I witnessed with my own eyes the return of the beaver to Aberargie one day in November. What a thrill that sent through me. A very loud splash caught my attention as I was walking by the River Farg and there it was. Having belly flopped into the shallow river off the bank it waded five metres before it dived under a large leafy overhang and disappeared.
Castor Fiber, to give the Eurasian beaver it’s Latin name, have been working their way in this direction over recent years, with people in Bridge of Earn and indeed Aberargie, reporting trees being gnawed in the tell-tale pointy way, and garden trees even removed entirely. So I wasn’t exactly surprised, but was none the less thrilled to actually see a beaver for myself in broad daylight.
I pondered the return of a native to a neighbourhood they had been eradicated from by the reign of Elizabeth I!
In 1900 there were only 1200 beaver across the whole of Europe. They were hunted to extinction for fur, bush meat and the castoreum they have in a sac near their anal gland - historically prized for medicine and as a perfume base. At that time local need was always satisfied, no one realised the latest pelt may have been the last.
I wondered, and worry if and how the species will survive. Will we in this 21st century tolerate sharing our environment with a small mammal who takes down trees? Will we be able to hold back trying to control them and let them do their thing? Can we appreciate and understand the landscape they create? Like badger, deer and fox, we are often ambivalent about nature when it encroaches too close, or affects our arrangements. What do we feel when the beaver takes away the apple tree we so carefully planted in our garden, what if they dam the River Farg and cause it to flood?
The discussion and debate about reintroducing beavers to Scotland developed in earnest in 2001 culminating in 16 Norwegian European beavers being released in a partnership of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Forestry Commission, in 2009 and 2010. So possibly an eighth generation grandsire of this beaver splashing into the Farg was given a home in the remote wilds of Knapdale, Argyll.
Mr Beaver was clearly not going to come out for a photo call for me so I walked on.
When I got home I pulled out my map of central Scotland and looked at the systems of rivers and lochs the beavers must have travelled to arrive here in the Farg. It is impressive. It’s over 100 miles, as the crow flies, from Knapdale to Abernethy, but the mountains, not to mention the main roads, between present a formidable landscape, but to the beaver a stream or a loch provides food and shelter and I imagine the next juicy tree root is no different to us enjoying the next horizon on a walk in the hills. The ancestors of “my” beaver had swum the Crinan Water, the River Add and the Argyll Douglas water, they had snuck across the Duke of Argyll’s estate and by Inveraray Castle or swam across Loch Fynne, Loch Eck, Loch Goil and Loch Long. They wove their way around Ben Lui into the Tay watershed system where it must have been a strong and easy draw just to go with the flow down our great river system. But I wonder if beavers clamber up and over passes? Did they find the burns that clad the Ben More range too much of a barrier and so avoided Balquidder, or was the Glen Ogle water enough for them to traverse into the Loch Earn system?
Beavers tidy up river banks, munching twigs, leaves and roots of willow, birch, alder and buds and shoots of all sorts of plants. They sample all the incomer plants that now populate our river banks. Near Dunkeld beavers are setting in about Himalayan Balsam and Japanese Knotweed – which makes them are an environmental ally and surely is a reason to welcome them. I shall be intrigued to see if they make inroads to the insidious Butturbur that dominates the indigenous and lovely Meadowsweet that used to lace the banks of the Farg. The Japanese treat butterbur buds as a special spring delicacy, I hope that beaver find it a delicacy too.
Today and into the future I fear the debate will turn on their interference with our highly organised infrastructure, our farming needs and our riverside gardens.
So now the beaver is a companion to the water vole and otter along our streams, rivers and lochs. Their instinct to nibble and gnaw and build is phenomenal, their engineering minds are as great as any employed to build the Queensferry crossing in being able to project exactly which direction their gnawing will cause a tree to fall.
Just like badger and deer these creatures do not invite contest, the beaver does not know that the garden apple tree they felled was treasured, the deer do not know the new saplings they nibble were planted by the Woodland Trust to create a woodland, the badger does not pass on the TB it catches from the cattle in one form to the next door farm on purpose. In 2016 the Scottish Government announced that the Beaver is now an accepted resident of Scotland. In fact the beaver introduction had been so successful and their spread so wide that the Government could no longer say that the original “Beaver Trial” was in under any sort of control!
Farmers for centuries have created embankments, or dams, along rivers to enable them to grow crops in river-side meadows all year round for us. But we all know that this banking causes rivers to flood in unprotected areas – as communities along the Tay and Earn know only too well, but can we and our farmers tolerate a beaver making a dam that creates a new wet woodland area? Can we appreciate that this creates a flood absorption area which prevents the flooding of a village downstream?
My sighting made me smile, particularly as my son, now living in Canada, the “home” of the American beaver, Castor Canadensis, has been pleased to send me pictures of beavers, their dams and trails, and here was I seeing one literally in his own old back yard!