A wet rodent in wolf's clothing

Plans are afoot to reintroduce the beaver in Scotland. Innocuous enough. But what else will follow?

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An innocuous two-line entry inthe current Scottish Natural Heritage journal could prove the harbinger of a radical shift in conservation thinking. It appears on a page headed "Species Action" and says simply: "Assess the feasibility of restoring beavers to Scotland."

SNH language on the subject is characteristically considered, mild even, but there are those on the fringes of Scottish conservation who have greeted the announcement with a carnivorous smack of the lips. Not that the beaver is much of a carnivore, but it is a big mammal and, in the eye of the lip-smackers, the softest option in a list of target reintroductions which includes wild boar, lynx, brown bears and - as its apotheosis - the wolf.

Officially, the SNH countenances no such thing, of course. We are talking beavers, full stop, and from their spokesman, Sandy Kerr, there is a heartfelt defence of the case for a slow, considered approach. If they get beavers wrong, the cause of mammal reintroductions could become extinct.

Phase one of the beaver project is more or less complete: three bits of research for internal consumption among the scientific community,addressing, for example: why did the beaver become extinct? The weight of evidence points to extinction by hunting for its pelt, and, occasionally, for its flesh. A 1,000-year-old Welsh record prices beaver-skin at 120 pence compared to 24 pence for "marten" and wolf, and a niggardly eightpence for otter. Beaver was the garment of kings for as long as there were beavers and kings, and wherever they coexisted.

Phase two of the project concerns itself with the cautious words "feasibility" and "desirability". We no longer hunt things to extinction. So (saboteurs apart - there are beaver-haters in Canada who dynamite their lodges) beavers should be able to reclaim their old niche, which dwindled away down the 16th and early 17th centuries. There is habitat aplenty and no lack of offers of breeding sites from conservation organisations and individual landowners. So much for "feasibility".

"Desirability", on the other hand, is as subjective as conservation gets. The Earth Summit's Habitat and Species directive of 1992, the most recent catalyst, committed its signatories to landscape conservation, and reintroductions of rare and extinct species. But Sandy Kerr has already had his ear bent by the concerns of the forestry and fishing lobbies, a powerful alliance of resistance if they became sufficiently worried to act in concert, with friends in high Tory places .

"We hope to show that their worries are groundless. Some of the very biggest forestry industries in Europe are in places where there are good beaver populations," Kerr says. Besides, the beaver's preference is for trees like poplar, willow, birch and alder, not (alas!) sitka spruce. And he's more vegetarian than fisherman.

There are many other reintroductions in SNH's in-tray - Scottish primrose and corncrake, for example - but flowers and birds are easy in the "desirability" stakes. No one was ever savaged by a corncrake - bored witless by its voice, yes, but never actually harmed. But however mild the impact of beavers may prove, there are many vested interests out there who fear what they see as a first link in a chain leading inexorably to the wolf.

The indications are, however, that the die is cast, and that even with all due slow-ahead caution the first beavers to cruise Highland waters in four centuries could be with us in two years' time. Well - not quite the first beavers. We have been here before, long before the days when you needed a summit and a directive and a consultation process and a scientific community if you wanted to reintroduce a beaver - or whatever. All you needed was a rich eccentric, or visionary, as some of us prefer to call them.

In 1874, it was the Marquis of Bute. For reasons best known to himself, the Marquis established a beaver enclosure on the Firth of Clyde island of Bute with American beavers. Joseph Stuart Black, the Marquis's beaver keeper,was diligent enough to contribute to the Journal of Forestry of February 1880 "A Short Account of How the Marquis of Bute's Beavers Have Succeeded in the Isle of Bute, Scotland".

Black wrote: "Arriving as they did in midwinter, these little animals, I can assure you, had a pretty hard time of it. However, after a few days' rest they set vigorously to work to construct a dam by forming a dyke or embankment across a small moorland stream running through the enclosure; at the same time they commenced to build a house to live in.

"They have continued raising this embankment ... until it has now attained the following dimensions, viz: - length, 70 feet; height in the deepest part, fully eight feet; breadth of base at deepest part, from 15 to 20 feet, sloped inside, not straight across, but finely arched against the stream ... So substantially have they built it, that no material damage has occurred to it from all the floods that have passed over it ... "

There follow, in the same engrossing detail, accounts of how the "house" is built, diet preferences (their food in winter consists wholly of the bark of trees), how they fell trees (a nocturnal activity), underground labours, breeding theories, play, and one astonishing observation of enforced exile as a kind of punishment for indolence.

No one today is talking of reintroducing beavers into an enclosure, but one option for controlling their initial impact on the landscape - and particularly the riverscape - is advocated by Don MacCaskill, a retired chief forester and outstanding wildlife photographer. With his wife Bridget he has championed the cause of the Scottish beaver for at least 20 years.

He has earmarked a list of sites, all of them on still, small lochs, and is adamant beavers should not be permitted to build dams on rivers, certainly not in the first place. What if they do? "You destroy what they build. And if they do too well for a particular site, you move some of them on to a new site. But in the first place, you must curb dam building."

It is the basis behind what he sees as the key to the whole operation - acceptance by local people. "You must get the local people on your side or the whole thing is a waste of time."

Such drastic control is only the first step in the MacCaskill philosophy of beaver reintroduction, a way of establishing the presence of the animal back on the landscape, and in the minds of the people. "It is such a fascinating and harmless animal. In time, none of this will be necessary. We have to think very long term with things like this - 100 years, not two or three.'

So bed the beaver down, let it become wilder in time, and learn to relish its wilderness genius in our midst. It sounds good to me.

Don MacCaskill has also cast a wistful eye at that list of mammal reintroductions which so obsesses today's naturalists. "Wild boar and lynx would definitely be practical propositions. Bear, perhaps. But I just cannot see a place for the wolf in this country. We're too small and as long as there are so many sheep ...

"Mind you ... " he adds, and urges me to have a look in his darkroom where the walls are plastered with photographs of, well, wolves. "Look at that face," he enthuses of a wholly primeval beast. But we're only talking beavers, remember. Strictly beavers.

The writer is the author of 12 books on Scottish landscape and wildlife.

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