From: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/nov/25/beavers-scotland-conservation on 02-12-2010: 1:26am
The European Beaver (Castor fiber) unfortunately became extinct in Britain in the 1500s. It was widely hunted for both its fur, castoreum (an excretion from the animal’s castor sack scent glands), and for its meat – oddly, the Church classified it as a fish, which meant it could be eaten on Fridays. There haven’t been significant beaver populations in Britain, if any at all, for over 400 years.
Over the past ten years there have been various attempts at reintroduction into Scotland. According to Scottish Natural Heritage, this is because “The beaver is a charismatic species which would serve to raise wider biodiversity issues such as riparian woodland management, aspen restoration, wetland biodiversity and dead wood habitat. There are few species which have such significant influences on ecosystem function and health.” The beaver is also adequately described as a ‘keynote species,’ which means that they help support the ecosystem they’re in. This means that they influence the environment in a variety of ways which are not immediately clear – for instance, their impoundments help to increase the stability of water levels, which leads to an increase in riparian grasses, which are the food of the water vole (Arvicola terrestrisis). (Gurnell et al., 2009)
In 2009, a trial reintroduction was started in Argyll. Three families were released into the Knapdale forest. As many as ten different organisations are monitoring the beavers in their once-native environment. The preparation was significant – a year passed before the approved permit for reintroduction was actually acted upon, and the AOC Archaeology group did an extensive survey of the Loch Coille-Bharr Crannog before the introduction. (Cavers, 2009) In charge of the entire operation, however, is the Scottish National Heritage. They’ve been doing quite a bit of research into beavers over the past few decades. But research isn’t their main interest: according to their web page, their ”purpose is to:
- promote care for and improvement of the natural heritage
- help people enjoy it responsibly
- enable greater understanding and awareness of it
- promote its sustainable use, now and for future generations.
All our work supports our mission: All of nature for all of Scotland.”
So, what’s interesting isn’t the reintroduction of the mammal – the first time this has been done legally in the UK – into Scotland, nor the trial period which is currently successfully underway. Rather, the SNH’s behaviour towards a score of rogue beavers is sure to raise eyebrows.
Basically, over the past few years a score or so of beavers have been seen around Scotland, particularly on the Tay. The actual number is in doubt: some estimate as low as six rogue beavers are present in Scotland, while others posit the number could be as high as 50. They are breeding – at least one pair has two kits. These animals either escaped from private collections or were introduced purposefully and illegally (without a suitable permit.) The SNH is dedicated towards trapping and removing these beavers from the wild. One of the many articles on the issue (which I’ll not link again in the rest of the article, but from where most of the following information comes) states that the SNH said the following concerning it’s plans:
“They are being recaptured because their presence in the wild is illegal and because their welfare may be at risk,” a spokesman said. “There was no consultation with local people; there was no licence issued for their release; there is no monitoring of their welfare; and there is no certainty that they are the appropriate species or type of beaver for Scotland.” That claim was contested by Lister-Kaye, a former chairman of SNH’s Highland regional board, and by Ramsay. They said their beavers were Bavarian and from a much stronger and more varied genetic stock than the Norwegian beavers released at Knapdale.”
This is markedly odd. First, their welfare is not necessarily at risk. There is no indication anywhere that they are at risk – the fact that they are breeding and building dams alone suggests the opposite. Secondly, there was consultation with the local people regarding beavers in general: 59% are in favor of their reintroduction. Thirdly, while there may be no monitoring of their welfare, that is no reason to remove them from the wild. Merely monitoring the beavers would be enough to clear up most of the supposed issues. However, it’s been stated in the articles that there are no suitable zoos or holding facilities which will adequately be able to take this amount of beavers – and this will most likely lead to having to put the animals down. (As well as possibly leaving the few kits on their own, if they are not trapped successfully.)
As for the certainty of stock – the beavers introduced by the SNH are not necessarily better than those in the wild. According to an independant post on the Facebook Group set up by members of the public to save the beavers from capture, it’s stated that:
“A row of distinguished naturalists think the Bavarian beaver – or any European beaver – is quite acceptable for Scotland. Norwegian ones used in the official trial come from an inbred population which seems to have a tendency to genetic faults such as only having one kidney. The death rate for the reintroduction was unexpectedly high. Beavers, reintroduced to Bavaria in the 20th century, were intentionally hybridized from several of the remnant populations to create a robust group from which to found a strong population.”
If that’s not a good argument for allowing them to continue to exist, than I’ll find my old beaver-skin hat and eat it (not really. I am vegetarian, for one.) As well, there is no reason to trap and remove the beavers to ascertain if they are in fact of better stock (which they seem to be).
So why are the SNH removing the beavers? The Guardian suggests that it’s because they’re simply the wrong beavers. The SNH has one a lot of background work trying to get beavers reintroduced in the first place, and they don’t seem to be able to deal with the fact that a few errant beavers are able to do this for themselves. The way they are trapping them, as well – in particular, using local volunteers (probably land owners), and disallowing their communication with the media – is very sneaky and questionable. Even more odd is the fact that the SNH’s official position is that ”the fact remains that leaving these animals in the wild would mean choosing to ignore well-established wildlife legislation. This is not something that SNH, or any other government organisation, can do.”
Reynolds (2000) did argue that there ought to be contingency plans in place in case of unmonitored populations overexploiting local resources, but said himself that “No reports of nationally significant economic or ecological beaver-induced damage to woodlands were found,” although that may be different for such sites as the historically significant crannog the beavers were introduced to in Argyll. The SNH may simply be acting on these supposed contingency plans. They may be also trying to get the same sort of local help that was received tracking down American Mink in Scotland, as documented here and in Bryce (2010), which is a predator of the previously mentioned water vole and managed to reduce its range considerably. But the beaver is not such a disruptive species, and if anything benefits local ecosystems, as the SNH has themselves admitted.
So, on what grounds are the SNH trapping and removing these animals? It must merely be the license which wasn’t granted for them. As already stated, there are other ways of monitoring the current rogue populations besides trapping and removal. But, in summation, I completely agree with Mike Leahy, the Rocky Mountain regional director of a private group, Defenders of Wildlife, who said, concerning the proposed delisting of grizzlies and wolves as endangered, that ”Wildlife management decisions are supposed to be made based on science, not politics.” This is not being done here.
- Cavers, G. (2009). Loch Coille-Bharr Crannog Condition Survey. AOC Archaeology Group, www.aocarchaeology.com.
- Gurnell, J., et al.(2009). The feasibility and acceptability of reintroducing the European beaver to England. Natural England, http://naturalengland.etraderstores.com/NaturalEnglandShop/NECR002.
- Reynolds, P. (2000). European Beaver and Woodland Habitats: A Review. Scottish National Heritage Review, London.
Research Blog References:
Bryce, R., Oliver, M., Davies, L., Gray, H., Urquhart, J., & Lambin, X. (2010). Turning back the tide of American mink invasion at an unprecedented scale through community participation and adaptive management Biological Conservation DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.10.013