beaver-scotland (Large) 

Upstream beyond the second run of rapids, the birch trees had been felled from near to the ground, their stumps sharpened like pencils. Beavers!  Looking closer I found sticks similarly sharpened with the chisel marks of their teeth were clearly visible.  Nearby was a untidy stack of sticks cemented together with mud; a beaver lodge.  One swam alongside the boat, then with a flap and a splash from its paddle of a tail, it disappeared. Beavers can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes.  

Beavers are the largest European Rodent, about the size of a Badger, and the most industrious. They can fell several trees in a day, chop them up and transport the smaller trunks and branches along the river to their dams and lodges.  They are animal architects; they construct their own habitat of ponds and canals by blocking rivers and streams and excavating underwater channels for purposes of transport and escape from predators, such as bears, lynx and wolves. 

Many beavers live in cold parts of the world, Canada, Alaska, Finland and Russia.  During the autumn, Canadian Beavers store branches at the bottom of their ponds by sticking them in the mud.  Beavers don’t hibernate. When the pond freezes over, the vegetation can remain fresh throughout the winter as if it were in a refrigerator and can be conveyed underwater to the lodges when needed.  Beavers live in small family groups, adults, yearlings and kits, but they do not discourage other lodgers, such as otters and  muskrats.   

The European Beaver, Castor fiber, is smaller than its North American cousin, Castor canadiensis, and will only build lodges when there are no available holes in the bank.  Its dams are not nearly so large and tend to be built across smaller streams.  One dammed up a culvert, flooding the road near Juntasranta.  Clearing it, workers discovered a Russian mine incorporated into the structure.  Luckily it didn’t explode.

The Beaver was once common throughout Europe, but was hunted almost to extinction for its pelt and meat and also for the secretions of its anal scent gland, known as castoreum, which contain salicylic acid and has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.  There have been no wild beavers in Britain for 500 years.  Now there is a plan to reintroduce them into Scotland.  The farmers are against it.  They fear that beavers will spread throughout the country and devastate their fields. The country sports lobby is up in arms.  The beaver, they claim will dam the salmon rivers and prevent the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. The conservationists say, ‘Not so.  The European Beaver will not dam major rivers, only smaller tributaries, and the wetlands they create will be a wonderful habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, frogs and newts and a wide variety of insect life.  They will be havens of biodiversity.  They will encourage the growth of water loving trees, such as the willow, the alder and the beautiful shivering aspen, Popula tremulens

The decomposing wood will encourage a great biodiversity of invertebrates and fungi, which will in turn attract birds, dragonflies, mammals and fish.

The arguments are delicately poised.  I am a romantic. Trees and water, a wonderful play of light, secret ponds, bird song, the sight of a beaver swimming upstream as the sun came up over the pines; these are the glories of life.  But I am also intrigued by the puzzles of nature inviting nothing more technical than careful observation to solve them.  

The reintroduction of the Beaver to Scotland may well encourage eco-tourism and a more widespread appreciation of the wonderful variety of other species with which we share the planet and a more robust and adaptable aquatic environment.  Bring back the Beaver, I say,  but don’t forget the midge repellent!

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