A Dance with Beavers in Knapdale
‘Are you okay – can you see?’
‘Not really but yes, I’m okay.’
I was more than okay. The rain had been relentless for three days. I was on a canoe on Loch Coille-Bharr, and with driving winds also firing raindrops straight into my eyeballs, vision was suboptimal. But still, I was exceptionally happy.
This was one of my first experiences with conservation fieldwork In 2018, working in Knapdale Forest in Argyll with the Royal Zoological Society for Scotland (RZSS), on their beaver reintroduction programme.
In January 2021, the huge project to reinforce beaver populations in Knapdale came to an end, with the endangered species now more widespread than ever before, and breeding throughout the area. Between 2017 and 2019, 21 beavers were released in this landmark conservation project which displayed how these magnificent creatures could create and restore important wetland and native woodland habitats.
After a 400-year absence from Scotland, the beavers are back and, with increased genetic diversity thanks to the Scottish Beaver Trial, they have secured a future in the country. The original 2009 Scottish Beaver Trial project, a partnership between the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Forestry and RZSS, released a limited number of beavers for the first time, to trial reintroduction in Scotland. It was announced in 2016 by the Scottish Government that beavers were officially here to stay, the first time a native mammal had been successfully reintroduced in Britain.
Conservation efforts over the past ten years have truly been a success. The beaver population is steadily growing and having a positive impact on native biodiversity, from dragonflies to otters, plus offering benefits to society from improved water quality to new opportunities for wildlife tourism.
One of the most important things to me personally is the perception of young people, in particular young women working in conservation. My experience of switching career as I did from first from journalism, then performing arts to conservation, there were many comments, dead-ends, and a lot of questions along the way. I was asked ‘why are you here?’ more often than not, in the face of trying to gain experience and pursue something I was passionate about.
One of the most positive and transformative experiences I had during this time was being part of the beaver data monitoring project. In a series of experiences which had been less than fulfilling, this was my first of being considered a capable member of the team. If ever there was a lightbulb moment this was one of them. Heading to Knapdale alone on a bus from Glasgow, as the torrential three-day rain began, I still had doubts. The old imposter syndrome was making itself heard, but after arriving, trying my best, and realising that I wasn’t failing, I felt like I’d landed on the right path and the connection to the place around me that I felt was magical.
The Atlantic oak woodland in Knapdale Forest is home to Scotland’s own temperate rainforest, the sights, smells, sounds are like nowhere else. The days were long, the beavers were elusive and the work was both physical and fast-paced. For me, that is exactly what was needed. To be treated as fully capable until proven otherwise, and not viewed with caution.
The journey from arts (working as a professional dancer in London) to science (embarking on an MSc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation and trying to gain fieldwork experience) was tricky. I feel strongly that it is possible to be more than one thing in life, but somehow the out-dated narrative of picking a lane and staying in it seems to have carried over from high school. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’ – I think it’s a dangerous question.
Something which, four years later, and now working as a conservation project officer myself, I’ll always take with me is the power of opportunity. The chance to canoe on the water, see beaver lodges for the first time in the wild, to wade through mud, and walk for miles upstream searching for field signs. The chance to make mistakes on the go, to learn quickly out in the field and experience the realities. Importantly, to be taken at face value.
Something clicked in me after the field trip. To travel deep into the forest, stand at the edge of the loch at midnight where across the water beaver families stirred and swam for the first time in 400 years. To know that apart from our small team, we were truly, wildly alone out here and acknowledge that for the first time, in a long time, I was truly, wildly happy.*
(*This blog has been written by independent writers outside of our organisation. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)
Kirsty lives in Glasgow and works for The Conservation Volunteers, an environmental charity, on their citizen science wildlife monitoring projects. Previously a Journalism and Creative Writing graduate and professional dancer, she went on to gain an MSc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. Follow Kirsty on social media: @wildscotplace.
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© Kirsty Crawford 2021.