The Eurasian beaver and me
Several years ago, possibly as far back as 2006/7, I was with a good friend of mine, John Aitken, in a canoe travelling down the Isla. As we meandered down the river, we came across some trees that had been chopped down. Now, I was getting used to the local angling chief cutting trees down willie-nillie, but these were different. They portrayed the pencil point gnashings associated with a beaver. Now, I’m no expert but John has visited Canada and Norway teaching people how to canoe and Kayak and has had first hand experience of both Eurasian (castor fiber) and Canadian (castor canadensis) beavers, and his first words were “Christ Bob, are there beavers here?”, my reply was something totally different and along the lines of “Nah John, someone is taking the piss!!!!”. However, it came to pass that there WERE Eurasian beavers frequenting our local rivers and a campaign had been launched by the SWBG (Save The Wild Beaver Group) on facebook to keep these creatures in our local waters. At this point I knew very little about these animals, other than they were rodents, ate trees and used to be a native species (SNH and the gov’t allegedly spent £2.3m reaching this conclusion on an official trial, but more about that later).
Anyway, let’s go back a few years (quite a few to be exact) and my introduction to nature and all it’s wonders. I left Forfar when I was 2, moved to Alyth for a couple of years then moved to Perth (my dad was a bobby). Whilst staying in Perth, my dad did a lot of rabbit snaring to raise some extra cash into the household. He would often take me out on his trapping and it was from there that dad imprinted his love of nature on me. He was a good friend of another local policeman, Alan Stewart, who was destined to become the Wildlife Detective. You may follow his blog or have read his books, but he is a cracking guy and his knowledge of local wildlife is unsurpassed. As a policeman’s life in the 70’s and 80’s was never a permanent stay in any one location, we ended up moving to Dunkeld for a 3-4 year stint. It was there that my love of wildlife really took off. My dad purchased a bottle of formaldahyde for me, and anything dead that I encountered was ritually injected with this wonderful potion and set for prosperity in my bedroom. I have to ask the question though, how many parents nowadays would give their 10 yr old kids a bottle of lethal poison (this was a 5litre demi-john) and a hypodermic needle? Not a lot by my reckoning, hell I wouldn’t!!! So, as you can imagine my bedroom when I was 10 or so, was a rather macabre affair with dead birds, skulls, eggs (hatched of course) and pelts and every other piece of wildlife that I could lay my hands on. Ah, those halcyon days of coming of age and having very, and I mean VERY trusting parents. My bedroom door had a legend on it, “Rab’s Lab”. This was a total babe magnet obviously and every young girl in the area was chapping at our door, well, to be truthful, there was only one and she was the local taxidermists daughter!!! Anyway, my prize possession was a cow’s skull (how many of those do you see lying about nowadays?) that we had found whilst snaring in a field beside Kinfauns castle, it was brilliant, big and heavy and it’s name was Albert! Don’t ask me why? but these are the whims of a 10 yr old. Hey, my Dutch rabbit was named Arthur, but I was so heavily into Arthurian legend at that time and it seemed only natural that his name be such. He kicked ass though, and knocked seven bells out of my dog Susie (aka Morgana) on a regular basis.
Right, back to beavers! I’ve given you a basic background of Bob, so hopefully you will realise and acknowledge my passion for wildlife. When I was 10, I could identify all native beasties, however old age and illicit substances have adled my brain a bit and I’m not as good as I was. However, my first sighting of an Eurasian beaver could only be one thing, an Eurasian Beaver!!!! I had been trying to track these guys down for ages, I knew where they had been feeding but I just could not get a sighting. One evening my wee brother and my nephew had been on the river trying to catch a glimpse of an otter, but as it turned out they saw a beaver. Smurf, my wee brother, phoned me and let me know the location and I popped down the next night (it was a Friday). Sure enough, that evening I was greeted to the sight of a damn (sorry about the pun) big animal floating in the river, literally feet from me. It was ginger/red/brown in colour, and the size of a decent sized Spaniel. It even had the audacity to swim closer, have a sniff and nonchantly turn about and go up the river. I watched in total amazement at this animal as its back legs powered away against the current, the ease at which it carved its way through the river and most poignantly, how natural this scene was. I have never felt this way about an animal, let alone a bloody rodent, but this was spectacular, awesome and to be truthful all other superlatives escape me. It was then, right there, that I knew I had to get involved in the group (SWBG). as there was no way that I could stand by and let these creatures be wiped out again! The history of the animal in the UK/Europe/America/Canada will follow shortly but my main goal was to align myself to the group and just help in pushing the point, that after seeing these creatures in their own natural environment, these animals MUST stay. Again, I was totally ignorant to the benefits of these beasties at that time, knew very little about them, but it just felt right that what I was seeing was nature as intended.
Through the last 3 years or so of watching the beaver, I have obviously started to learn more about them. However, I have still a lot to learn but one thing that I have noticed is their “long-term” strategy for the river bank. Largish willows that were felled several years ago have now resprouted into a thicker screen of vegetation. This coppicing is quite incredible on several levels. The initial felling of the tree gives the animal the bark to feed on and building materials for any work required at their lodge or burrow. This also opens up the canopy, which in turn allows other plants such as sweet cecily, ferns and other flora to flourish. I don’t think that it is by coincidence or chance that these other plants just happen to be the mainstay of the beavers diet in the summer months! Another positive outcome of the tree being felled is the debris that is left behind. “What?, it’s a mess these creatures are creating, destroying the trees and ruining the landscape” I hear you cry, but let’s look on this with a scientific eye for a moment. Yes, to our eye it looks as if armageddon has struck on the river bank but to nature, it is a very different story. The wood that is left behind by the beaver, whether it be limbs or woodchips, is food for other beasties such as beetles and other insects. The timber that is left in the river also provides food for a variety of water-borne insects and invertebrates. Now, the fishing fraternity are one of the organisations that are currently decrying the beaver, but what do we know that lives in the rivers and eats insects? Yup, fish! Anyway, we now have all these rotting branches lying by the river promoting insect life. This area has now become a perfect feeding ground for a variety of other animals such as birds and amphibians. The now opened canopy is allowing light to enter onto the bank and as mentioned before, other plants start to grow. These plants are visited by pollinators such as flies, bees and butterflies. Now, the farming fraternity is another organisation to decry the beaver, but what do crops require for pollination? Yup, pollinators, and what are the beaver activities encouraging? Yup, pollinators…… “Big sigh”!!! Now, let’s go back to the original tree that had been felled and the new screen that has sprouted up. I have noticed recently that the beavers are now harvesting the regrowth of the trees that they had felled several years ago. I find this amazing, as the beavers are acting like real farmers, providing food and habitat not just for their own needs but for every other creature on the riparian edge, how cool is that? On the point of them providing food for others, when a beaver feeds by the river bank, or any other place for that matter, he never consumes everything that he has gathered. There is always something left over, is that for other beavers to feed on if they so wish? Just a thought but man could learn a thing or two from these guys I think.
As you will all probably be aware of, the beaver in the UK was hunted to extinction. The last native beaver to be killed in the UK was around 400 yrs ago. In mainland Europe, the beaver population had declined to approx 120,00 animals in total, these were just small pockets of colonies spread out in Russia, Scandanavia and Bavaria. The beavers were hunted primarily for their fur, but also for their meat and castoreum. The fur/pelt of these animals is quite incredible, with rough guardhairs on the outside and a downy underfur against the skin. This, plus the fact they are quite chunky, insulates the beavers against the cold. It has been noted that beavers can still be relatively active at temperatures -20 or more so it is no wonder that their fur was highly prized by us. Beaver felt is a very light, strong and waterproof material which made ideal for making hats. Beaver hats were very prized and commanded incredible prices, 40 shillings in 1586 apparently, which is a lot of bucks in today’s money. The saving grace for the beaver was ironically a change in fashion, people wanted a shinier finish to their bunnets, and silk was the preferred option. It is incredible the amounts of animals culled annually for their fur exceeded 400,00 in the late 18th century and as recent as 1980 exceeded 700,000 animals, yes, fur trading in Beaver pelts in America and Canada continues into the present day!
Various beaver collections have sprung up through the years, the 9th Duke of Argyll introduced 2 males and 5 female Canadian beavers into the grounds of Inverary Castle in 1902, a further 2 males and 3 females were added the following year. These animals, other than one single dead animal that was found, were never seen again! More recent collections in the Tayside area have undoubtably contributed to the now very strong population in the Tay catchment area. Beavers are reknowned escapologists, and at an age of 18-24 months are dispersing from their maternal lodge to find new territories. So it is no wonder that the Tay population are more than likely decendants from these initial animal Houdini’s. These animals, through trapping and testing by SNH and TBSG were all proven to be healthy, not carrying any disease and were of Eurasian descent.
So, back to me and my relationship with this animal. Over the last few years now, I have been involved in giving tours to people that wish to share my enjoyment of watching these animals. I have taken nearly 200 people to the river over the last 2 years and I must admit that I have met some amazing people and characters that share my love of nature. I have been very lucky in that respect as I have also made some firm friends out of my tours as well. There is nothing better than sitting by the river waiting to see these animals as other nature passes by as well. A recent party that I took to the river returned the following evening. Tracey and Paul from Doncaster had had a good night with me, having sighted the male beaver a couple of times. The following evening however, they were to get an even better night. I had showed them a couple of spots to visit, and on their way to one of those, they came across an otter not 3 feet from them. To say Tracey was chuffed was is a huge understatement. They also had the delights of 5 kingfishers ripping up and down the river, beaver sightings and to top it off, a wee red squirrel above their heads getting mobbed by the local warblers and getting chased from tree to tree. It is experiences like this that make me return to the river on a regular basis. To have the delights in seeing nature right up close and personal is a massive honour. The plight of those poor beavers in Devon that are away to be hunted down and re-located is not only a sin for the animal, it’s a bloody crime against those that wish to see these animals in their rightful habitat, OUR rivers in the UK. It is with these thoughts that we must keep fighting to keep not only the Scottish free beavers alive and in the rivers, but also push for a real and proper reintroduction of the beavers nationwide.
I haven’t mentioned anything about the benefits of beavers in mitigating floods etc, but I will do in another post. But one thing I do want to promote is the Eco-tourism aspect of these animals, they are a brilliant addition to my wee town and I have data that supports the fact that they are bringing income into the area. As stated earlier, I have taken almost 200 people to the river over the last two years, out of those people, 85% have spent money in the town last year, and 100% this year. Some have even revisited the area just to specifically see these animals again, with more coming back later this year. Maybe the land owners in Devon and in particular DEFRA, should take this on board? Personally I’d be gutted if my animals were to be taken away, as it’s the only thing that keeps my sanity intact lol, but joking aside, these animals ARE native to the UK, it wasn’t as if nature took away their habitat, they were hunted to extinction through mans greed. The European Habitats Directive states that species that were indiginous to the area should be looked at to be reintroduced. Well, they are here now, leave them alone, let nature take it’s course, and allow others not as lucky as me to enjoy the delights of these amazing little engineers.