The Tay Beavers

by Louise Ramsay

The presence of a population of native Eurasian beavers in Tayside has been an emerging reality over the last eleven years. In May 2001 Hugh Chalmers of the Borders Forest Trust sent Paul Ramsay an email in which he reported a sighting of a beaver in the lower Earn. (He knew that Paul was an enthusiast for beaver reintroduction and was in the process of trying to source some beavers for an enclosure on his land). Hugh had been out canoeing with a party of eight people in two canoes. They reached the confluence with the Farg when Hugh, who had recently returned from a journey to Norway to study beavers, saw the broad head of a mammal coming through the water. He realised immediately that he was looking at a beaver and not an otter. Moments later the whole party watched as the animal climbed out of the water and revealed its flat tail. Seeing a beaver was a surprise, given that they were supposed to have been extinct in Scotland for 400 years.

Where had this beaver come from? We learnt later that some Eurasian beavers had escaped from an enclosure further up the Earn, earlier that year. It seems likely that this was the origin of Hugh Chalmer’s beaver. Later in 2001 there were more reports: one at Rosemount, and another in the Alyth Burn at Alyth. As the decade wore on, more reported sightings of beavers in the wild were accumulating around the linked catchments of the Earn and Tay. Some were privately communicated between interested individuals but kept quiet, and some found their way into the press. In autumn 2006 a beaver was spotted at the “put and take fishery” at Sandyknowes near Bridge of Earn and its presence was reported in the Courier. The manager said later that he had seen two beavers through a night sight and Paul, who went over to investigate, noticed a lodge on the island in the pond: a sure sign of a pair and probably of breeding. As the owner was not happy about the beavers’ presence one of them (officially the only one there) was trapped and removed in Spring 2007 by a member of staff from RZSS in Edinburgh. More reports came from Glamis, the Kerbit Burn, upstream of Glamis and the Dean Water, a tributary of the River Isla. There was also evidence of their presence in the Tay further west.

In 2009 Paul, taking an interest in the spread of beavers about the catchment, filmed kits on the Dean Water. This was our first evidence of beavers breeding in the wild, but it seems unlikely that it was the first instance. At this point no-one knew how many beavers there were, but the number seemed to be growing. In the meantime the Scottish Beaver Trial had begun its project at Knapdale in Argyll.

In June 2010 the Tay beavers, as a whole, were “outed’ in the Scotsman, the estimated figure being given as 50 to 100. In autumn 2010 it came to our ears that the National Species Reintroduction Forum had made a decision, in August, proposed by SNH but unopposed by all the members of the forum at the time, that the Tay Beavers were to be trapped and removed to zoos. The official figure was estimated at seven and twenty. We suspected the figure was higher but still had no clear idea of numbers. But we decided then and there that we had to campaign for the survival of the beavers and launched “Save the Free Beavers of the Tay” on Facebook, and subsequently founded “Scottish Wild Beaver Group”, a charity incorporated as an SCIO. Campaigners started to survey the beavers and it soon became clear that the Scotsman article was not far out. We now think there may be 120, before they breed this year (2012). The decision to remove the Tay beavers was given a number of justifications: they were unlicensed (which is certainly true), they might be diseased, or the wrong species, reasons we felt justified monitoring but not trapping to enclose or exterminate. The most baffling reason was “for their own welfare”. SNH decided to start with a “trapping trial” and succeeded in trapping one beaver, which we named Erica and adopted, for the Alyth beaver cubs. She subsequently died in Edinburgh zoo. As our campaign got underway, SNH decided to stop any trapping in March 2011, well before the breeding season, and in the event it was not resumed the following autumn, while the new minister, Stewart Stevenson deliberated on his decision.

To people such as Wild Land Group it is probably not necessary to emphasise the many benefits of beavers and the reasons why we felt, so strongly, that these animals should not be trapped out. Castor fiber, the Eurasian beaver, hunted out for its pelts and other products in Scotland and many other countries, and brought to near extinction as a species by 1900, has now been successfully returned to 23 European countries where a large body of research lists its benefits: to biodiversity, water purity, soil retention, flood and drought mitigation, and of course eco-tourism. We felt it was high time for them to come back to Scotland. The SNH attempt in 1998 at a reintroduction, in spite of broad public support, had met with such opposition from salmon fishing bodies and various land managers that it had been watered down to a small trial. We feared that the opposition might find ways to call the trial a failure and have the small number of beavers at Knapdale removed, thus bringing to an end, for years or decades, any attempt at beaver reintroduction in Scotland. Ideally we would have liked to see a full reintroduction done properly, following IUCN Guidelines, but in Scotland the situation is not ideal, and a chance reintroduction, subsequently regulated by monitoring and study, seemed to be the best opportunity available. Removing a population that had escaped, spread and bred and survived through the tacit consent of a large number of people who had kept their presence a secret, just seemed wrong. Surely once was enough to wipe out this useful and engaging native animal? But a group of powerful bodies, not necessarily representing the range of opinions held by their members, are set against beaver reintroduction and would fight any official attempt to bring it about. This group has supported the Knapdale Trial but consistently opposed toleration of the Tay beavers.

As yet there has not been any research done on beavers and salmon in Scotland, but we find it unlikely that the overall impact of beavers would be completely different from that of beavers on salmon elsewhere. In Norway with the same species of salmon in the same geology and similar topography, little research has been done as no problems have been reported, but Duncan Halley, in response to the concerns of Scottish fishermen has done a study that shows that young salmon flourish above, between and below beavers dams. In North America, beavers have proved themselves a great asset to fishermen in many places. For example, in Oregon, beavers have been brought into rivers damaged by logging to restore Coho salmon to the river. The fear, in UK, seems to be that dams will block access to spawning grounds. While this could occasionally happen, and call for dam removal or reduction, some fishing specialists seem to forget that beavers will also make habitat for parr out of previously dry ground, as they have here at Bamff – where a small ditch has been converted into a series of large parr-filled pools. Beavers dam ditches and small streams, but they do not dam rivers.

The beaver’s ability to put coarse woody debris into water and thus increase habitat for the invertebrates on which salmon parr feed, its ability to make wetland out of dry land, and increase complexity in waterways, braiding the stream, and to purify water, all point to the likelihood that beavers will, on balance, benefit salmon here as elsewhere, and certainly have no overall negative impact. And the presence of the Tay beavers offers a brilliant opportunity for study of all kinds, whereas their removal would leave us all in the dark.

The campaign proved successful. Our Facebook Group is currently supported by 1269 people (4/5/12). In March 2012 the Environment Minister announced that the Tay beavers were to be left in the wild until 2015 when a final decision will be made about their future, as the Knapdale Trial ends and reports its findings. In the meantime land managers have been told that the beavers are not protected and in the last resort they can kill beavers on their land if they are causing problems. We have even heard that they are being encouraged to do so. SWBG’s submission is that the beavers should be protected by European law as they are established in the wild in their natural range. But it is illegal under UK law, according to English Nature, to “possess” a wild beaver, alive or dead. It would be difficult to kill a beaver legally. Apart from animal welfare laws, the legislation that protects otters and water voles is relevant to beavers since they live alongside them and benefit from their presence, but they could become victims of collateral damage.

We will learn far more from applying mitigation techniques where problems arise than through lethal control. We encourage everyone who is aware of the presence of any wild beavers in their area to do anything they can to keep them safe.

Louise Ramsay is co-chair of the Scottish Wild Beaver Group