I have just read the report commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage on the presence and distribution of the European beaver on the River Tay catchment area. It makes absolutely fascinating reading, even allowing for scientific terminology.
Since the presence of the first beaver was reported to the police on a fishing loch near Bridge of Earn in Perthshire in 2007 I have had considerable involvement with reports of beavers and their signs on a variety of places in the Tay catchment. The Bridge of Earn beaver was initially reported as vandalism, with the fishing operators of the view that someone had been chopping down young trees round the water’s edge. Though this was my first experience of a ‘UK’ beaver, it was that mammal that I immediately suspected. I emailed photos of the chewed tree stumps to Dr Andrew Kitchener at the Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, who concurred with my findings, but sent the photos to a colleague of his in Norway for absolute confirmation. Months later, after a live-catch trapping operation, the escapee (or deliberately released) beaver was captured.
Many more reports followed, and I visited sites on the Dean Water, the River Earn, the River Isla and other waterways, confirming the presence of beavers at large by felled and semi-felled trees, small dams, lodges, a chewed garden gate and in one case a dead beaver. I must admit to being incredibly impressed by the lodges. The expression as busy as a beaver is absolutely true and nowhere better demonstrated than in these lodge constructions. The beaver had felled dozens of sapling willows, cut them into suitable lengths and dragged them to the site of the lodge. He (or she, since I’ve no idea if only one sex is involved in building these fantastic creations) had then piled and woven them to create a domed structure that peaked at nearly four feet high. I’d no idea what the inside looked like but from the outside it was as neat as an inverted dunnock’s nest and was a real work of art. The dams are a complex amalgam of large and small branches and mud and I can just imagine the beavers going back and forward, invariably in pitch darkness, with their different cumbersome and awkward loads. I still puzzle how the carry the mud (wee buckets would be handy). I really take my hat off to their work ethic and skill.
My pleasure at beavers being back in the wild again in Scotland – especially in Tayside and not even too far from where I stay – created a personal dilemma in that the manner of their freedom may well not have been legal. The consensus view is that, prior to the law change in July 2012, beavers were not a native species, and it was an offence to release or to allow to escape an animal which is of a kind which is not ordinarily resident in and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state. Since that time the position has strengthened, and it is now an offence to release or to allow to escape from captivity any animal to a place outwith its native range. This meant I had to put any personal view of their presence back in the wild to one side and carry out, professionally and without bias, any investigations into how they came to be in the Tay catchment area.
I don’t intend to go into any investigations here, but from the reading of the commissioned report there now seem to be around 146 beavers at large in the River Tay and its tributaries. That these tenacious animals have reached that level without any legal protection that I can find under any legislation (unless someone can enlighten me) is incredible. There remains a dichotomy of view as to whether they are welcome in the countryside but the report gives positive vibes from the interviews carried out with stakeholders. While I still have reservations about the legality of how they came to be in our Tayside waterways, it is my own view that they will benefit the environment and it is good to see them back after centuries of absence. With numbers already at such a high level it is difficult to see how this position can now be reversed and I suspect they are here to stay. I wish them well.
The commissioned report can be found at http://www.snh.gov.uk/publications-data-and-research/publications/search-the-catalogue/publication-detail/?id=1961