It has taken a while to arrive, but late last month the first beaver to be born in the wild in Britain in roughly 400 years emerged from its lodge.
This is a promising start to reintroduction of beavers living in the wild in Scotland for the first time since they were hunted to extinction in the sixteenth century.
Beavers play an important role in aquatic and wetland ecosystems, having a positive effect on both environmental and woodland management, and on the wider biodiversity of the area in which they live. Beavers affect the survival and abundance of other wildlife and are considered to be a “keystone” species. They have one mate for a life that lasts around eight years and have one litter (of 2-3 kits) a year from around the age of two. Wholly vegetarian and more active at dawn and dusk they eat grasses, shrubs and aquatic plants in the Summer and woody plants in the Winter.
Studies from all over the world have shown that beavers can increase the variety of plants, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, as well as mammals such as water voles, otters and shrews. Their dam-building habit, however, can also increase flooding, damage crops and may affect some fish populations.
The young animal, known as a kit, is one of at least two that have been born to wild beavers released in May last year around several lochs deep in an ancient, uninhabited forest (Knapdale Forest, Mid-Argyll) on the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland (see map at right - peninsula outlined in blue).
The small, shy animals are now about eight weeks old and their arrival is a profound relief to the Scottish conservationists who have pioneered the reintroduction of beavers into the UK, centuries after they were hunted for their pelts and oil into extinction.
The first kit was spotted by Christian Robstad, a field officer with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. "It emerged as part of a 'family outing' with its parents and older sister close by to offer additional protection," he said. "It kept close to the edge of the loch and called out to its family for reassurance while it began to learn to forage for food." (Beaver kit foraging photo (c) Steven Gardner)
The experiment at Knapdale (left), south-west of Lochgilphead, is being closely watched by naturalists in southern England and Wales, where beaver reintroduction projects are being pursued. Knapdale Forest is a Forestry Commission Scotland woodland, managed in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust as a wildlife reserve.
The Scottish scheme has had a troubled history. Six of the wild beavers flown in from Norway in 2008 died in quarantine or could not be released. After back-up beavers were moved from a wildlife reserve in the Highlands, 11 were eventually freed in Knapdale. Since then one family of three has gone missing, with fears that the female was deliberately shot. A fourth new pair was released in May to bolster numbers.
Simon Jones, the Scottish Wildlife Trust's project manager, said: "Receiving confirmation of the presence of at least two beaver kits this year in Knapdale is a fantastic step forward, as we can now begin to see how a small reintroduced population starts to naturally establish itself in the wild.
"Both families have built their own lodge and one family has had great success building a dam to access better food supplies. This has created a magnificent new area of wetland in which wildlife is now flourishing."
The Guardian, "Beaver born in the wild in UK for first time in 400 years", accessed August 15, 2010
Scottish Beaver Trial, "Official home of the Scottish Beaver Trial", accessed August 15, 2010