David Lintern makes an amphibious journey to the wild woods of Knapdale, on the trail of a real amphibian – the Eurasian beaver.
We arrived late and set up our not so stealthy camp in the dark, a little too close to the single-track road. No matter, we’d be gone early in the morning. The waters of Caol Scotnish were absolutely flat calm, and to our surprise given the lack of a breeze, there was only a solitary midge, looking a little lost and lazy. We made a late night brew and stayed up for a while, enjoying the tranquillity. So much is made of how wild our weather can be, it’s worth noting just how often the opposite is true too. Sometimes, like tonight, it’s so quiet I can hear my own nervous system unwinding like a rusty clock! As Samuel Johnson never said, if you are tired of Scotland, then you are tired of life – I pinch myself every time, count my blessings and maybe a few of yours too – for this variety, this diversity.
This was how it began, our visit to the forests of the west; a perfect weekend in the Scottish edge lands, on the water’s edge on the edge of autumn.
Paddling alongside Taynish the following morning, that feeling of being at the edge of things was deep. There had been a harvest moon that evening, and the water was now at a low but sucking us out to sea. Tidelines on the rocks showed a metre high above the gentle swell… but the edges here are not hard, they blend. From sea to rock to earth, wood and sky, the world was soft and benign and we belonged to and in it, that morning. The coastal jungle here was a revelation to me. Within 2 hours of the Central Belt, and probably the largest single remaining patch of upland oak woodland in the UK. This is Atlantic Oak: gnarled, twisted and slow growing in acid soils, a temperate rainforest of Scots bonsai, standing knowingly alongside Hazel, Holly and gold green ferns, home to liverworts and lichens, Otters, dragonflies and in the west, where the woods slide into saltmarsh and fen meadows, rarities like Marsh Fritillary butterfly and Spotted Crake.
Later, we switched back across the bay with the tide and into the Faerie lochs, towards the Knapdale forest. The name originates from the place, of course – ‘Knap’ being a wooded ridge, and the more familiar ‘dale’ referring to the long, low parallel valleys – shoehorning a paragraph of description into a single word without unnecessary fuss. Beneath the water, the layers continued, down as well as up. A subterranean mangrove of seaweed swayed easily in the tide, reaching up to grace the water membrane and meet further tiers of grit and quarzite, Rowan, Birch, Ash and Alder. Below those tendrils, in water so clear we can see to the bottom, there’s a graveyard of mussel and winkle shells in the shallow narrows, where they congregate to filter using the tidal races. It wasn’t just influence of a beer at the Tayvallich Inn, I promise – there is a transparent harmony here, an ebb and flow, a seemingly seamless integration of animal, vegetable and mineral. Ecologists talk about a ‘mosaic’ of habitats; in Knapdale, that mosaic effect is rich, heady and ready to observe.
Into this landscape of tiers so effortlessly blended, there’s a new returnee. The excuse for our visit was the Scottish Beaver Trial, which established 4 beaver families over 5 years and across 6 lochs in order to study the feasibility and impacts of a wider reintroduction. It officially ended in 2014, after which a report was made to the Scottish Government, who are now due to decide on whether the Beavers can stay. There are much larger, ‘illegal’ settlements of beaver on the Tay, introduced from private stocks and not covered under the Trial, which are under severe pressure from farmers, fishermen and other users of the land and waterways that they transform. It’s been reported that at least 21 have been killed since 2012, including pregnant mothers and kits. The Scottish government made moves in March 2016 to provide more information and increase the use of Nature Conservation Orders in the area, but otherwise little has been done to pursue what would otherwise be a crime against wildlife.
We share things in common, humans and beavers – they are ecosystem engineers and habitat transformers; the only other animal apart from us to transform their environment through the building of shelter structures. Their influence is dynamic, driving change throughout the food chain. They mate for life, are incredibly adaptable and have a diverse diet.
We weren’t expecting to see Beavers themselves (they are mostly nocturnal) but there’s evidence of their handiwork aplenty at Knapdale. We could even hear them at night, felling trees and (ahem) beavering away in the undergrowth on Dubh Loch. It was very obvious how their actions engineer the ‘riparian zone’ where solid meets liquid, drawing the wood into the water and water into the wood to create meadows, clearings, wetlands and reed beds. Research from trials in Devon, Wales and elsewhere shows that these wetlands can act as filtration systems for lochs and rivers, soaking up silts, minerals, even agricultural pollutants and turning them into food for new plantlife, as well as slowing down water flow, mitigating flooding downstream and drought upstream.
After finding a few felled trees in the dark, whole clearings the following morning, and especially – being able to trace with my fingers their individual teeth marks on stems and branches, the final penny dropped for me. The evidence was everywhere: Beavers are natural coppicers. They drive regeneration by felling live wood so that it can re-shoot from the debris. They also favour smaller diameter trees, so what seems like destruction is actually the building of a younger woodland structure. Their felling opens up the canopy to let sunlight reach the understory, giving younger and more various plants a chance to take hold. This change in woodland structure and boost to new growth can help answer the problem of geriatric woodlands for foresters in Scotland and beyond.
The report on the Knapdale trial is not gushingly pro-beaver: It’s a scientific report, and points out some complexities involved in their wider reintroduction. Old woodland habitats and their associated species can die back, and beavers can also interface with deer (over)populations to cause local losses for particular woodland species that they both find tasty. In the case of Aspen and Hazel, this could threaten remnant populations. Beavers are incredibly efficient at felling trees and damming waterways, and because of this they have mobile territories. They will eat, transform the environment and move on, to (literally create) pastures new, which means they can be very disruptive of our use of waterways for farming and recreation, as well as other low lying transport infrastructure. More research needs to be done in the UK to work out the affects of damming on the movement of Trout and Atlantic Salmon, which would help ease the concerns of the sport fishing industry, although studies across the world show only isolated issues and many more benefits accrued from cleaner water and more stable water levels.
But while locally they can be disruptive, at a catchment level this disruption is kind of the point. There’s an overall increase in dead wood, a stabilisation of water flow and reduction in flooding through damming, lodge building and felling, and a subsequent increase in woodland and aquatic (bird, plant and insect) biodiversity. Where there are beavers, there are also more newts, dragonflies, kingfishers, woodpeckers, water voles, otters and bats. Lastly, there’s extensive evidence of huge public support, plus social and economic benefits (not just a warm fluffy feeling, actual £!) from wildlife tourism.
Much of what we read about nature in the UK makes a virtue of necessity, praising sparks of life amongst the rubble, slivers of hope in the everyday chaos of human-created climate change and habitat loss. On one hand, finding common ground seems to make common sense: When the most recent State of Nature report tells us that 65 Scottish species and 10% of all British species are at risk of extinction, it’s surely a good thing to find good news stories that we can all relate to – however small. But as I scribble these notes in the gloaming, a few metres from quietly swaying reeds in Loch Coille-Barr, I find myself pulling away from what can feel like an intellectual vanity project. Seeking nature’s poetry on the edge of destruction often seems to only serve the seeker. See, how clever we are, to discover evidence of wildlife there, half hidden and half dead under the concrete! No – we are damned by faint praise, and it has become the new normal. Why should we join the applause for impoverishment, when there is so much more, here in front of us?
A truer story is that places like Knapdale, places of miraculous beauty and overwhelming diversity, still exist but grow smaller everyday partly because we expend our attention on the hedgerows and verges of little Britain. Some perspective, perhaps; the fossil record shows beavers pre-exist humans in Scotland by between 1.3-1.5 million years. And beavers are now returned in 25 other European countries – if we are unsure about management, we can ask!
So, I don’t think we should have to choose. I’d like to see a true range of wildness, a mosaic in every sense, from the mundane to the sublime. Reseed the motorway verges by all means, but let’s also be brave enough to embrace ambitious success stories. Beaver reintroduction is morally right, benefits nature and humans, and is practically achievable. A decision is due shortly – I sincerely hope the Scottish Government agrees.