Saturday 22 September 2018

Summoning dragons one mouthful at a time

The venue for our recent holiday was a cottage on the Bamff Estate, near Alyth, in Perth and Kinross. The owners, Louise and Paul Ramsay, are ecologically-minded folk with a passion for the re-introduction of Beavers into the Scottish landscape. I admire their dedication and drive (it's two thirds of a mile long), in taking an idea, making it a reality and properly giving a dam about wildlife. Make no mistake, this isn't just about Beavers, this is landscape management by a species other than Homo sapiens, which means that it is one hundred percent about wildlife and zero percent about vested human interests. You can probably see why this doesn't sit comfortably with everyone? 

The Eurasian Beaver was extinct in these parts as long ago as the 16th Century, mainly due to hunting for its fur and meat. As a once native species, the current European Union Habitats Directive places a responsibility upon governments to consider restoring Beavers to their former range and, indeed, 27 European countries have already done this.

In Scotland, SNH set up an official Beaver re-introduction trial in Knapdale, which ran from 2009 to 2014 and looked at the feasibility of returning the species to its former range. Meantime, further east, in the River Tay catchment, a few animals had escaped from  wildlife parks and an unofficial population grew in the region (which explained my chance sighting in Aberfeldy in June 2016). For a while, it looked likely that these unofficial Beavers would be culled, but after a campaign to save them by the Scottish Wild Beaver Group, the Scottish Government announced in November 2016 that the population could remain.

Fast forward to 2018 and a couple of very excited wildlife watchers arrived at Bamff in the hope of catching a glimpse of this iconic mammal. Now, being wild Beavers, these animals are nocturnal, so our best chance to see one would be in those crepuscular moments of late evenings and early mornings. With zero chance of coaxing Our Lass from her bed at Ungodly o'clock, we opted to book an evening tour with Paul. Meanwhile, we were blissfully spending time enjoying all the other sights, sounds and smells of riparian habitats and the interiors of tea rooms.

Halfway through our holiday, the weather improved for a morning, so we ventured out around the estate to look at all the different signs of beaver activity. In shallow valleys, burns were frequently dammed, taking on the feel of a flight of locks on a canal. Trees close to the burns had been felled for both food and dam material, opening up the woodland edge for other plant species to flourish and create a mosaic of different habitats.

There is a 'flight' of four dams in this photo

Where the ground levelled out, rising water levels had created shallow pools, which were being colonised by aquatic plants and invertebrates (and probably amphibians, reptiles and mammals we couldn't see). No guesses for where this is heading, eh? Yes, in a sheltered patch of sunlight, by one of these newly-created pools, I found first a male Common Hawker dragonfly, basking on a felled birch sapling, then Our Lass spotted a pair of Emerald Damselflies in tandem (either prior to mating or about to oviposit), and finally a couple of male Black Darters were seen on a track. To my mind, you can't have a more ringing endorsement of successful habitat management and improvement of biodiversity.

Gotta love a spider with that much ambition!
Later that evening, we accompanied Paul out into the fading light, treading carefully to keep noise to a minimum. We walked along the side of a valley, parallel to a series of pools and dams, pausing frequently to watch and listen. Bats fluttered above our heads (it would've been worth bringing a detector!), owls called from the adjoining woodland and it was simply a pleasure to be out amongst all this wildlife. Just before darkness fell, as we strained our eyes peering into the gloom, I remember thinking... if I had known it was going to be like this, I would've tried to memorise every bit of branch and floating log in the estate. Then, Paul gestured to look just upstream from where we were stood. One of the 'floating logs' was moving, and then silently disappeared with hardly a ripple. It had been the head of one of the kits from the family group on this stretch of water. From a low Earth orbit, you could probably have measured the glee emanating from Our Lass and I.

On our last night at Bamff, we went out once more, and this time we were treated to a 'swim by', again I think it was a kit, as it seemed a small Beaver. Just the head was visible, moving silently through the water, with only the faintest of ripples to betray its presence. Immediately below us, it climbed out of the pool, over the dam and continued on down the valley. I could not believe how soundless the creature had been.

Of course, all is not sweetness and light in regards to Beaver re-introductions. Farmers will worry about water levels affecting their fields and crops, other land owners may look at their landscapes on a tree-by-tree basis and not see the wider picture, and then there will be those who can't countenance any creature other than Man having this level of influence within the countryside. So there will need to be appropriate regard for other landowners, but I think there is a place for Beavers in our landscape, in providing a habitat which was present for millennia and that has been sadly lacking for the last four hundred years.

Finally, I should say that even we spotted local evidence of the damming of water courses and the unsightly mess which had been left behind. Perhaps some species just don't deserve to be let loose in the countryside?

Weir on the Alyth Burn

No comments: