Sunday, 9 August 2009

Some History about the Beavers at Bamff and a Visit to Mid-Argyll

A couple of friends have asked that I write some historical background to the beaver project at Bamff.

The story starts with the announcement in about 1997 by Scottish Natural Heritage that they proposed to return the Eurasian beaver to Scotland. Some research was commissioned and in 1998 there was a launch to a process of public consultation. SNH's favoured plan was to release beavers in the catchment of the river Tay because their research showed that this was the area of Scotland with the most suitable habitat.

The project soon ran into heavy opposition from salmon fishery interests, the National Farmers' Union of Scotland and some commercial forestry interests (though not the Forestry Commission) and the idea that there might be a general release was squashed.

A committee was set up under the chairmanship of Roger Wheater (a past director of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, chairman of the National Trust for Scotland and a member of the board of Scottish Natural Heritage) with a membership that seemed to me to be drawn from all the interests that were hostile to the beaver's return and individuals who were indifferent to the beaver from bodies that, in principle, were favourable to the restoration of this old native of our fauna.

The committee concluded that there should be a trial project in Knapdale in Argyll, once a licence to release beavers there had been obtained from the Scottish Government (which gave opposers more time to lobby against even this reduced trial).

It was around this time that some friends got together and we decided to set up a Scottish Beaver Network, or Group. We felt that Scottish Natural Heritage needed encouragement and support in the face of the determined opposition that confronted it. We also thought that, if necessary, we should carry out a trial of our own in enclosed ground.

One of the factors that determined this decision was the perception that those opposed to the official trial were going to insist on so many conditions that the cost of the project would become hard for SNH to meet.

So we went ahead. There were many problems. How to get beavers? Where would they come from and who would quarantine them?

Luckily, the Kent Wildlife Trust had hit on the idea that they should manage one of their reserves (Ham Fen) by using beavers to cut the abundant growth of willows. It turned out that Roy Dennis had connections in Norway so, through his good offices it was possible to make the right contacts. Arrangements were made and it was agreed that any spare beavers would come to Bamff.

So it was that a pair of beavers reached us on the first of March 2002, followed by two females that July.

It wasn't until 2005, however, that beavers bred successfully.


In the meantime, the official attempt at a trial in Knapdale made little progress. Rhona Brankin, environment minister in the Labour/LibDem administration at Holyrood, turned down SNH's application for a licence in about 2005.

Fortunately, when the Scottish Nationalists replaced the Labour Party in 2007 (?) they accepted the application for a licence by a revamped partnership between the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

These organisations were faced with a need to raise some £2 million to fund the trial, but seem to be on their way to achieving this sum.

I visited Knapdale yesterday, a rainy day, typical of Argyll, and took these photographs.

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