents surveyed supported reintroduction of the beaver to the wild in Scotland, with 14 per cent against. Academics and conservationists were extremely keen, foresters and land managers lukewarm, and anglers and fish farmers mainly opposed.

Sandy Forgan, the president of the Scottish Anglers' National Federation, said that while anglers were "caring environmentalists" they had fears about the impact of beavers on migratory fish, notably sea trout and salmon.

Though the European beav- er is not an aggressive dam builder like its American cousin, it does build modest barriers if needed to keep the water level above the entrance to its lodge home. Anglers are concerned dams could impede the passage of fish upstream to their spawning grounds.

A spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund in Scotland said anglers' fears were "unfounded". The European beaver built only small dams and these could create pools of benefit to fish. "The salmon and beaver lived side-by-side for centuries and we don't see why the salmon should have any difficulty with being reunited with its old river neighbour."