I have spoken before about the reintroduction of species into the UK, in particular the red kite and great bustard. The sea eagle is another example and all three birds can be considered to have been successfully reintroduced.
So far the story just covers birds and although there are many examples of alien mammal species having colonised this green and pleasant land – grey squirrels, mink, muntjac deer to name just a few – the purposeful reintroduction of a mammal species that man has previously brought to extinction in the UK has only just been started.
I say purposeful because although there are now areas of Britain seemingly alive with wild boar, these are the result of escapees or sporadic releases rather than a deliberate effort to re-establish them. The reintroduction I am referring to is, of course, that of the European beaver.
Beavers were once widespread throughout Britain but were hunted to extinction some 400 years ago. Last year, after much heated debate it has to be said, three beaver families (11 animals in total) were released at a trial site in the Knapdale forest in Argyll, Scotland. How have they fared since?
Generally speaking rather well although one of the families did disappear in somewhat murky circumstances which included the sound of unauthorised gunshot. It is speculated that local opposition may have been behind this but another breeding pair were released in the spring of this year to replenish the stocks.
It seems now though that the stocks may already be self-replenishing with the recent news that two family groups have at least one young kit each, thought at the time of writing to be about eight weeks old. That they are breeding during only their second summer in the wild suggests that the environment is suiting them very well and that further success over the five-year trial period will almost certainly materialise.
Already the changes to the environment that beavers are likely to bring to the area are apparent with thinning of the woodland around their home or lodge creating a naturally coppiced area of dappled sunlight with glades and trees of varying size.
Two families have constructed their own lodges rather than using the artificial ones provided, and one of these families has built a significant dam which has created a new area of wetland being colonised by a range of other invertebrate and vertebrate species.
This change in the environment is one of the things that conservationists are most excited about and for which those opposed to the scheme have most concern. Those in opposition worry about the effect that dams may have on flooding in the area and how fish stocks might be affected along with the perceived damage that the beavers do to trees.
Conservationists, on the other hand, point to the fact that beavers are very selective in their tree felling and are natural woodland “managers”, instinctively, through centuries of evolution, producing a forest edge of widely diverse tree sizes and habitats and “managing” water levels to the great benefit of a host of other species such as water birds, otters, amphibians and invertebrates.
Beavers also have a habit of moving on from one place to another as they access new food sources so that the landscape they create is in a constant state of flux and therefore attractive to different species at different times.
If the trial proves to be successful then it may be that further re-introductions in Scotland and perhaps England too are likely to take place just as they have in some 25 countries across Europe.
If the beaver project is a success there could be attempts to bring back some of the other keystone species we have lost, with the lynx being perhaps one of the prime candidates. Whilst previously thought to have died out 4,000 years ago, recent evidence is that it survived into medieval times and was eventually exterminated by man.
It is estimated that there is enough forestry in Scotland and northern England to support a population of some 450 lynx which would help control the ever expanding deer population. Attacks on sheep would be “manageable” and the size of lynx means that they pose virtually no threat to humans.
The establishment of the beaver could be just the start of exciting times ahead.