Knapdale Beavers: history has eyes on you
As an obsessive naturalist, I find it easy to remember the dates of my first sightings of species. Kingfisher – 18th August 2005. Purple Heron – 17th July 2010. Bottlenose Dolphin – 29th April 2017. These encounters cause such a rush of excitement and satisfaction that the timestamp is burned into our memories forever. But there’s one that exceeds them all: 31st July 2017 – the day I saw my first beaver.
The Eurasian Beaver has been on my nature bucket list for as long as I can remember, having long been thwarted in my attempts to see them. But in July 2017 I found myself staying in Kilmartin, a small village in Argyll and Bute in west Scotland which was within easy reach of Knapdale Forest. Knapdale is home to the first beaver reintroduction project in Scotland. No beavers had been recorded in the country for over 400 years until 2009 when the Scottish Beaver Trial, a partnership of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland, gained permission to release 16 beavers at the site over a five year trial. Following close monitoring the trial was deemed successful and in 2016 the Scottish government re-classified beavers as a native species and formalised their protection. By 2017, plans were being made to release more beavers at the site.
I arrived at Barnluasgan Information Centre on the afternoon of the 31st July with heightened anticipation. It was about a mile walk to Dubh Loch and Loch Collie Bharr, the site of their release, where I was stunned by how plentiful the signs of their activity were. Many of the trees around the edge of the water had been felled and the waterways fashioned into characteristic beaver canals. Further down the loch, the dam was visible – a vast yet architecturally intricate structure. Nearby tree trunks had been whittled down with their exceptionally strong teeth – rather than magnesium beavers have iron in their tooth enamel to strengthen them. It was clear to see that these ecosystem engineers were having a positive impact on this landscape – helping to introduce new wetland habitat and improving riparian woodland, which brings a host of benefits to other species.
It was fantastic to see first-hand the first successful reintroduction of beavers to Scotland. But for an addicted naturalist, it wasn’t enough – I wanted a sighting.
After dark, I returned to the site (with my trusty midge net). For several hours, all was still except for the darting of hundreds of bats overhead. It was an impressively dark night with very little moon and plenty of cloud, but from our position on the pontoon alongside Collie Bharr, there were excellent views of both the dam and the loch.
After two or three hours, I was about to give up for the night when it happened. A slight splash on the edge of Collie Bharr made the breath catch in my throat. And then out of nowhere the unmistakable shape of a beaver glided smoothly past the pontoon. It was perhaps 10 metres away and I could clearly see the large paddle-like tail and hear it slapping the water – it was definitely an adult. I watched it travel around 15 metres as it swam along the loch and then it disappeared into the shadows. I’d like to say I got a photo of the encounter. But when it came to it, I was utterly transfixed – I didn’t want this moment to be remembered through a lens.
It was the most fleeting of encounters but it really struck a chord with me. Here was first-hand evidence of a really positive conservation story – the first ever native mammalian reintroduction to Scotland. It shows what’s possible with dogged perseverance and excellent science. Since my visit, more beavers have been released at Knapdale as part of an ongoing plan to ensure their long-term survival.
If you get the chance to go Knapdale – take it. The visit was a defining moment for me, not just because I saw a beaver, but because those beavers represent a significant step towards the longevity of the Eurasian Beaver in the UK – and that’s fantastic.*
(*This blog is written by an independent writer. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)
Rob Knott Beaver Believer
Rob is a zoologist and conservationist passionate about all things nature. When he’s not interning for one of the UK’s conservation charities you can usually find him out and about with a camera and pair of binoculars filming videos and podcasts about back garden nature for his science communication channels.
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© Rob Knott 2020.