A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of
salt, but with more than a grain of truth!
The Beavers Are Back
The summer break is over, and most people are back at work, school, college or university beavering away, with the only holiday to look forward to (or not) being Christmas.
There is another species that is back, beavering away in this country too, which will be a surprise to some. Many people, if asked about beavers will think of Canada: bears, moose, wilderness, snow and ice and Canadian Mounties! And beavers.
Beavers here? In the UK? Well, not for four, five or eight hundred years depending on which research you read. Yet much of Europe is host to the Castor fiber, the European beaver, and numbers are increasing, helped by many reintroduction schemes. The other member of the family is the Canadian species previously mentioned, Castor Canadensis, and there is a Mongolian sub species Castor fiber birulai, regarded as endangered according to the US Endangered Species Act.
European beavers have been reintroduced to the wild in Scotland recently, and previously to England in controlled conditions.
Beavers are large rodents roughly between 80 and 110cms in length, height 30 to 35cm and weight anything between 12 and 35kg. That is some rodent! They have a flat scaly tail not unlike the duck billed platypus. They have front paws like hands, webbed hind feet, with each digit clawed, and strong teeth including huge yellowy orange incisors which keep growing no matter how many trees it cuts down. The ultimate lumberjack no less! I can remember seeing a photo as a child, of a tree being felled by a beaver, and unlike the way humans fell trees, they gnaw all round the tree leaving an egg timer shape, perhaps because they cannot shout ‘Timber!’ They do, however, communicate by slapping their tails on the water, either in welcome or as a warning, and with scent, body language or whistling and whining sounds.
One of the reasons for the decline in population was the thick silky fur pelt much prized in the past for its water repellent quality. The coat varies from pale brown underneath to a dark oily, glossy brown on top. The strong teeth too were used to make tools. Beavers also secrete castoreum oil, favoured as a cure for many ailments, partly from the salicin gained from its diet of willow. Also used as an aphrodisiac and for perfume, it was another lucrative reason for hunting in the past. The last record of beavers living wild in the UK was in 1526.
They live in rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, spending as much as fifteen minutes under water at a time. To this end they have special membranes which cover small eyes, and ears and nostrils that can close at will, being valvular. On land they can walk on their hind feet and carry stones, logs and mud! Now that I would love to see!
They are strictly herbivores, eating the bark of many softwood trees, including willow, hazel, lime, black poplar etc. Very many water and waterside plants, tubers, leaves and roots are also part of their staple diet, helping to keep waterways clear and free flowing.
They make a unique home, called a lodge, from felled trees, branches and mud with the entrance underwater. They have a dry upper floor where they live and cache food and there are always two entrances to enable escape from predators such as otters. To raise the water level sufficiently for this they build dams from trees, branches and mud which can be massive and can cause problems in some waterways.
Like badgers they are naturally clean, grooming both themselves and other family members with teeth and claws. The lodge too is cleaned out often.
They are nocturnal animals, and with their enormous teeth can fell a tree some 40cm in diameter in just one night. Sometimes they share the task, in fact they are very much social animals working as a team. They mate for life, usually have one litter a year with as many as eight ‘kits’, in the right conditions. They can live as long as 20 years in a safe habitat, and in captivity have been known to live as long as 35 five years.
Their activities in rivers and streams are beneficial to many other forms of wildlife and this is one of the reasons for the reintroduction attempts. As with many such projects the subject is hotly debated with supporters on both sides of the argument.
At the end of May 2009 three families of Castor fiber were released into a Scottish forest. Caught in Norway they were released after the statutory six months quarantine. During that time they were tested exhaustively for food poisoning bacteria such as cryptosporidium which can affect people. They have been provided with artificial lodges until they are able to build their own.
Supporters of the project hope they will increase tourism and have a positive effect on the local environment. Opponents say they are being released in salmon rivers
and could affect the £100million angling industry if rivers are dammed. Others say they are damaging trees.
All 11 beavers were fitted with tracking devices and are being closely monitored. Unfortunately shortly afterwards a young male died (cause unknown), then an adult female disappeared, possibly shot. Shortly afterwards the adult male and a juvenile female also disappeared. The male has been seen and volunteers are still searching for the female.
A restricted reintroduction took place in England in 2005, when animals were imported from Germany and released in a 60 acre enclosure near Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Numbers have now more than doubled from the original six animals. It is hoped that if successful the beavers can be released into the Thames Valley.
In 2007 a pair were brought to Ottery St. Mary in Devon and kept in a two acre enclosure on the River Tale. It is believed they have bred too.
The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) is introducing a pair of beavers at its reserve at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire as part of its ‘Back from the Brink’ project, which it hopes will increase awareness and support for reintroduction.
Though rodents, and thus regarded with suspicion by some, they are strictly vegetarian, cause no harm to crops, do not prey on other animals and provide shallow pools for crayfish and habitat for water voles, both of which are endangered, in addition to many other creatures. They control tree growth and vegetation on river banks which otherwise can choke or shade out other species of plants and animals.
There is still considerable discussion in England and Wales, and the results of the Scottish project will no doubt be followed with great interest. At present it is illegal to release beavers into the wild, but like most animals they have a mind of their own and may decide the issue for us.
The jury is still out, but I feel they should be welcomed, perhaps with more enthusiasm than wolves, another possible addition to our indigenous wildlife which is even more controversial. They are certainly a better form of tree conservation than chain saws! Perhaps they will become as much loved (by some) as badgers. I do hope so.