Beavers on the move – Part One

This is the first of a two-part blog written by Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, who was just awarded the Nature of Scotland Conservation Science Award for her long-term work with beavers in Scotland. Roisin previously worked for RZSS overseeing the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, and now works as an independent ecological consultant specialising in beavers, which she also studied for her PhD. NatureScot employ Roisin to provide us with advice on beaver management and she works with a range of other organisations on beaver research, survey, advice and translocation projects.

Roisin carrying out a beaver health check with the staff and veterinary team at Five Sister Zoo. This kit was part of a family group moved from Tayside to Broadridge Farm Beaver Project, Devon. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

In this first blog, I’ll cover the history of beavers in Europe, from their near extinction to reintroduction, as well how they benefit nature and wildlife. In my next blog, I’ll cover the reasons for and how we are moving beavers from areas where they are causing serious issues for farmers and others to other areas.

The return of the Eurasian beaver has certainly captured the hearts and minds of people across Europe, seeing as this species is one of the most reintroduced and translocated mammals. A highly effective trade in its thick luxurious fur saw global population estimates at one point reaches lows of just over 1000 scattered individuals, facing the verge of complete extinction.

As early as the 1920s, the Scandinavian countries implemented serious attempts to restore this species, seeing beavers moved from Norway to Sweden, followed by multiple releases in Finland and Russia, initially to re-establish beavers as a fur resource. Since then, Eurasian beavers have been restored, both officially, unofficially and through natural colonisation to most of its former range, recovering across Europe, Russia and into Mongolia.

Over 200 release events in more than 20 countries have been known to have occurred, making the Eurasian beaver one of the most commonly re-introduced animals in the world. The emphasis has dramatically shifted from viewing beavers as a productive hunting resource to more ecologically-founded arguments for them to be recognised as the key missing element in wetland restoration.

Beaver on the move as part of The National Trust Holnicote reintroduction project.
© Roisin Campbell Palmer.

There is no doubt beavers are one of the few species that can have a significant impact on the habitats they occupy. Where they build dams, ponds can be created, giving refuge to many species from aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, birds and other mammals. Next to humans and elephants, beavers are fairly unique in being able to take down mature trees, although their diet extends from grasses, aquatic and bankside vegetation to a wide range of woody material.

Native plant species have a long evolutionary history co-existing with beavers – for example, willow is highly tolerant to flooding and coppicing and therefore reacts vigorously to beaver feeding by producing multiple shoots. Aspen will also respond to main truck felling by producing multiple suckers. As well, their burrowing activities, including canal and burrow construction, results in an increased complexity of the bank, offering numerous habitats and refuge opportunities to species such as fish and amphibians.

Beaver-modified habitat in Tayside – increased water levels enhances loch margins, while canal creation allows beavers to access foods without leaving the water, all creating better habitat for animals such as amphibians. Mixed beaver foraging, including tree felling, encourages diverse vegetation. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

However, beavers’ abilities to change woodland, wetland or agricultural areas are not always welcomed. In Scotland, we have no living memory of co-existing alongside beavers, and our modern landscapes have rapidly developed in their absence.

Therefore, when a 20kg plus animal that readily fells trees, dams drainage systems and is capable of punching burrows into flood banks arrives in urban or agricultural areas, for example, their presence and impacts can be costly and controversial, unless a system of mitigation and education is implemented.

We have to balance this by keeping in mind that this species, living in human-dominated landscapes, creates dynamic and beneficial changes in habitat restoration and species biodiversity. With the right management and resources, co-existence is possible, though this requires a change in mind-set and tolerance in how we view our landscapes.

Dubh loch in Knapdale where beavers increased the loch size by damming, creating new wetlands and new habitats in the form of standing dead wood. © Lorne Gill, NatureScot.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of how beavers were reintroduced to Scotland and much more, see the Beavers in Scotland report on the NatureScot website.

Watch out for Part 2 of Roisin’s blog on Friday!

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