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Bewildered by beavers: can they return?

Friday 20 March 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, normally a stalwart supporter of wildlife in all its forms and of mammals in particular, just adores the suggestion that beavers should be re-introduced to Britain, but suggests it would be totally inpractical because of their one very bad habit

THE revelation that the Government quango Natural England has commissioned a study into the possibility of reintroducing wild beavers to English waterways (see News) sent my imagination soaring – for perhaps two minutes. Then it crashed like the proverbial lead balloon.

Beaver Dam

Dam: Beavers’ bad habits


As someone who has spent more than half a century on various river banks in all parts of the British Isles, and in that time has seen an otter only once, the idea of feasting my eyes on a long-gone aquatic mammal almost brought mist to my eyes.

Then reality struck hard and suddenly I was thinking of a strange conversation I once had with the once infamous Barbara “Red Babs” Castle, Minister of Transport in Harold Wilson’s Labour Government, who revealed that when in office, civil servants had come to her with a scheme to fill in all England’s canals and turn them into roads.

Castle, long-time Blackburn MP and wife of a colleague of mine, was unbeknown to them a boating enthusiast and she thought long and hard to find a copper-bottomed excuse not to proceed with such a dastardly plan.

And one of her engineers came up trumps: the canals had become an integral part of the English land drainage system and filling them would cause millions of acres of prime fram land to revert to bog and marsh. Bingo: our canals were saved to become the huge success they are today.

The link between Red Babs and the European beaver might, at first, seem remote in the extreme but the problem is the same. Beavers, lovely, shy, hard-working creatures that they are, have one ingrained habit which would make life very difficult for farmers and fishermen alike: they build dams.

They don’t do this for fun. They make their nests and rear their young in hides inside these dams to protect them from predators like .wolves, lynxes and I suppose even bears. To build such dams, they fell substantial areas of trees and, after a few years of occupation in any given location, can reduce fast running rivers and streams into barren marsh, its landscape not dissimilar from World War 1 battle fields where all the trees have been shredded by constant shelling.

This, of course, is nature in the raw, a natural part of the ecology in the wild open spaces of Canada and perhaps in the vast silver birch forests of Northern European, from Scandinavia spreading eastwards into Russian and across as far as Siberia.

But almost no-one lives in those vast expanses of wilderness, there is virtually no agriculture as we understand it, and the few natives who do scrape a precarious living there certainly look upon the beaver as a useful resource for fur clothing and, as far as I know, food.

A pilot beaver release scheme has already been approved in Scotland (where one landowner is already planning to release wolves and possibly even bears) and where the Leftwing Scottish Parliament is always anxious to cock a snoot at what they call the “nobs” – the big landowners – many of whom are horrified at the idea.

If we have to re-introduce a native mammal, could we please re-double our efforts to bring back Rattie

The reason for that is simple: many Highland estates depend heavily on the income from salmon and trout fishermen who, in turn, bring in critically important money to local hotels, pubs and restaurants – as they do on many of the smaller trout streams in the Yorkshire Dales.

Salmon and trout, of course, need fast flowing, clean and well-oxygenated water in which to spawn. Without that, the eggs simply die of oxygen deprivation or are buried in layers of mud or shale – exactly the conditions which prevail after a few years of beaver occupation.

Add to that the increasingly boggy state of the surrounding land – good grazing for livestock is at a premium in these areas – plus the loss of valuable timber and, sadly, the re-introduction of the beaver 400 years after it went extinct here looks like a No-no.

If we have to re-introduce a native mammal, could we please re-double our efforts to bring back Rattie, the water vole hero of the Wind in the Willows, which has been virtually wiped out by mink released from fur farms by so-called animal rights activists, thus unleashing a reign of terror into the English countryside. Rattie is fun to watch ... and doesn’t build dams!

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