Saturday, 16 June 2012

Beaver Not Missing After All

Just a quick update to the beaver situation on Seafield Loch. In March it was announced that the male beaver on the loch had not been seen since December and that it was officially missing. A search was instigated but no signs were found. Visitors staying at Seafield Farm Cottages in April had an early morning walk up to the loch and came back having seen and photographed two beavers. I had a look the next day and saw for myself that there were indeed two beavers on the loch. (Two beavers on Seafield Loch, April 2012, Photo courtesy of A A Kennedy) During the winter months, spotting beavers is very difficult. The hours of darkness are long and while summer visits to beaver lochs can guarantee sightings almost any evening or morning for those who know where to look, in the winter it is rare to spot the animals going about their business. The project is adamant that the beaver went walkabout and then came back and this may be the case but not seeing a beaver, doesn't mean it wasn't there all the time. We are told that this beaver has a history of going walkabout as it moved a few yards from Creag Mhor Loch to an adjacent lochan and then did a swap with the Seafield Loch male beaver which is now on the Creag Mhor lochan. Seafield Loch and Creag Mhor loch are connected by a burn, providing easy passage for a beaver. Which beaver was the usurper is impossible to say. In the absence of ear tags or other visually apparent identification, it is almost impossible to positively identify which beaver it is that you are looking at. The only way to confirm which beaver it is, is to catch it and check the micro chip and this has proved to be quite difficult - as far as I know, the Dubh Loch 2010 kit has yet to be caught and its gender confirmed. (NB, Seafield Loch is shown as Loch Buic on the OS maps but it has always been known locally as Seafield Loch).

One of our Beavers is Missing

The Knapdale Beaver Trial has been running for nearly 3 years. To recap for our new readers; in February 2008, in anticipation of the licence for the trial being granted, 2 families, each of 4 beavers were imported from Norway and housed at Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park. After Mike Russell granted the licence, a further four families; a total of 17 beavers, were imported from Norway and spent 6 months in quarantine in Devon. At the end of the quarantine only one family had survived intact to be released so the project asked for permission for the beavers at Highland Wildlife Park and the Zoo to be drafted in for the trial. The three families of 11 beavers were released near to Achnamara at the end of May 2009 to begin a five year trial. Since the beginning of the trial, 5 beavers have been added to the trial and 4 have been born. This means that a total of 34 beavers have been involved in the trial of which 11 currently remain in Knapdale. This means that 23 beavers have died or disappeared during the course of the trial so far.
At the moment there is a family of 4 beavers on the Dubh Loch. The family consists of the original adult pair, a young female of about four or five years which should have dispersed by now and a 2010 kit which has never been caught, identified or tagged. There is a family of four on Loch Linne; the original adult pair and a male juvenile born in 2010 and a kit from 2011. There is a pair on the small loch next to Creag Mhor Loch and a single female on Seafield Loch (Lochan Buic) - her mate has recently disappeared. Last year it was discovered that the males on Creag Mhor Lochan and Seafield Loch had swapped places. Three breeding pairs of beavers are not a viable population from which to draw any conclusions about whether or not beavers should be returned to Scotland.
In the meantime, the beavers living wild on Tayside and Angus continue to prosper and thrive. The numbers are estimated at around 100. These beavers are deemed to be illegal, having arrived there by escaping from captive colonies in the area and producing offspring over the past few years. They are the 'wrong' beavers being Bavarian Castor Fiber, rather than Norwegian Castor Fiber (which have been pronounced as the 'right' beavers for Scotland). An attempt in 2010 to capture the Tayside beavers resulted in one being caught which subsequently died in Edinburgh Zoo. The trapping trial was suspended and since then the minister (currently Stuart Stevenson) has been considering what should be done. An announcement has been due to be made 'shortly' for several months. One of the options is to cull the Tay beavers but it seems madness to kill a thriving population of beavers to protect the credibility of a £2 million project of a dwindling population of beavers. There is evidence that beavers existed on Tayside while there is no evidence that they were ever in Knapdale Forest. The beavers are currently not believed to be protected under wildlife legislation so can be trapped or culled by landowners and farmers. Their status is disputed by supporters of the Tay beavers who believe that they are protected and so cannot be removed. Part of the licence conditions for Knapdale include an exit strategy which includes killing the beavers. If it is shown that this option is no longer available, then the exit strategy is negated and the licence granted on a false premise.
As we approach the season when young beavers disperse to find mates and establish new territories, there are two beavers of an age to leave their family groups. In the past, dispersing beavers have simply disappeared as there are no other beavers in the area. The adult pairs on Loch Linne and Dubh Loch must be at least 7 years old, having had young with them when they arrived and they may have had kits in previous years. Producing only one kit per family in the last two years might indicate that they are coming to the end of their breeding life (beavers usually produce 2 or 3 kits and live to about 8 years in the wild) or that the habitat is not suitable. The pair on Creag Mhor Loch will be of an age to produce kits this summer.
At the end of the first year, the project predicted that there might be 30 or 40 beavers in Knapdale by the end of the trial. Given the current numbers this cannot possibly happen. Three breeding pairs are not sufficient for a viable trial and another extension to the licence would be required to import more animals. In the meantime, the Scottish Beaver Trial PR machine is working hard to promote the project with plans for beaver safaris this summer. Given the fragility of the population, is it a good idea to continually disturb the animals by taking groups of humans to the sites? We are told that the project is good for tourism but as a holiday cottage business within one mile of the nearest beavers, I have not experienced an increase in visitors or enquiries - people are interested to see the beavers when they get here but often did not know about the trial before arriving in the area. A nocturnal animal in an area renowned for its evening midges is not the greatest tourist attraction. The project has been publishing footage of beavers taken with night vision cameras, acknowledging that the beavers are difficult to spot during daylight hours. Knapdale was acknowledged as being particularly rich in biodiversity long before the arrival of the beavers and with 9 feet of rainfall in 2011, few people would assert that we need more wetlands in Argyll.
So far, studies of the Knapdale beavers have shown that beavers build lodges and dams, create bodies of water and chop down trees. They were happily doing this in Norway before being relocated to Scotland. Isn't it time we started thinking about what is best for beavers rather than what they can do for humans in terms of tourism and wetland restoration? It is telling that along the side of the forest road to Seafield Loch, blocked and flooded ditches are currently being drained by men and machines while on the other side of the road, we have installed beavers to create wetland habitat. Our environmental problems are due to the activities of man, not the absence of beavers.