Sunday 30 September 2012

6th International Beaver Symposium at Ivanić Grad, Croatia

It is now more than a week since Louise and I returned from the 6th International Beaver Symposium, which was held in Ivanic Grad in Croatia.

We arrived late there because of a failure of flights to connect at Gatwick: our flight from Edinburgh was very late and the aeroplane for Zagreb left without us. Thanks to the insistence of Gordana, a  Croatian radiologist we met at Edinburgh Airport, and a helpful man at a desk, British Airways acknowledged that we did have through tickets, and so put us up for the night in a hotel, taxied us back and forth, and so forth. All this was a help, but it was annoying to miss most of the first day of the symposium. Hardly had we said farewell to our new friend at Zagreb airport than we met Göran Hartman at the bus station in Zagreb and so made our way to Ivanić Grad.

Here are some of the photographs I took, starting with the first evening at the Kezele Farm, where we stayed, a few kilometres out of Ivanić Grad.

These meetings provide opportunities for people to join in vehement discussions about subjects that interest them passionately. Here are Frank Rosell from Telemark University in Norway and Göran Hartman from SLU in Sweden. Behind them is Jørn Bertelsen from Denmark. The occasion was dinner on the first evening of the symposium.

The International Beaver Symposium would not be the same without Gerhard Schwab from Bavaria, extraduction expert of beavers to the world, including Mongolia. Here he is at a thoughtful moment during dinner on the first evening of the symposium.

At the next table were Gerhard and, next to him, Hugh Dignon, the Scottish Government's Head of Wildlife. It was a credit to Hugh that he took the trouble to come. On the right of the photograph is Karen Taylor, who works for Scottish Natural Heritage in Lochgilphead. I wonder what she is thinking as she looks at Hugh Dignon.

Here, also on that first evening, we have Duncan Halley to the left, Alicia Leow-Dyke from Aigas in the middle and Alan Law from Stirling University on the right.

Adrian Lloyd-Jones from the Wildlife Trusts for Wales is discussing something with Duncan Halley of NINA, the Norwegian conservation agency. Just to Duncan's left, his face partly hidden by Duncan's, is Pavel Munclinger of the Charles University in Prague.

Derek Gow is seen here in bullish form. Roisin Campbell-Palmer of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Rebecca Northey, Derek's assistant, are behind him.

I was sorry that Samuel Dubie of the French group Eaux Vivantes could not be with us. This is the poster he sent.

The second evening of the symposium found many of us back at the Kezele Farmhouse. This was very convenient for Louise and me because that was where we were staying. The food was delicious and was preceded by a visit to the Kezele's museum and winery. Then, we ate and, after that, danced to a splendid band. Russian Irina, who had given a talk about her work on cladocerans in beaver ponds earlier that day, danced with great verve. Glynnis Hood from the University of Alberta had also spoken on the Tuesday about beavers and biodiversity, particularly in respect of the part played by the digging of canals in promoting connectivity in beaver habitats. I hope I have got that right. Glynnis spoke with refreshing passion about her subject, particularly welcome because some talks are rather dry even if worthy.

Here we are tasting the wines. Mostly they make elegant white wines at Kezele, but there is also a very nice red wine, made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

On Wednesday Pavel Munclinger took the chair for the morning and started proceedings by giving a talk of his own. Some time ago Duncan Halley wrote a paper  ('Sourcing Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) stock for reintroductions in Great Britain and Western Europe' - Mammal Review 2010) in which he took the line, following work using mitochondrial DNA, that there were two Evolutionarily Significant Units for the Eurasian beaver - Eastern and Western. Pavel showed that his own work, using micro-satellites, revealed that there was more cross over of genetic material than might have been supposed. 

Before the last Ice Age Eurasian beavers were distributed more or less continuously, as the habitat allowed, along the whole stretch of the Eurasian continent. When the Ice Age gripped the continent the population of beavers was split into two groups, the Western and Eastern groups. The ending of the Ice Age allowed the split populations to meet and mingle once again until heavy persecution by humans   left a few surviving populations of beavers in scattered groups over the continent.

Numbers of beavers are increasing now, thanks to legal protection, and previously isolated populations will come in contact with each other and breed.  Eventually, possibly sooner rather than later, there will be genetic exchange throughout the continent once again.

All this makes the Scottish discussion about 'right' and 'wrong' kinds of beaver look contentious.

There followed two talks about the Scottish Beaver Trial and then it was my turn to take the stage.

My talk was entitled 'The Strange Tale of the Beavers of the River Tay'. When I prepared it I was aware that some of it might prove upsetting, but I didn't foresee how much some people would find it so. With hindsight I made one factual mistake in referring to the death of the beaver Erica in Edinburgh Zoo as resulting from an infection contracted there. In fact the story seems to be this: the beaver was caught in a trap and was injured in the process. She was taken to Edinburgh Zoo where the wound was tended and healed. At some point she injured herself with a splinter and then succumbed to toxic shock. None of this was the fault of the RZSS or their staff, who did all they could to keep the animal in good health. The death of Erica, while in the care of the Zoo, was a public relations problem for RZSS and a gift for the campaign to save the beavers in the Tay.

I regret causing pain at a time when we want to cooperate with other groups and individuals who are interested in confirming the return of the beaver to Scotland, but I feel that we are entitled to tell the story of the return of the beavers to the Tay as we saw it at a time when it looked as though SNH was determined to destroy the free beavers of the Tay.

That evening the Symposium Dinner took place.

Dancers and musicians performed in traditional dress. They danced and sang beautifully. Speeches were made and prizes given for the best posters. 

The Russians on the table next to us drank vodka and rose to toast each other. I was too slow with my camera to catch this splendid moment.

Louise and I sat at a table with Frank Rosell and Howard Parker. Howard is an American who has lived in Norway for many years. He has worked on the relationship between salmon and beavers in Norway and made nonsense of Ronald Campbell of the Tweed Foundation's various assertions. Peter Busher came to speak to Frank and Howard after giving a speech of thanks to the organisers of the symposium, especially Dr. Marijan Grubešić and Dr. Linda Bjedov.

Jorn van den Bogaert, his partner and her child, sat on the other side of the round table. Jorn does eco-tourism in Flanders, to which activity beavers contribute considerably, as they do in the Ardennes.

After the meal we danced with verve to a fine band.

On Thursday we embussed and set off for the Plitvička jezera National Park. We found a landscape of forest and extraordinary waterfalls and lakes in a karstic countryside. The water in the lakes and pools was strikingly pure and turquoise.

We weren't very good at our identification of fish. There were occasionally biggish fish like this one - was it some kind of carp? The possibility that they were rudd was mentioned. Were some of the little ones minnows?

Alicia found a scat on the path and we gathered round to hear her pronounce on its origin. Perhaps it was dropped there by a marten of some kind? There are polecats in the National Park, but as the scat didn't stink very obviously it cannot have come from that species.

The open areas were dominated by luxurious growths of a species of butterbur (Petasites sp.)

The board walks were tremendous.

Zoya Goryainova gave a talk on GIS and remote sensing data for evaluation of the Eurasian beaver activity in Russian natural protected areas. Her talk was easy to listen to because she speaks good English.

I was delighted to notice this crayfish in a pool beside the board walk.

We thought this looked like the spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus), but there was something different about its fruits. It turned out to be another Euonymus.

We were pleased to see this gentian in the woods.

The forest here consists mainly of beech, spruce and fir, but there was plenty of sycamore and ash,  with little in the way of a shrub layer. Where there was enough light there was some hazel like shrub and the spindle tree just mentioned.

We stopped for ice cream at a visitor centre and were warned about leaving rubbish about for the bears. Wolves live in this area.

Anke Simon works in the field of environmental education in Bavaria. Behind her is Cherie Westbrook, an ecological hydrologist from Canada.

Alius Ulevicius was our host in Lithuania in 2009. Beyond him is Karl-Andreas Nitsche, beaver man of the Elbe, and a member of the organising committee for the IBS.

Sometimes the torrent of water coincided with the board walk.

After a tremendous lunch at four o'clock in the afternoon, the Russians got together for a group photograph.

We stopped at Karlovac on our way back to Ivanić Grad. The town had been on the front line during the war of 1991 to 1995. Marijan Grubešić, our host for the symposium, who had taken part in the war, described the action at Karlovac. 

To start with the Croats had little armour with which to counter the Serb tanks. You will notice that the armoured vehicle in this photograph is a converted agricultural tractor. There were several other conversions of civilian vehicles in this memorial museum. As the war continued, the Croats fought with tanks they had captured from the Serb Jugoslav National Army. 

During our bus journey from Ivanić Grad to the National Park at Plitvička that morning I had noticed a number of houses pock-marked with bullet holes. We were told that areas of forest had been sown with mines that had not been charted at the time of the war and were not yet cleared.

The next morning we rose, breakfasted and made ready to leave for Zagreb. By that time our numbers at Kezele were much thinned out, but there were still people with whom to talk and discuss matters of interest. Here is Louise talking to Lutz Dalbeck, who manages beavers near Cologne. Sara Schloemer, who gave a talk about beavers and dragonflies is listening on the right.

A few days after our return from Croatia I found this email from Peter Busher in my email.

Dear IBS Colleagues,
Juan Antonio Samaranch, the past president of the IOC, used to close every Olympic Games by proclaiming each as the, “Best Ever.” I’d like to borrow from this idea as I look back on the recent IBS. I judge scientific meetings by three main criteria: 1) the number of new research ideas I am stimulated to pursue; 2) the intensity of positive personal contacts; and 3) the amount of “home-brewed” alcohol consumed while still remaining alive and moderately functional. My data set from the recent meeting allows me to declare the 6th International Beaver Symposium held in Ivanić-Grad, Croatia from 17-20 September as “THE BEST IBS EVER!”
However, as I reflect back on the past week in Ivanić-Grad this is really not a closing, but a beginning; a first step on the next journey. The positive energy generated by the stimulating presentations and posters, fueled by early morning breakfasts, numerous coffee breaks, finding excuses to talk to Linda Bjedov, lunch – both solid and liquid – late night/early morning dinners at Kezele Farm, home-made wine and schnapps, music, folk songs and dancing, a banquet, embarrassing speeches – well, alright, only one embarrassing speech – awards, dancing, an even later night/earlier morning, THE PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK!!! , and a very moving war memorial all serve as stimuli for the future. These factors and the open, positive interpersonal communication stimulated me, and I hope all of us, to refine and improve our research, to find new and creative ways to educate our students and the public, to find some way to reach consensus on the politically and publically charged issue of beaver reintroductions, and those DAM C. canadensis in Europe. I mean MacDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, and Burger King are bad enough without the Americanization of the European wetland landscape! After this past week I hope we are dedicated more than ever to better understand how humans can coexist with each other and with other species insuring a viable planet for future generations of our personal families, our “Beaver Family” and all species. In other words, “WOW” what a week. A week charged with intellectual stimulation, politics, controversy and the ever-present aesthetic pull of the natural world.
We live in the present, smile (or perhaps cringe) at memories of the past, but we must continue to look to the future – in life, in research, and in living with our planet. So, on behalf of no one but myself, I address you my research family, for we really are just one big “beaver family”, when I say THANK YOU for convening at our most recent “family reunion” in Ivanić-Grad, Croatia – my new favorite city and country, (and possible new home if Romney gets elected President of the US in November – Marijan will you take me in?). I thank everyone involved in the organization of the symposium, but most of all you, the participants, who provided the energy and enthusiasm that not only allowed me to function on 4 hours sleep per night, added fuel to my desire to continue, expand and refine my research, but also stimulated me to remain intellectually alive and challenged. You really are the BEST IBS FAMILY EVER!
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You. I hope to see many of you at the next IBS, or even earlier hanging around some beaver pond, or at other scientific meetings along the way. Stay safe, happy and passionate about science and the natural world.
Very warmly and sincerely,
which just about sums it up.


  1. Thanks for sharing with we armchair travelers!

  2. Dear Paul
    good to see you have taken time to prepare this informative post. Thanks for a nice time at the symposium! - As for the small fish, I could see no minnows. Most likely they were roach.
    Göran Sjöberg