Photo courtesy Scottish Wildlife Trust
Beavers are a familiar sight to millions of people across North America. The tree-felling rodent is a common resident (some would say nuisance) in wetlands, ponds, and waterways.
But in the UK, beavers have not been seen in the wild since they were extirpated four centuries ago, about the time King Henry VIII of England was still married to the first of his eight wives. Scotland was a separate state, under its own monarch.
After four long event-filled centuries, all that may be changing. In what has been described as the first formal reintroduction of a mammal to the UK, the first beavers to live in Scotland for over 400 years were released into the wild last Friday.
The Scottish Beaver Trial (SBT), a partnership project run by Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), and host partner Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), launched officially on May 29.
Three European beaver families of eleven animals were released at carefully selected sites in Scotland’s Knapdale Forest. The beavers, originally from Norway, were chosen because they are considered to be the closest type to those once found in the UK and have all completed a six-month statutory quarantine period, according to a news statement published on the Scottish Beaver Trial Web site.
Photo of beaver waiting for release courtesy Scottish Wildlife Trust
“Welcoming beavers back to Scotland marks a historic day for conservation,” said Scotland’s Minister for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham. “These charismatic creatures are not only likely to create interest in Scotland from further afield but crucially can play a key role in providing good habitat for a wide range of wetland species.
“And while a great deal of research has already gone into the reintroduction this work is far from over. Observations and data collection over the next five years will play a crucial role in assessing the long-term future for beavers in the Scottish landscape.”
The release is for a limited trial period and comes after years of lobbying by ecologists and conservation experts who believe that the beaver has been a missing part of Scotland’s wetland ecosystems since being hunted to extinction in the 16th Century, the news statement said.
The project, funded mostly by private donations and grants, has popular support. Public consultation showed that 73 percent of respondents were in favour of the trial.
“Our critics worry that beavers might pose a risk to migratory fish numbers, including salmon. This has not been found to be the case anywhere else in Europe.”
– Allan Bantick, chairman of the Scottish Beaver Trial partnership
But not everyone is happy about the reintroduction of beavers.
“Our critics worry that beavers might pose a risk to migratory fish numbers, including salmon,” said Allan Bantick, chairman of both SWT of the Scottish Beaver Trial partnership. “This has not been found to be the case anywhere else in Europe.
“However, the notion cannot be tested with this trial because there is no Atlantic salmon present in the trial site. Our beavers will be released within a designated trial area, which should be large enough to sustain the natural expansion of their population over the next five years.”
Watch this Scottish Government video about the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland:
Beavers are a species worth having in any ecosystem as their presence is known to bring a vast number of benefits to other native Scottish wildlife as well as wetland and waterside habitats, Bantick elaborated. “Our reintroduction follows in the footsteps of 24 other European countries, who have already reintroduced beavers to over 150 different sites.”
It is vital that the project is recognised as a time-limited trial with the purpose of assessing the effect beavers have on the local environment and how well they settle into their new habitat here in Scotland, Bantick stressed.
Release Went “Extremely Well”
The release of the beaver families went extremely well, said Scottish Beaver Trial Project Manager Simon Jones. “They were placed into purpose-built artificial lodges at carefully selected points around the trial site. They will now gradually gnaw their way out of the lodge at a pace that is comfortable for them before exploring their new surroundings.
“Now that our beavers have been released into the wild, the real work of our trial can begin. First and foremost, this is a scientific study of how the beavers cope naturally in the Scottish environment and what effect they have upon it. We will be closely tracking the beavers’ activities and collecting data over the next five years to help inform the independent scientific monitoring, co-ordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage. This will help the Scottish Government in making any final decisions on the future of beavers in Knapdale Forest or elsewhere in Scotland.
“We will also be continuing to engage with the local community as well as trying to inspire Scots to support this exciting conservation project. We hope to see many people visiting the trial site over time, but the beavers do need time to settle in before meeting the neighbours.”