The reintroduction of Beavers in Scotland - Scotland Magazine
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The reintroduction of Beavers in Scotland

Our writer goes in search of beavers in Scotland: returning Scottish residents who have been missing from our waterways for centuries Words by Stephen Deal The reintroduction of beavers in…

Our writer goes in search of beavers in Scotland: returning Scottish residents who have been missing from our waterways for centuries

Words by Stephen Deal

The reintroduction of beavers in Scotland

We had been perched almost silently by the edge of a pond for nearly an hour now, binoculars focused, hoping to see a sight that hadn’t been possible for hundreds of years: beavers in Scotland.

Light was fading fast on this late autumnal night in Stirlingshire when landowner, Tom Bowser, suddenly gave me a nudge and gestured to a spot just a few feet directly in front of me. 

There, swimming happily, was not just one but two beavers, seemingly oblivious to the presence of a dozen humans on the bank opposite. 

A translocated beaver at Argaty.

We were at Argaty, a farm estate on the outskirts of Doune, close to Stirling, watching one of two families of beavers who have helped pave the way for the reintroduction of beavers in Scotland after they were hunted to extinction in a country they had considered their home. 

During the 16th century, beavers in Britain were coldly targeted to satisfy the fashion at the time of using felted beaver fur in hats. But now these large rodents are back and, it seems, they are thriving. And, although some farmers and landowners have yet to be fully convinced, there are plenty of others out there who say they are already proving to be hugely beneficial for Scotland’s environment. 

beavers in scotland
A beaver leaving a crate at Argaty. Credit: Elliot McCandless

Beavers are semi-aquatic creatures. They eat bark, not wood, and despite what you think you might know, they don’t eat fish – apparently, we can blame CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for that common misperception. 

Beavers have distinctive orange teeth – thanks to an iron-rich protective coating of enamel – and, as we were about to find out when we were finally spotted on the banks of their home, they also have a hefty tail that can be slapped heavily on the water when they sense danger.

Beavers were given European protected species status in Scotland in 2019, with the view of the Scottish Government that they should be allowed to expand their range naturally following a successful reintroduction trial in Argyll.

Where to see beavers in Scotland

beavers in scotland
Wild beavers on the River Tay. Credit: Elliot McCandless

However, a separate population in Tayside – believed to have stemmed from animals that were either illegally released or escaped from captivity – has occasionally come into conflict with local farmers due to the flooding of fields and crops on what is considered to be some of the richest agricultural land in Scotland.

Rather than being culled under licences issued by NatureScot, the Scottish Government announced in November 2021 that it would prefer to see the translocation of the Tayside beavers to other – perhaps less contentious – parts of the country, with the two resident Argaty families being among the first beneficiaries of such a move.

For people like Tom, whose farm became the first private estate in Scotland to receive translocated beavers that very same month, the many environmental benefits that beavers bring outweighs any negatives.

beavers in scotland
Tom Bowser from the Argaty Red Kites project. Credit: Elliot McCandless

Tom says the wetland habitat created by beavers supports many different invertebrates, amphibians and fish, which then provide food for birds and mammals in the area, thus improving the biodiversity.  

“I think beavers symbolise hope,” Tom tells me, as he shows us around his land, which has already successfully overseen the reintroduction of red kites that fly overhead. “We have got this ally here that can help deal with this environmental crisis we have. We have seen an explosion in biodiversity here at Argaty thanks to the beavers. 

“Wetlands are expanding and diversifying, the water is flowing in places that have probably been dry for centuries, insects are feeding on beaver-gnawed trees,” Tom says. 

During the heatwave of 2022, when water levels on the farm were down, Tom says the two beaver families came into their own. “The beavers dredged their ponds, built canals, kept a good depth of water, and kept hundreds of other species alive,” he says.

Farleitter Crag near Ballintean in the Cairngorms. Credit: Elliot McCandless

Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, one of Europe’s leading beaver experts and researchers, who had joined us on the visit, stressed the Stirling area is very different to Tayside: “Floodbank issues are very localised, where farmland is right next to water,” she says, suggesting this may be why their reintroduction here has been a better fit.

 Tom agrees that the geography of the area seems to suit them well: ‘‘My dad used to try and farm every last inch of this place and it just didn’t work,” he says. “These are the places where beavers are now, and we are fine. They have only brought us benefits, which is super.”

Tom now runs spring and summer beaver-watching tours at his farm, with the public appetite proving to be huge – excursions, priced at a very reasonable £50, often sell out within minutes. 

At Five Sisters Zoo, near Livingston in West Lothian, beavers moved away from Tayside conflict zones can be kept temporarily and health screened before finding new homes. From there, they have been taken to iconic spots such as Loch Lomond, with public sightings in waterways in some of Scotland’s cities, including Stirling, Perth, and Dundee. 

Beavers finding each other after being released. Credit: Joshua Glavin

In December 2023, The Scottish Beaver Trust and European Nature Trust were thrilled when a licence application to translocate Eurasian beavers to the Cairngorms, the UK’s biggest national park, was approved by NatureScot – with the first beavers returning to the national park for the first time in more than 400 years just weeks later. 

For people like Dr Sally Mackenzie, freshwater ecologist at the Cairngorms National Park (home to a quarter of the UK’s rare and endangered species), it’s welcome news.

We meet Sally in Ballintean, on the banks of the River Feshie, which, almost uniquely in the UK, is shaped and governed by natural processes.  The bears and wolves that once scavenged on salmon carcasses here may be long gone, but Sally believes the return of another part of Scotland’s past will be of great benefit.

“In the UK, we have lost 90% of our wetlands, a lot through agricultural drainage,” she says. “Beavers can create wetlands, restore rivers, create habitat for species.”

beavers in scotland
A beaver-made dam. Credit: Elliot McCandless

The reintroduced beavers here will live alongside the 18,000 people who call the Cairngorms National Park home but will also become an additional attraction for its estimated two million annual visitors. 

On the final day of our tour we travel north to visit South Clunes Farm, near Inverness, run by Fred Swift, who has led efforts to restore the endangered Highland Great Crested newt to wetlands in the area. 

Beavers have been living in man-made lochans on Fred’s land since 2008 and he has no doubt the newts couldn’t thrive here without the impact the beavers have made in helping increase biodiversity. 

“Life here is on steroids compared to the pre-beaver days – what I refer to as the dark days,” he says.

He says studies have shown the brown trout who pass through the waterways on his land are also more numerous and bigger than previously, believing this is because beavers have created a better environment for fish through the industrious work they have been doing, such as building dams. 

beavers in scotland
A beaver has dug here to keep water in a pond at Argaty. Credit: Elliot McCandless

“It’s a very simple formula – more water, more fish,” he says.

 So, could the return of beavers to Scotland’s wilderness be followed by other creatures, no longer part of our landscape? 

Fred likes to think so – acknowledging that his great excitement in creating a home for an endangered species of newt is not always shared so enthusiastically by everyone. However, he believes there are other potential reintroductions that could spark excitement. 

Wild beavers on the River Tay. Credit: Joshua Glavin

“Let me put it like this – wolves are very sexy, lynx are quite sexy, beavers are becoming sexy – unfortunately, for some people, newts are never going to be sexy,” he says.

Maybe only time will tell if the reintroduction of beavers in Scotland could pave the way for the return of other long-forgotten members of our wildlife family, or if the beavers alone will do enough to keep the wolves (and lynx) from the door.

beavers in scotland
Beavers have created a perfect habitat for themselves and other wildlife in this burn at South Clunes Farm. Credit: Elliot McCandless

How and when to see beavers in Scotland

The best time to see beavers is in the evening in spring and summer and an organised tour, such as Tom Bowser’s at Argaty, near Doune, will maximise your chances of seeing them. A similar experience is provided by Perthshire Wildlife. Meanwhile, in Argyll, at the site of the original Scottish Beaver Trial, VisitScotland has a beaver centre in Lochgilphead and tours are provided by operators including Wonder Seekers.  

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